Wandering: An Essay on Histories, Genders, Mobilities, and Forms





wandering, mobility, mobilities, women wanderers, romantic wandering

How to Cite

Horrocks, I. (2019). Wandering: An Essay on Histories, Genders, Mobilities, and Forms. M/C Journal, 22(4). https://doi.org/10.5204/mcj.1571
Vol. 22 No. 4 (2019): wandering
Published 2019-08-14

In hindsight, it is clear that my own interest in literary wanderings came out of a bout of intense homesickness. I was a graduate student in New Jersey, living in converted army barracks 15,000 kilometres from the farm in the foothills of the Tararua ranges in the Wairarapa where I grew up in New Zealand. In a year in the United Kingdom on the way over I had come out as queer, but the girlfriend who moved to Princeton with me quickly left both me and the United States in disgust, and I had scant idea what I now wanted. I arrived in 2000, in time for the election of George W. Bush and September 11, the Twin Towers falling a 90 minutes train ride away.

Supposedly, I was having the time of my life. This was the big adventure, the leaving of home to explore the world. I had finally embarked on the narrative journey I had been fed in books, stories, films, and especially at the family dinner table. In practical terms, I now know that education is a key driver of global mobility, and often the fantasy “ticket out” (and often, up). This is especially the case for those of us from what is still too often imagined as the global periphery. I was part of that. Of course, plenty of the time, I was having the time of my life. I had been given a stipend with little asked of me but to read, think, talk, and write. I found talking the hardest bit, especially in the more formal setting of seminar rooms filled with American students well-versed in theory: I was the regulation international in my cohort. I was in an exceptionally privileged position; I had never felt so unsettled. I had arrived there, in this place so far from home, on the strength of a proposal to study travel writing. 

Histories and Stories

In this essay, I want to think through some of the tensions inherent in the situation I found myself in, and in particular about the kind of readings of wandering I was eventually drawn to write about in eighteenth and nineteenth-century British literature. I want to examine what the stakes are in reading those forms of movement that fall outside the model of “travel as adventure narrative”. My aim here is to consider not so much what this research contributes to the understandings of literary scholars, but how it might enrich the knowledge of those interested in the wider implications of unequal mobilities, and how it might contribute to the history of felt experiences of movement (see Merriman and Pearce 500; Merriman). In terms of itinerary, I start first with a series of specific histories and stories of wandering that challenge what we might perhaps notice as movement. I then turn to theories, in particular thinking through the contributions (and oversights) of work in the field of “mobilities studies” on understanding the influences of particular histories of wandering, asking how we can better understand the concepts that have come to underpin our understandings of movement, and of mobilities research. Finally, I turn briefly to wandering forms, both historical and contemporary, and reflect on how one can continue to apprehend wanderings of all kinds when one does not oneself feel literally unhoused.

It seems no surprise to me now that I quickly strayed from clearly defined travel literature—especially the literature of exploration, which sought to map and control the world—to novels, poetry, and more diverse forms of writing about movement, forms concerned with the many different ways mobilities can feel. In what I read, rather than finding travellers, what fixed my attention were wanderers.

To be a wanderer is crucially different from being a traveller: it assumes neither destination nor homecoming. A wanderer is always in danger of becoming lost. This difference poses difficulties in the construction of subjectivity, sympathy, imaginings of community, as well as literary form. I was struck, in particular, by the startling and little-noted predominance of women wanderers in the texts of the period I had travelled so far to study.

