Self-deprecation in Mary Kingsley’s lectures and writings: a case of female misogyny?

Shirley Doulière is in her final year of PhD at the University of Bordeaux, France. Her research focuses on the narratives of female Victorian explorers and their constant struggle to be allowed to reject the boundaries of an imposed model of femininity while refusing to be considered as anything less than conventional.

Mary Kingsley 1897 (H. Edmond Hull photograph) public domain

Mary Kingsley 1897 (H. Edmond Hull photograph) public domain

Mary Kinsgley was a Victorian explorer who travelled by canoe through Sierra Leone, Congo and Cameroon where she collected fish and other specimens for the British Museum of Natural History. She published two narratives of her expeditions Travels in West Africa (1897) and two years later West African Studies. Both were instant best sellers and were followed by numerous tours to promote them.

She frequently wrote in newspapers to defend her views of African trade or any other political question as well as her book. Ultimately, she became a key political activist against the Tax Hut- a new tax imposed on every house owner in Sierra Leone, and in favour of a different kind of imperialism that would give more power to traders in Africa and protect Native laws.

With such an extraordinary life one would expect that she would also be a champion of women’s rights, exhorting young women to follow in her footsteps. On the contrary, she was a fervent opponent of female suffrage, and always downplayed her achievements. When asked to support women’s admission into learned societies she wrote a letter to the head of the Royal Geographical Society to warn him against the actions of “dangerous women” wanting to be accepted to the RGS: “I don’t wish to alarm you but I feel it my duty as a friend to warn you that a dangerous female is after you, I enclose details.”  She claimed that the women who applied to join learned societies were “shrieking females and androgyns.” This blog post therefore intends to explore the paradox of this woman explorer, and her use of self-deprecation, going sometimes so far that it bordered on misogynist humour.

Commemorative stamp, May 1969, Great Britain (explorers collection)

Commemorative stamp, May 1969, Great Britain (explorers collection)

Reading her two travel narratives is quite puzzling since from the very beginning of the foreword one can spot many examples of self-deprecation. Travels in West Africa, for instance, starts as such: “What this book wants is not a simple Preface but an apology, and a very brilliant and convincing one at that.” The “apology” goes on for a good two pages about her terrible writing and how much she is indebted to Dr Guillemard, her proof reader, for making her manuscript less confusing and less guilty of “heinous literary crimes”. The book itself alternates between amusing instances of unfortunate adventures—falling into cotton balls, or traps for game, being pursued by an angry mob because of her crew members when accused of stealing wives or not paying for goods—and more serious chapters about fetish, Native Law and anthropological observations of the local tribes.  She would always portray herself as some kind of clumsy first-time traveler who is a joke to the natives, although by the time she published it she was on her third trip. In various parts of the narrative she reminds the reader that she was extremely out of place as no single woman had any business being in Africa, if one were to believe the Africans she met. Even the more serious parts of the book are announced by her “attempt” to understand and convey what she learned, making the whole narrative less likely to be taken seriously. More telling, and consistent with her self-deprecating streak, she initially wanted the title of her book to be “Log of a light-hearted lunatic” but her editor strongly disapproved and chose Travels in West Africa instead.

Published two years later, and at the height of her fame, West African Studies does not differ in any way from the self-deprecating tone adopted before. Again, the preface opens on a truly surprising statement for a writer who wanted to be respected in her field and sell the very books in which the preface appears: “Anything concerning West Africa written by M. le Comte C. de Cardi or Mr. John Harford, of Bristol, does not require apology and explanation; while anything written by me on this, or any subject, does.” This seems an extremely counter-productive preface for a writer, even though the success of the book shows that readers might not have taken her at her word, or that they were more interested in the amusing aspect of the book than its possible shortcomings.

We could argue that at the time it was deemed necessary for a woman to appear modest and that these prefaces are only an extreme way of conforming to society’s expectation of her as a female writer. However, her tendency to use self-deprecation did not stop at book prefaces. She frequently resorted to self-deprecation in her lecturing tours in which she would, invariably, be the butt of her own jokes whether about her appearance or her many failures as a woman; failures explained because she is a woman and because she fails to be what was expected of a woman. One of her favourite opening statements was « I am sure I remind you of your maiden aunt …long dead » thus drawing attention to her age and old fashioned way of dressing, when she was in fact merely thirty-three years old.

