Gender and Geography:
The Colonial Construction of Place

Review by

Suchitra Mathur

Wayne State University

Copyright (c) 1997 by Suchitra Mathur, all rights reserved. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of U.S. copyright law, and it may be archived and redistributed in electronic form, provided that the editors are notified and no fee is charged for access. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the consent of the author and the notification of the editors.

Review of:

Susan Morgan, Place Matters: Gendered Geography in Victorian Women's Travel Books about Southeast Asia . New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1996. 345 pgs. $19.95 (paper).

  1. The field of postcolonial studies, especially in the Euro-American academy, often challenges the hegemonic control of Western imperialist narratives using tools provided by post-structuralist theory. Ironically, however, postcolonial critics' emphasis on creating increasingly sophisticated theoretical models to analyze colonial discourses from a global perspective frequently results in totalizing claims that erase the specificity of location and the differences arising from it. In this context, Susan Morgan's Place Matters , with its focus on the politics of location in terms of both gender and geography, offers a timely intervention. Claiming the importance of gender as a structuring principle of colonial discourse is not new in itself, and Morgan acknowledges the pioneering work done by Sara Mills (Discourse of Difference , 1991) and Mary Louise Pratt (Imperial Eyes , 1992) in their studies of imperial travel writings. However, Morgan's argument that "In the discourse of the British colonial enterprise, gender, always itself a racialized category, is inseparable from geography"(11) clearly distinguishes her work from that of her predecessors and makes it an important new addition to existing work on travel writing.

  2. As Morgan announces in her title, general theoretical models about imperial women's texts cannot be applied to Victorian women's writing about Southeast Asia without being modified for the particularities of geopolitical location. Thus, Morgan avoids abstract generalizations, allowing her close readings of different locations within the region of Southeast Asia--and the women's texts associated with them--to stand independently as "partial" perspectives that do not map out a well-defined critical territory. This localized perspective lets Morgan deconstruct the monolithic category of "British Imperialism" and reveal the important variations in Britain's relationship with different parts of Southeast Asia during the nineteenth century. Unfortunately, however, Morgan's complete refusal to package her localized readings as theoretical models, though ideologically laudable, leads to an occasional sense of confusion for the reader when obvious connections between different discursive formations are stubbornly ignored by her textual narrative. Isn't Margaret Brooke's sympathetic identification with her native subjects in My Life in Sarawak , for example, similar to the familial discourse adopted by Isabella Bird in The Golden Chersonese ? Though different locations do engender variations in British imperial discourse, there are also necessary connections among these formations, specifically when these discourses are seen in relation to Victorian gender ideology in both its domestic and imperial manifestations. In attempting to overcome the bias in postcolonial studies for constructing comprehensive theoretical models, Morgan errs in the opposite direction, which gives her work a fragmented quality that often loses the reader in a maze of particularities and detracts from the overall argument of the book.

  3. Morgan's emphasis on geography is clearly evident in the book's structure. Beginning with Singapore, the "Port of Entry" into Southeast Asia, Morgan's text takes us to the non- British colonies in the Eastern Archipelago, the British colonies in the Malay Peninsula and the privately owned state of Sarawak, and finally to "The Kingdom of the Free," Siam, which retained its political independence during the period of Western imperialism. Each section begins with an historical overview of the area under consideration, highlighting the region's ideological consolidation within different formulations of British imperialist discourse. The city-state of Singapore, for example, is first represented in terms of a narrative of masculine heroism that stresses the individual efforts of Sir Stamford Raffles in creating this "civilized place" from the raw materials of a tropical island. Once established in its economic prosperity, Singapore figures in British imperialist discourse in feminine terms as a "consumer's paradise" whereby its dangerous difference as a tropical "other" is erased by its packaging as "something to buy." On the other hand, in the case of the Dutch-controlled Eastern Archipelago, British imperialist discourse suppresses the region's economic significance by constructing it primarily as an invaluable resource for British naturalists whose investigations are represented as the most important contribution to "history." Similarly, while the consolidation of British colonial control over the Malay Peninsula is articulated in terms of the domestic rhetoric of sympathy and understanding for the natives, the creation of Sarawak as James Brooke's private state is represented as the actualization of a "man's adventure tale."

  4. By focusing on the different British imperialist narratives used to construct geographical locations in Southeast Asia, Morgan not only foregrounds the heterogeneity of the monolithic category, "British Imperialism," but also highlights the instability and complexity of "place" itself. In this context, it is interesting to note that in a work that explicitly foregrounds the importance of geography, the author provides no maps or illustrations as literal referents for the "places" she investigates. This lack is not an indication of Morgan's belittling of the importance of actual physical location. In fact, Morgan is meticulous in providing detailed verbal maps that often made me turn to an atlas as a visual aid. However, notwithstanding my recourse to the atlas, Morgan's decision to eschew visual maps, rather than being a limitation of the text, helps reinforce one of the main theoretical premises of her work. As Morgan says, "one key meaning of looking at place is looking at the conventions of a range of particular historical discourses, considering both that place entails history and that place is always framed by the points of view of other places"(10). In the politics of culture, geography--especially political geography--is more an ideologically motivated discursive construct than a physical location on the globe. By consistently rendering "place" through narration, Morgan deconstructs the category of "geography" and thus successfully prevents her chosen site of difference from becoming a privileged site of meaning.

  5. For the most part, Morgan follows her analysis of the historical discourses framing each location with readings of corresponding travel writings. Her reading of Singapore is different: without focusing on particular texts, it opens her discussion of British imperialist narratives as gendered discourses. This prepares the reader for Morgan's emphasis on the relationship of men and women to the imperial enterprise and its discursive formulations in her subsequent reading of travel writings. In foregrounding gender as an axis of difference, however, Morgan is careful to avoid any simple generalizations regarding women travel writers' alienation from the predominantly masculine imperial enterprise and consequent espousal of anti-imperialist sentiments. Instead, Morgan carefully reveals the variety of narrative voices adopted by these women travel writers, which range from the racist anti-imperialism of Emily Innes to the female version of male imperialist rhetoric in the writings of Marianne North.

