Mary Kingsley and Femal Agency
After the deaths of her parents in 1892, Mary Kingsley, who by this time was already thirty and, by British standards at the time, an old maid, could not have possibly imagined all the exhilarating and liberating experiences that lay before her. Newly unfettered from the restrictions of spinsterhood, Kingsley, “feeling like a boy with a new halfcrown,” decided to “go and learn [her] tropics” (1769) and in 1893 she set sail for the West African backcountry. In her memoir on the topic, Travels in West Africa, she recounts her many adventures, which would include encounters with cannibals, battles with impolite crocodiles, and being allowed to pilot a riverboat. But what these adventures showed more than anything was that life in this primitive backcountry would allow her the agency she never had back in England.
In 19th Century England, life was not so great for women. Their only real options for survival in the world were to find a husband, live with their parents until they died, work a low-paying, menial job or even to prostitute themselves when worse came to worse, as was the case for many women in the period (Wojtczak). Mary Kingsley was lucky, it seems, having no other siblings with whom to share her parents’ inheritance (in most cases, if she had had brothers, Mary would not have seen any of the money, since among the rich, inheritance almost always went directly to the first male heir) (Wojtczak) she was able to spend it as she chose. So, she chose to go to Africa and it would prove to be one of the best decisions of her life.
As we have seen in Mary’s writing, she was already a free thinker with a unique, often comical, way of viewing the world. The only problem was that her creativity was being stifled by the socio-political climate of Victorian England. The only way for Mary to achieve any kind of agency or independence was to leave England and travel to one of the colonies. One passage in her narrative that illustrates this is the one in which they are travelling down a river and Mary, a woman, is allowed to steer the boat for a while, something she never could have done in England; “I had no need to offer to steer; he [Obanjo] handed over charge to me as a matter of course” (1774). This tiny detail may have been completely over looked by most modern readers, who perhaps are not aware of just how awful it was to be a woman in the 19th Century. In 1890, the midwife and journalist, Florence Fenwick Miller, described the position of women in Victorian society as such:
“Under exclusively man-made laws women have been reduced to the most abject condition of legal slavery in which it is possible for human beings to be held…under the arbitrary domination of another’s will, and dependent for decent treatment exclusively on the goodness of heart of the individual master” (Wojtczak).
Additionally, abandoning the stifling climate of Victorian England was entirely uncommon for women, “particularly for women, travel meant freedom from the constraints of domesticity, and a chance to try out new roles: cowboy, trader, pilgrim, scientist, writer” (1747). Mary Kingsley would die young (of fever at the age of 38) but she died having known a freedom that few English women in her day ever did.
Kingsley, Mary. Travels in West Africa. The Longman Anthology of British Literature. 4th ed. Damrosch, David, and Kevin J.H. Dettmar.
New York: Pearson Education Inc., 2010. 1099. Print.
Wojtczak, Helena. “Women’s Status in Mid 19th-Century England: A Brief Overview.” Hastingspress.co.uk. Nov. 11 2001. Web. Dec. 5 2013. <http://www.hastingspress.co.uk/history/19/overview.htm>