Megan A. Norcia. X Marks the Spot: Women Writers Map the Empire for British Children, 1790-1895. Athens: Ohio UP, 2010. 260 pp. $49.95 (c) (e-book options from $5 - $29.99).
Rev. By Jennifer Hayward
Maps and other imagined geographies play a central role in nineteenth century children’s lives, from the Brontës’ imaginary kingdoms right through to Joseph Conrad’s notorious description of Africa as “a blank space of delightful mystery” for a child. And the dark double of this geographical imagination still haunts postcolonial literature today; in Derek Walcott’s recent collection White Egrets, for instance, metaphor and childhood memory converge in the image of the ubiquitous imperial map as a “stain that spreads invisibly from the heart/like the red of Empire in a schoolroom's map.”
In X Marks the Spot, Megan Norcia interrogates the texts that taught nineteenth century British children to map their place in the world: geography primers written by women. Critics in the developing fields of postcolonial and feminist geographies have charted the consequences of the obsession with mapping Empire; Alison Blunt and Cheryl McEwan explain that their groundbreaking collection of essays Postcolonial Geographies (2002) “seeks not only to decolonize the geographical constitution and articulation of colonial discourses in both the past and present, but also to decolonize the production of geographical knowledge both in and beyond the academy.” But as Norcia notes, geography primers—though key sites for the production of geographical knowledge—have been virtually ignored by contemporary critics. Her central goals in this study are intertwined: to restore these almost forgotten primers to critical consciousness in order to expand our understanding of women’s participation in the project of Empire from 1790 through 1895; to examine the ways the primers produced and transmitted knowledge about imperial power relations to child readers; and to explore the ways that the texts, even as they perpetuated imperial systems of knowledge, worked to dismantle or contest those systems. While analyzing the primers themselves, Norcia also demonstrates that their authorship created new professional opportunities for women writers; like travel literature, primers could be profitable for their authors, and they also provided an intellectual outlet for women writers while enabling entry—albeit through a back door—into scientific fields from which women were formally excluded.
In accordance with her goal of providing a longitudinal study of geography primers as they developed in tandem with the growth of the British empire, Norcia covers a wide range of texts within the study. At the same time, she manages to achieve depth by returning to a few core authors and texts across multiple chapters, including Priscilla Wakefield’s A Family Tour through the British Empire and Traveller in Africa (1814), Favell Lee Mortimer’s Near Home (1849) and Far Off (1852), and a few others. She develops a clear organizational structure to contain her wealth of material: the first two chapters delineate the contours and conventions of the genre, while chapters three and four move outward to situate geography primers in relation to imperial ideologies. Norcia begins her analysis by demonstrating gender’s influence on the primers’ production and reception, revealing the conventions these female authors develop as they seek to “plot race, nation and power onto familiar domestic scenes” (108). After exploring the trope of a “family of man,” she turns to another domestic metaphor, the representation of Empire as a global feast, with countries defined by their contributions to the world’s dinner table. In these opening chapters, Norcia provides persuasive evidence not only for a consistent use of domestic metaphors (unsurprising in texts authored by 19th century women and intended for children) but also for a deliberate thematizing of national identity—an interrogation of the national character of inhabitants of other countries that in turn inflects the debate over British national character.
Having established the conventions that ground these texts, Norcia moves outward in Chapters Three and Four to explore the relative and shifting effects of gender, race, and national identity within the primers’ matrices. In the process, Norcia develops her argument for the contestatory power of the texts and explores their authors’ own often conflicted subject positions. Providing persuasive examples of gaps, contradictions, or subversions of dominant gendered discourses within the primers (especially when authors explicitly contrast girls’ and women’s limited possibilities with the mobility of their brothers and sons, who will one day head out to determine imperial agendas for themselves), Norcia argues that the primers “gloss geography and travel as gendered experiences, contrast the stasis of women with the mobility of male travelers and writers, and emphasize the role mothers play in rearing the future empire builders” (25). She also provides intriguing evidence that authors acknowledged alternative perspectives that challenged Britain’s mappings of imperial spaces. For example, in Charlotte Yonge’s Little Lucy’s Wonderful Globe, a small Turkish girl contests an English child’s claim that “‘Geography is very nice . . . I will show you where you live. This is Constantinople’” with an indignant rebuttal: the map’s image, insists the Turkish child, is “‘false, Stanboul is a large, large, beautiful place; not a little black speck. I can see it from my lattice. White houses and mosques in the sun.’” Direct and personal knowledge here conflicts with received and official knowledge; the child reader is left to decide which perspective represents the “truth” about Constantinople.
