The Englishwoman in America

I have just finished reading The Englishwoman in America. I was prompted to it initially by reading Eothen, which had come highly recommended from several quarters.

(If you haven’t read Eothen and you think that Victorian travel literature sounds interesting at all, you should read that. I gather it’s all downhill from there.)

Anyway, having finished and enjoyed Kinglake’s book I discovered that there were lots more of these 19th-c. travel odysseys in the Konemann Travel Classics line, so I picked up two more: The Englishwoman in America and The Golden Chersonese, the latter of which I have not yet read. I may write more about Englishwoman at a later date, but for now I just wanted to mention something that struck me about it, which is the prejudice. Oh, surprise surprise, Victorian travellers are prejudiced, I know. But two things struck me as especially interesting.

The first was that combination, so common in these books, of generally liberal sentiments and naked racism. So, for instance, Isabella Bird (the aforementioned Englishwoman) is loudly and firmly against slavery, thinks it’s a terrible wrong, the shame of a great nation, etc., etc. All more or less as you would expect from an educated Englishwoman in the 1850s. And yet, in more or less the next chapter, the term she uses to describe her guide at Niagara Falls is, well, the N-word. No contradiction apparent to her. And this is pretty common among writers of the period. It helps us remember that there isn’t necessarily a spectrum with “bigot” and “enlightened” at the two ends, but rather a more complex mixture of positions. She has a lot of positive things to say about African-Americans in that cringeworthy “oh, they’re so kind and brave and they dance so well” style that will be familiar to any reader of, well, anything. 

The second was more surprising to me. Isabella Bird hates — hates — the Irish, who she regards as drunken, violent, dishonest, superstitious primitives. Particularly “superstitious,” in that she really hates Catholics and is happy to bang on the French about this a little bit as well. But she’s constantly going on about the Irish people she meets, and how the big problem with democracy is that they let the Irish vote, and where you have the Irish, there you will have dirt, and how slovenly they are compared to the hard-working Scots, and I think the paragraph in which she refers to them collectively as “Paddy” was the point where I lost it.

But I am not really Irish. I mean, I have an Irish passport, but I’ve never lived there. My father is Irish, many of my relatives are properly Irish, but I’m either an American or generically British, legal identities notwithstanding. I would never claim to be Irish, and although I was raised Catholic I am not one.

And yet, I was outraged. I like to think that I am conscious enough of my own ridiculousness to have noticed the incongruity, but even with the veil of ironic detachment in place I was ready to warp back to 1856 and punch Isabella Bird on the nose. Which would have larned her for thinking of the Irish as violent, or something. But not only was I angry, I was also kind of ashamed for the people whose poverty and friendlessness she was making fun of.

Anyway, my comically bruised vestigial national sentiments aside, I think the thing that really interested me about this was the comparison. I mean, here am I smarting at the cosmic injustice of some long-dead woman — of no particular power or influence — bagging on a community to which I only tangentially belong and which anyway did fine for itself in America. Imagine what it must be like to be a member of a group that still gets this shit today.

The Englishwoman in America