  6. Morgan traces the differences between these narrative voices in terms of the different positions occupied by women within the imperial framework. Sensitive to the politics of class, Morgan carefully chooses a class-differentiated pair of women travel writers from each region. Thus, while Anna Forbes translates bourgeois domestic companionship into the imperial setting, Marianne North wields the privileges of her upper-class background to adopt the more masculine role of the independent naturalist in the same area of the Eastern Archipelago. Similarly, Morgan uses Emily Innes' The Gilding Off , which characterizes the British colonial system in the Malay Peninsula from the authoritative perspective of a junior officer's wife, as a telling contrast to Isabella Bird's The Golden Cheronese , which reflects its author's dominant class position as a leisure traveler in its description of the colonial enterprise in glowing, familial terms. For the state of Sarawak, Morgan chooses the narratives of Margaret Brooke, the Ranee of Sarawak, and Harriette McDougall, the bishop of Sarawak's wife. In this way, she highlights the differences between the exotic orientalizing of the Ranee who displays a sense of sympathy for her native subjects and the missionary discourse of the bishop's wife who views the natives only as barbarians and prospective converts. By focusing on the various faces of the Victorian memsahib , Morgan not only reveals the complex interaction between class and gender politics in the colonial context but also challenges the homogenous category of the "imperial woman."

  7. Morgan also traces the differences that exist within the narratives of a single writer. In Anna Forbes' Insulinde , for example, Morgan focuses on the interruptions in the narrative of happy imperial domesticity by the eruption of another narrative voice that provides a gendered critique of imperialism by recognizing the narrator's affinity with the victims, rather than with the agents, of the imperial enterprise. Similarly, Morgan highlights the multiple and, at times, conflicting narrative positions adopted by Margaret Brooke as her sense of gender solidarity with native women complicates her imperialist paternalism as the Ranee of Sarawak. By refusing to privilege any one narrative perspective in the texts she studies, Morgan reinforces her argument that women maintained an ambiguous and often contradictory relationship with British imperialism during the Victorian period.

  8. In light of Morgan's penetrating analyses of the politics of location in terms of place, gender, and class, her sweeping approach to temporal differences presents a puzzling anomaly in the text. This is most evident in her chapters on Singapore and Thailand, both of which begin with a section on contemporary Western discourse's construction of these geographical spaces. Morgan's obvious purpose in making these leaps between the late twentieth century and the Victorian Age is to pick out the threads of continuity between nineteenth-century British imperialist discourse and present-day neocolonial orientalism. In so doing, Morgan not only gives an urgent contemporary relevance to her study of nineteenth-century travel writings, but also implicitly questions the complacency sometimes evident in postcolonial studies, particularly in regard to global anti-imperialism. Morgan is more explicit about her reservations concerning these trends in postcolonial studies in her concluding chapter; she distances herself and her work from any claims of occupying a clearly defined "oppositional" space at a time when imperialist discourse are prevalent politically and academically.

  9. Sweeping connections between temporally distant spaces can, at times, blur the historical specificities of imperialist and neo-imperialist configurations. Though there are undoubtedly many continuities between nineteenth-century British imperial discourse and contemporary U.S. foreign policy, the latter cannot be seen as a straightforward repetition of the former. The chapter on Thailand is, in my opinion, the most problematic in this respect. According to Morgan, the present-day sex trade in Thailand is bolstered by the same indigenous gender ideology that sustained the King's harem during the nineteenth century. Before evaluating the validity of such a claim, I wonder about the appropriateness of such an assertion in a text that, in every other section, scrupulously avoids any discussion of indigenous societies or cultures. This avoidance, which Morgan lists in the introductory chapter as a limitation of the book, seems to me the greatest strength of Place Matters , since an analysis of British imperialist discourses about Southeast Asia cannot leap into a discussion of the region itself without losing theoretical focus. And Morgan's attempt to overcome this "limitation" in the Thailand chapter results in ideological confusion as she slips into the orientalist discourse of victimhood, echoing many Western feminists' writings on purdah and cliterodectomy. By implicitly constructing Thai gender ideology in monolithic terms that place women in the exclusive position of sexual objects, Morgan erases native women's agency in two separate historical instances. Relying exclusively on Anna Leonowens' account in The Romance of the Harem for constructing her narrative of Thai women's position in their society, Morgan appears to re-enact the practices of the British imperial discourses that she attempts to deconstruct in the rest of her book.

  10. The analytical weaknesses of the penultimate chapter, however, do not undermine the considerable achievements of the rest of the book. Morgan's consistent focus on the fracturing of British imperial discourse during the Victorian era by the politics of "gendered geography" makes Place Matters a valuable addition to the study of nineteenth-century colonial discourse. Furthermore, though Morgan refuses to construct any overarching theoretical framework through her readings of specific locations and texts, her book does make an important theoretical contribution through its practical embodiment of a "partial" perspective. Her short concluding chapter provides a brilliant exposition of the critical strategy informing the entire book. Morgan recognizes that her "partial" approach can, and does, lead to a sense of fragmentation in her work. But, according to her, "to think in pieces" also helps her to avoid the "cursed dualistic demarcations" characteristic of Western hegemonic discourses and, consequently, is necessary for her "feminist and anti-imperialist task"(277). This claim is largely justified by Place Matters , which is not only an invaluable study for those whose area of interest lies in Southeast Asia but also a significant addition to the general fields of postcolonial and gender studies.

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