An Unmannerly Crocodile and a Victorian “Lady”

When Mary Kingsley escaped the “stay-at-home daughter” role she had performed the first thirty years of her life, she had no idea it would be crocodiles and savages that would raise her position within British society (Kingsley1769).  Kingsley was born in North London, on the “margins of respectable English society and struggled with her own ambiguous status,” but after the death of her parents, her “spectacular African travels” helped “establish abroad the bourgeois womanhood that proved so elusive to her at home” (Ciolkowski 339, 340). 

            While Mary’s father, George Kingsley, was a distinguished doctor to traveling dignitaries, his choice of wife, Mary Bailey, a domestic within his household, lowered their familial situation. George’s position meant he was out of the country a lot.  Mary Bailey was of a very sickly nature, entailing Kingsley fulfilling the role of her nurse-maid.  Kingsley’s education was predominantly furnished by her father on the rare occasions he was home.  When her parents died in 1892, within three months of one another, Kingsley was freed from her daughterly duties.  She kept house for her brother, but when not needed she journeyed to West Africa where she travelled on a “modest scale, either alone or with small groups of Africans” (Blunt 50).  Throughout her journeys, Kingsley collected specimens of fish and reptiles, and had “three new species of fish … named after her” (Blunt 53).  Kingsley wrote Travels in West Africa in 1897 and West African Studies in 1899, bringing her to the attention of Britain.   

Kingsley stamp

1969 Kingsley Stamp

While Kingsley failed to be viewed as an epitomic Victorian woman prior to her travels, her use of the “conventions of gender that organize Victorian bodies in space” in her travel writings allowed Kingsley to “remake[] herself” (Ciolkowski 340).  Laura E. Ciolkowski states Kingsley’s “custom of dwelling upon her own behavior in Travels succeeds in establishing the female explorer of the text as an English lady who does not like to intrude where she is uninvited or disturb others when they are at rest” (341).  Kingsley also points out the savagery of African animals and people who fail to achieve British refinement standards.  When Kingsley comes upon a crocodile determined to enter her canoe, she gave him a “clip on the snout with a paddle,” proclaiming him simply a “pushing young creature who had not learnt manners” (Kingsley 1771).  Kingsley believed it was “the blessing of [her] good thick skirt,” worn against others’ advice, which saved her from being impaled when she fell into a trap (1772).  If she had failed to dress like a proper young lady, and had “adopted masculine garments,” highly improper in Britain, she might have died (1772).  By “impersonating a cultured European lady” in her writings, Britain perceived Kingsley as just that, making her a respected writer and speaker regarding the “dark continent” (Ciolkowski 342).

            Despite the fame Kingsley found due to her writing, and the uplifting of her societal position, she still viewed her life as one “wholly without romance or variety … of work, work worth doing, but never well done” (Blunt 54).  

Works Cited

Blunt, Alison. Travel, Gender, and Imperialism: Mary Kingsley and West Africa. New York: Guilford, 1994. Print.

Ciolkowski, Laura. E. “Traveler’s Tales: Empire, Victorian Travel, and the Spectacle of English Womanhood in Mary Kingsley’s Travels in West Africa.” Victorian Literature and Culture 26.02 (1998): 337-66. Print.

Kingsley, Mary. “from Travels in West Africa.” The Longman Anthology of British Literature. Vol. 2B. 4th ed. Damrosch, David, and Kevin J.H. Dettmar. New York: Pearson Education Inc., 2010. 1769-1776. Print.

“Stamp Books: New Design 1969.” British First Day Covers. N.p., n.d. Web. 06 Dec. 2013.