Throughout, Norcia seeks to examine the primers in an interdisciplinary context, locating them “at the intersections of ongoing critical conversations in the fields of literary studies, postcolonial analysis, women’s studies, children’s literature, geography, and nineteenth-century history” (18), and often this approach permits a productive range of analysis. But occasionally—and not surprisingly given her ambitious agenda—her broad coverage comes at the expense of depth and specificity. Some readers may wish, in particular, for more historical, political, and/or geographical contextualization of specific texts or of key concepts. Each chapter ranges across the globe and discusses some texts that cover entire continents (e.g. all of Africa); others that discuss individual countries, some of which are British territories and others not (British India, North America, Egypt); and still others that focus on individual states (Sarawak). This wide-ranging organization makes sense given that Norcia intends a longitudinal survey of the genre, but it precludes providing a clear geohistorical context for each primer and sometimes results in a blurring of distinctions among British imperial territories, colonies, and informal empire. Despite Norcia’s attentive and nuanced close readings, too, her claims that primers create a “thirdspace,” or hybrid space of resistance to dominant mappings, are not always convincing. She analyzes several types of resistance, including moments when the primers reverse the colonizing gaze, turning it back on child readers or on England; invoke alternative or palimpsestic mappings; or create space for non-English voices or narratives within the frame of the text. Some of these examples reinforce her claim for the primers’ resistance to dominant perspectives—particularly when, as mentioned above, an author encourages child readers to turn the gaze on themselves or to question their own cognitive maps. But as Norcia notes when discussing “The History of Sitwana, A Young Kafir [related] By Himself,” all voices within the text “are mapped within an imprisoning imperial matrix . . . we cannot reconstruct the situation in which his story was recorded or the extent to which he maintained control over that recording” (158; indeed, “Sitwana’s” account blurs the specificity of his experience in ways that seem unlikely, as when he speaks of growing up in an undifferentiated “Africa.”) Ultimately, even when reading against the grain it is difficult to claim that the primers provide much insight into the perspectives of the colonized bodies who are their objects of analysis.
But despite occasional overreaching in claims for the primers’ contestatory possibilities, Megan Norcia’s X Marks the Spot is an imaginative, densely researched, and engagingly written study. Her conclusion, “Contextualizing Archival Recovery,” serves to bridge nineteenth century primers and contemporary concerns about knowledge, power, gender, and spatiality. And her points continue to resonate today: on the tenth anniversary of 9/11, for instance, a New York Times article examined history textbooks around the world to note differences in their depictions of the event—depictions that may shape their child readers’ views on national identity for years to come. Ultimately, Norcia’s study succeeds in its central goal: it convinces us that these geography primers, far from being mere recitations of facts, were ideologically crafted texts that allowed their female authors entry into scientific discourse even as they colored and configured the maps of Empire imagined by their child readers.
Jennifer Hayward, professor of English at The College of Wooster, received her PhD in English Literature from Princeton University. Her research focuses on nineteenth century British literature and culture, with particular emphasis on travel writing and on British involvement in Latin America. She has published reviews and articles on travel writing in venues including Studies in Travel Writing, Auto/Biography, The Literature of Travel and Exploration: An Encyclopedia (Routledge 2003), Romanticism and the Anglo-Hispanic Imaginary (edited collection, Rodopi 2010) and Victorian Xenophobia (edited collection, Ohio University Press, forthcoming). She is also author of Consuming Fictions: Active Audiences and Serial Fictions from Dickens to Soaps (University Press of Kentucky, 1997); editor of Maria Graham's 1824 Journal of a Residence in Chile (University Press of Virginia, 2003); and co-editor, with Soledad Caballero, of Graham’s 1824 Journal of a Voyage to Brazil (Parlor Press, 2010). She is currently beginning a book-length project titled “No Strangers but Ourselves: Scotland in the Americas, 1824-1899.”