Fish species discovered by Kingsley, with Ctenopoma Kingsleyae in the middle, from Travels in West Africa, Plate I in Appendix III. Public domain.

Fish species discovered by Kingsley, with Ctenopoma Kingsleyae in the middle, from Travels in West Africa, Plate I in Appendix III. Public domain.

Moreover, the same brand of self-deprecation is found in her personal correspondence when writing to men she deemed superior, which is to say, just about any man. She would often apologize for the lack of interest of her work, and express fears that she had been misunderstood. In a letter to her editor she confessed being thrilled to be called “a lamp in the fog” because “[she] always thought [she] was the fog [her]self” and quite a few of her letters start with “I am in fear and trembling.” To a new acquaintance she wrote a letter whose opening is almost too dramatic and self-subservient to be taken seriously “I am in sackclothes[sic] and ashes-in a wretched state of remorse and repentance- for having given you the trouble of writing a letter to me at such a time.” It becomes difficult to actually believe that she meant any of the misogynist jabs or self-deprecating statements she made publicly or in “political” letters. She was well aware of the success of her books and lectures, in fact such was the extent of her popularity as a lecturer that she doubled her income in 1898 with lectures only.

When reading her letters to female friends one can find humour and self-deprecation but on a very lighter note. In this excerpt from her correspondence she is recounting to her childhood friend how she saved a fellow passenger’s life who was choking “I had to slap him violently on his expansive back” and ends the letter stating “I have discovered that the French mail which leaves here tomorrow gets to Europe before us. Therefore I inflict another letter on you, from sheer wickedness”. Other letters show that she was well aware of her success. For example, in a letter to the wife of the anthropologist E.B. Tylor she boasts that she is a popular lecturer.

It is then clear that when Mary Kingsley was writing to a female friend she did not feel the need to belittle herself or pretend that she had no interest other than minding her own business. She could even open up about how she felt towards journalists who criticized her work or political stance. It appears that she actually reveled in these “quibbles” with them and liked nothing more than being attacked as it gave her an opportunity to reply and therefore develop her theories in favour of a new type of imperialism. She seems to have loved nothing more than being in the spotlight contrary to what she once wrote to E. B. Tylor “I never speak at meetings; it is too unladylike”.

Her use of a double language depending on which gender she was addressing allows us to better understand her ambivalent position towards female participation in science. In the fierce letter referred to at the beginning of this blog, opposing the admission of ladies in learned societies she had told Marianne Farquarson « I would not like any society to admit me, that I had a feeling that admission would be dangerous to the work of the society”. Since it was a letter she had forwarded to the head of the RGS one can safely assume she used the opportunity Ms Farquarson gave her to pen a letter calling attention to the fact that, in spite of all her achievements, she had never been admitted to any learned society. The RGS appeared not to have taken the bait and she later asked to be introduced to at least three learned societies.

So to answer the question which began this blog post, no, it appears Mary Kingsley wasn’t really a misogynist. She might be accused of being a hypocrite since she was adamant women should not have rights she herself wanted or enjoyed. More likely her jokes were a way to ease the anxiety and ambivalence she felt as a woman of independent means and character, but with no desire to be a trailblazer. This misogynist humour allowed her to align herself with the ruling patriarchy with whom she identified more than with her ascribed gender and fight the troubling fact that she was the unwilling element that helped create a new norm for women. In the end it was also a way to seize control and decide to make fun of herself rather than waiting for people’s criticism.

Bibliography

Frank, Katherine. A Voyager Out, The life of Mary Kingsley (Londres, Tauris Parke Paperback, 2005.

Gwynn, Stephen. The Life of Mary Kingsley (London, Macmillan and Co, 1933).

Kingsley, Mary. Travels in West Africa (1897) 1st ed. (Washington D.C.: Adventure Classics, National Geographic, 2002).

—. West African Studies (London: MacMillan and Co., 1899. Repr. Ulan Press, 2013).

Letters to Violet Roy, Royal Geographical Society, London.

Letters to Matthew Nathan, Bodleian Library, Oxford University, Oxford.

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