Gendering Anglo-American Travel to the Balkans

 By Ross Cameron, an AHRC sponsored PhD researching Anglo-American women’s travel to the Balkans based at the University of Glasgow and the University of Strathclyde.

When I began my PhD project last October I was intending on studying the representations of Islam found in British travel writing on the Balkans across a broad swathe of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Studies of the discourse of ‘balkanism’, building on the Balkan Peninsula’s post-Ottoman nationalist historiographies that erase Muslim histories, typically present the region as ‘on [the European] side of the fundamental division: white versus colored, Indo-European versus the rest’, ignoring the perceived contingency of the whiteness of Balkan Muslim communities.[1] Taking a diachronic approach, my project aimed to destabilise the concept of balkanism by examining how literary representations of Muslim communities in the Balkans challenge this hegemonic representational paradigm. 

However, as I began to narrow down my base of primary sources I encountered a variety of travel books that have largely been ignored in studies of travel writing on the Balkans, namely those produced by Anglo-American women between the turn of the twentieth century and World War Two. These texts are a rich and diverse corpus of images of the Balkans and were written by women who travelled to the region in a variety of different capacities. Some, like Frances Hutchinson and Emilie Barrington, visited the Balkans primarily as wealthy tourists seeking to distance themselves from the democratised tourism of the Franco-Italian Riveria. Others, including Mabel St Clair Stobart, Olive Aldridge and Monica Stanley, went under the aegis of the Serbian Relief Fund during World War One using their activities to further the campaign for women’s suffrage in Britain. Maude Holbach spent her time touring the region writing works effusively praising the benevolence of Habsburg administration (allegedly her paymasters) while the better-known Edith Durham used the Balkans to cultivate her position as an ethnographer, political campaigner and explorer. In the interwar Rose Wilder Lane, supporter of the American libertarian movement, travelled to the Balkans to escape the worldwide ideological turmoil that ‘smothers the struggling individual’ while many others in this period simply sought a sojourn from the rush of modernity.[2]

Previous scholarship has either excluded works by these authors or has simply included them as second-tier texts in broader discourse analyses of balkanism. One of the reasons for this elision is that much like Edward Said’s ‘unified, intentional and irredeemably male’ orientalism,[3] balkanism has been presented as ‘singularly male’, both in the images of the region it constitutes and the (lack of) gender balance in balkanist writers.[4] This androcentric scholarship has focused primarily on adventurous men travelling to the ‘savage’ Balkans in order to prove their masculinity through daring exploits that reaffirm the superiority of their home culture and the need for Western European powers to maintain close supervision of the ‘chaotic’ and ‘backwards’ region. 

Women’s travel texts have also been under examined because studies of balkanism examine representations of the region within the framing of colonial discourse. In effect, by foregrounding the colonial logic of balkanism, women travellers have been treated as of marginal importance for they have historically been viewed as marginal to conventionally masculine colonialism. Indeed, although coming under increased scrutiny, the typical view of colonial discourse sees Western women as objects of male protection (think of the stereotype of the sexually threatened memsahib) rather than as active agents of colonialism themselves. The parcelling off of women travel writers from colonial discourse was also furthered by the first-wave of feminist scholarship on women’s travel writing, popularised by the Virago Travellers series, that divorces their journeys abroad from the colonial context in which they took place. 

A second-wave of feminist scholarship on travel writing has shown that women occupied a more complex position vis-à-vis colonialism. Most notably, Sara Mills illustrates that due to the countervailing influence exerted upon women’s texts by discourses of femininity, which designated certain kinds of behaviours and experiences as ‘feminine’, women were less able to adopt normatively masculine discourses of colonialism, such as orientalism or balkanism. For example, the discourse of philanthropy that developed in the mid-Victorian period foregrounds the essentialised ‘feminine’ virtues of care and nurture, which led some women travellers to express greater ‘concern’ towards colonised peoples.[5] This is not to say that women’s travel texts escaped the influence of colonialism or that philanthropy abroad was not intimately tied to imperial expansion and white supremacist ideology but, instead, it is to show that the countervailing influence of discourses of femininity sees women travellers negotiate colonial discourses in different ways to their male counterparts. 

In this way, women’s travel texts on the Balkans appear less obviously balkanist and have been treated as marginal to studies of travel writing on the region. This is especially so as typically balkanist writers embody the stiff upper lipped adventuring hero in their narrative personas, which Mills finds ‘so immediately ‘masculine’ that women writers have difficulty adopting this role with ease’.[6] As a result, even better known women travellers to the Balkans such as Edith Durham have been treated as anomalies due to their apparently more sympathetic accounts of the region’s cultures. It should also be added that women travellers to the Balkans have been equally marginalised in studies on women’s travel writing in the colonial context as a result of the absence of a clear-cut colonial history in the peninsula. 

The new focus of my project, then, examines how women travel writers negotiated and destabilised the colonial discourse of balkanism; how the texts they produced were central to recasting images of the Balkans in the Western imagination; the reasons they were attracted to the region; and the cultural and political factors at home and abroad that engendered changes in their representations of Balkan peoples and places. Methodologically it also breaks from past scholarship on travel writing on the Balkans and women’s travel writing in general. Both have tended to take a quantitative approach by examining as many texts as possible for fear that focusing on individual authors lacks theoretical sophistication and, particularly with studies of women’s travel writing, to signal a shift away from earlier scholarship that often focuses on the biographies of ‘exceptional women’. Instead, my project takes a qualitative approach by offering an in-depth analysis of individual authors and their texts in order to show the true heterogeneity of women’s travel writing on the Balkans.

Ultimately, the main reason behind the reorientation of my research is that I hope it will go some way towards rectifying the neglected status of women travellers to the Balkans in the early twentieth century by recovering their texts and histories. At the moment, I am researching Frances Hutchinson, a wealthy Chicagoan who motor-toured the peninsula shortly before the Dual Monarchy’s 1908 annexation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Edith Durham, who is the subject of my recent article published in En-Gender! that discusses the problems of biographical scholarship on travel writing.


[1]Maria Todorova, Imagining the Balkans (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997), 19.

[2]Rose Wilder Lane, The Peaks of Shala: being a record of certain wanderings among the hill tribes of Albania  (London: Chapman and Hall, 1922), 224.

[3]Reina Lewis, Gendering Orientalism: Race, Femininity and Representation (London: Routledge, 1996), 17.

[4]Todorova, 17.

[5]Sara Mills, Discourses of Difference: An Analysis of Women’s Travel Writing and Colonialism (London: Routledge, 1991),96-97.

[6]Ibid, 78.

One thought on “Gendering Anglo-American Travel to the Balkans

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s