Victorian Popular Fictions 1.1 3

Domesticising the Exotic: Isabel Burton’s The Inner Life of Syria

Silvia Antosa

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Isabel Arundell Burton (1831-96), was a Victorian writer and traveller, married to the famous British explorer, translator, and Consul Richard Francis Burton (1821-90). This article focuses on her 1875 travel account, Inner Life of Syria, Palestine and the Holy Land, because it is her first, sustained attempt to shape her public persona and to construct a convincing role for herself as devout wife, while leading a life that was ultimately unconventional. As I argue, in her fictionalised account she creates an ambivalent narrative of her life and travel experiences, in which she reconciled two opposing models of female subjectivity: the conventional myth of the angel in the house and the “transgressive” woman traveller. This article focuses on the formal strategies that Isabel adopts to construct a narrative that was acceptable to the Victorian readership and editorial market, including her declared attempt to “domesticate” her own potentially subversive agency. The article analyses the gendered discourses embedded in her word, especially those regarding women’s complicity with and resistance to colonial constructions of femininity. Isabel draws on the consolidated image of the “traveller’s wife” to forge a potentially new paradigm, the “Travelling Angel in the House,” which reinforced the values of domesticity and submission while also partially legitimising women’s access to public, masculine spaces. Furthermore, with reference to work by Mary Louise Pratt, I discuss the textual strategies that Isabel adopts to claim that she has remained immune to the process of transculturation by reinforcing her national and social identity of upper-class English woman. Overall, I demonstrate that Isabel’s “Travelling Angel in the House” is animated by dynamic and unstable tensions, which derive from her attempts to simultaneously conform to and transgress dominant norms of the period.

Key Words

Travel Writing; Fiction; Transculturation; Domesticity; Exoticism; Nineteenth-Century Women Travellers; Isabel Burton; Angel in the House.

Date of acceptance: 23 June 2019

Date of Publication: 30 June 2019

Peer Reviewed

Recommended Citation:

Antosa, Silvia. 2019. “Domesticising the Exotic: Isabel Burton’s The Inner Life of Syria.” Victorian Popular Fictions. 1.1: 57-79.

ISSN: 2632-4253 (online)  


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