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Northern Genders: The Nordic North as Gendered Space in Travel Writing

Research project The project Northern Genders addresses the question of what differences and similarities there are between men’s and women’s representations of the Nordic North and to what extent the landscape and inhabitants of the region are presented in gender-coded terms.

The project Northern Genders addresses the question of what differences and similarities there are between men’s and women’s representations of the Nordic North and to what extent the landscape and inhabitants of the region are presented in gender-coded terms. Important questions are whether there are significant differences between men’s and women’s accounts or whether social and literary conventions and the expectations of readers lead writers to describe the region in similar ways. The study aims to elucidate to what extent the North is represented as a masculine testing ground, how far tourist discourses may be seen as gendering the region as more feminine, how far references to the Viking past are used to construct a version of muscular masculinity and in what way the works reflect the more advanced situation for women in the Nordic countries, manifested in Finland granting women the right to vote as the first country in Europe in 1906. The study will concentrate on a selection of Anglophone nineteenth-century travel narratives published between 1849 and 1911.

Head of project

Heidi Hansson
Professor, other position

Project overview

Project period:

2008-04-04 2011-12-31


Finansår , 2008, 2009

huvudman: Heidi Hansson, finansiar: Norges forskningsråd, y2008: 200, y2009: 210,

Participating departments and units at Umeå University

Department of Language Studies

Research area

General literary studies

Project description

To date, at least most Anglo-American research about travel writing has concentrated on works about southern – tropical and subtropical – destinations. One effect of this is that current theories are sometimes difficult to apply when interpreting texts about northern regions. The lack of theoretical considerations about northern travel is particularly evident in studies focusing on gender. Since most discussions of the travel genre have focused on issues of empire, the idea of the feminine land available for colonisation and control has been thoroughly explored. As a consequence it has emerged as universally present, however, and there has been little attention to the differences between representations of northern and southern spaces. It is usually assumed that nature is feminised and the traveller masculinised in literature, but preliminary studies of material about the Nordic North indicates that this is not always the case. With the exception of Margaret Atwood’s lectures on the Canadian North (1995), existing studies are primarily based on empirical material from the southern parts of the globe, and in this respect, Northern Genders will add considerably to the knowledge in the field, as well as result in a development of theory.

The mental cartography of the Enlightenment established a dichotomy between the temperate, civilized and inviting but effeminate South and a cold, primitive and forbidding North that both promoted and demanded hardy masculine qualities. A similar dichotomy is present when landscapes are described according to the aesthetic categories of the sublime and the picturesque, so that southern landscapes are quite often seen as picturesque and coded as feminine, whereas northern landscapes are described as dramatic, awe-inspiring and sublime and given masculine properties. In writing about the Nordic North, references to the Vikings sometimes function to underscore a fundamentally masculine image of northern culture, but there are also examples of works where present and past women of the North are presented as Valkyries or unusually forceful and self-reliant according to romanticised notions of the Viking past. This Viking discourse may consequently function to both support and undermine conventional nineteenth-century gender conceptions, showing the Nordic North as a region for manly men or as a space where women may live unconventional lives (Wawn 2002).

The conventions regarding geographical genders may interact with the gendered selves of writers. There are a number of studies detailing how masculinity is foregrounded in, for instance, accounts of polar expeditions, but studies of femininity and travel are usually based on travelogues narrating visits to the south. However, preliminary investigations of travel writing about northern Scandinavia indicate that there are differences between how encounters with the North affect the narrators’ gender identifications.

The works selected cover the period when northern tourism began to be more firmly established, and allow for comparisons over time, between men’s and women’s perceptions of the north, between the gendered character of certain areas such as the Arctic and the sub-Arctic, and between tourist discourse and exploration-style writing.

Proposed chapter topics:

1. The North as Masculine Testing Ground
Focus: Bayard Taylor’s Northern Travel: Summer and Winter Pictures of Sweden, Lapland and Norway (1858) and Sir William Martin Conway’s The First Crossing of Spitsbergen (1897) and With Ski and Sledge over Arctic Glaciers (1898). Reference: Arthur Dillon’s A Winter in Iceland and Lapland (1849)

2. Tourist Discourses of the North
Focus: Lord Dufferin’s Letters from High Latitudes (1857), Alexander Hutchinson’s Try Lapland: A Fresh Field for Summer Tourists (1870) and Susanna Henrietta Kent’s Within the Arctic Circle: Experiences of Travel through Norway, to the North Cape, Sweden and Lapland (1877)

3. Heroic Antiquity
Contrastive focus: Frederick Metcalfe, The Oxonian in Iceland (1861) and Elizabeth Jane Oswald, By Fell and Fjord, or Scenes and Studies in Iceland (1882). References: Isabella Frances Copland, Gamle Norge, or, Our Holiday in Scandinavia (1862), Sabine Baring-Gould, Iceland: Its Scenes and Sagas ((1863), Bayard Taylor, Egypt and Iceland in the Year 1874 (1874), and Ethel Tweedie, A Girl’s Ride in Iceland (1895)

4. The North as Exemplary Modernity
Focus: Ethel Tweedie, Through Finland in Carts (1897). References: Annie Clive Bayley, Vignettes from Finland (1895), Sylvia MacDougall, A Summer Tour in Finland (1908) and Rosalind Travers, Letters from Finland, August 1908–March 1909 (1911)

5. Land of the Midnight Sun
Focus: Paul Belloni Du Chaillu’s The Land of the Midnight Sun: Summer and Winter Journeys through Sweden, Norway, Lapland and the Northern Finland (1881) and Elizabeth (Mrs Aubrey) le Blond’s Mountaineering in the Land of the Midnight Sun (1908)