Resurgence and Insurgence: British Women Travel Writers and the Italian Risorgimento, 1844-1858

  • Rebecca Butler


This study examines the evolution of British women travel writers’ engagement with the Risorgimento during a decisive period preceding Italian reunification, from the infamous letter-opening incident of 1844 to the eve of the Second Italian War of Independence (1859-1861). Despite being outwardly denied a political voice back home, British women were conspicuous in their engagement with the Italian question. Italy’s allegorical personification lent itself well to female-oriented interpretations of the Risorgimento, with many women seeing Italy’s political oppression under Austria as analogous to their own disenfranchised condition in Britain. The rise of mass tourism on the Continent made Italy increasingly accessible to Victorian women travellers, not only as a locus of culture, but also of political enquiry. The generic hybridity of travel writing further enabled Victorian women’s political engagement by granting a degree of fluidity between traditionally feminine and masculine genres. In turn, Italy played a foundational - albeit somewhat equivocal - role in British women’s literary professionalization as travel writers. My research focusses on the intersections between political advocacy, gender ideologies, national identity, and literary authority in women’s travel accounts of Italy. It contributes to current literary scholarship on the Risorgimento by providing a sustained analysis of Victorian women’s non-fiction travel writing as an under-represented genre in Anglo-Italian studies. Encompassing both published and unpublished travel writing across a variety of media, it aims to represent a broader diversity of literary responses to the Italian question. Through a comparative framework, I position prominent figures like Mary Shelley, Florence Nightingale and Fanny Kemble alongside marginalized writers such as Clotilda Stisted, Selina Bunbury, Mary Charlton Pasqualino, Maria Dunbar, Janet Robertson and Frances Dickinson, with fruitful intersections. My findings identify a number of shared discourses across these women’s travel accounts in response to discrete political moments 3 within the process of Italian reunification. By attending to such moments as unique discursive events, this study interrogates teleological narratives of British writers’ engagement with the Risorgimento. My analysis shows such discourses to be temporally contingent, being shaped not only by the episodes themselves, but also by extrinsic political and commercial considerations. Personal factors also differentiate individual responses to Italy, with many women travellers parallelling their autobiographical journeys with the peninsula’s political travails. However, my findings equally undercut a mutually reinforcing, proto-feminist narrative of women travellers’ liberal engagement with the Risorgimento. Instead, this study delineates the tensions as well as the synchronicities between representations of the female travelling self and Italy, revealing them to be often competing sites of authority.


Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
Thesis sponsors
  • Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC)
Award dateJan 2016