“Forlorn”, “unhappy”, “helpless”, “harassed”, and even “terrified” women wanderers turn out to saturate British writing of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries (Horrocks 28-29). In everything I read there was uprootedness to be found, and melancholy with it. The often startlingly modern-feeling women wanderers at the centre of these texts tended to be mobile not because they had chosen to be, but because they had no other choice. There were impoverished writers dependent on the market; wives separated from difficult husbands; adolescent women whose guardians preyed upon rather than protected them; unmarried mothers; unhoused widows; and by the height of the French Revolution, also refugees in flight. Their homelessness is often literal, but it is also political, emotional, intellectual, and textual. Distinctly lacking is the structure of excursion and return which gives more familiar literary traditions of travel and movement a frame of security; typically, these wanderers lack a home, and in some cases never had one. After many digressions of my own, a decade later my book Women Wanderers and the Writing of Mobility, 1785-1814 (2007) was still focused on figures of reluctant female wandering, in male-authored texts as well as female.

Movement undoubtedly comes to the fore in British texts of this period in part because writers were encountering the implications of a newly-mobile and urbanised society, in which journeys beyond the domestic home or the town where one was born were becoming exponentially more common. On top of this, by the final years of the eighteenth century, decades of warfare, both in Britain’s empire and with France, had taken their economic and emotional toll, while disastrous harvests and resulting food scarcity in the 1790s brought with them hugely increased levels of poverty and homelessness (Bailey). There was much more going on than the Grand Tour and domestic tourism, or thoughtful walks around the Lake District. In this period, literal wanderers quite simply became more visible and present on the British landscape and in society in general. Literary texts that figure troubled wanderers are in part responding to this historical reality.

Some of the texts of female wandering I became interested in can be relatively straightforwardly categorised as works of travel: most compellingly, for my purposes, British political philosopher and pioneering feminist Mary Wollstonecraft’s great post-Revolutionary travel book, A Short Residence in Sweden, Norway, and Denmark (1796). By the time Wollstonecraft set out to travel through Scandinavia she had written on the “rights of man” in response to the French Revolution, and then on the “rights of woman” as she became disappointed in what the Revolution offered her sex. She had witnessed the “Terror” up close in Paris, and was in the final stages of the collapse of a disastrous love affair. She travelled with her illegitimate one-year-old, Fanny, moving without a home to return to—moving partly in the hope she could write a book that would offer herself and her daughter the financial security they were dangerously lacking. (She was also in search of a lost cargo of silver smuggled out of Revolutionary Paris, but that is another story.) In the last days of her journey, Wollstonecraft wrote, “I am weary of travelling—yet seem to have no home—no resting place to look to” (210). Days after returning to England, she attempted, for the second time, to take her own life.

In writing about her journey, Wollstonecraft embraces and performs her real situation as a woman in some way outside society, and in the process produces a radical alteration in the perspective of the traveller as it was understood in her time. She seems intent on finding a figure not just adequate to her own gendered experience but to the moment of historical crisis she sees herself as inhabiting and addressing.

In poetry, we find Romantic poet and novelist Charlotte Smith also figuring herself as a perpetually houseless wanderer and using this to reflect on the situation of other, to echo King Lear on the heath, as both she and Wollstonecraft repeatedly do, “houseless heads” (Lear 3.4.29-33). Hardly read for nearly two centuries until the feminist revival of the late twentieth century, Smith is now recognised as the great missing Romantic poet. She started her career as a writer while living in debtors’ prison where her husband’s debts had the whole family confined. By this point, she was 25 and, staggeringly, had nine living children. (I try to remind myself of this fact when I’m feeling short of time to write.) After Smith separated from her husband, she continued to write poetry and nearly a novel a year for the rest of her life to support her family. In her final years, she wrote from her sofa, where she was confined by severe rheumatoid arthritis.

Smith may seem like an unlikely figure to conceive of as a wanderer, and yet this highlights the limitations of what we easily imagine as movement worthy of notice. As a result of her familial and financial circumstances, Smith moved repeatedly throughout her life, at times more than once a year and often as a result of being evicted when she was unable to pay her rent. Elizabeth Dolan has recently created an interactive map of Smith’s many moves, showing how unstable her life was. After she made the rare decision to leave her marriage, she moved house 28 times in 19 years.

Once one starts paying attention, it becomes clear that Smith writes constantly about reluctant female wandering. The most obvious example is that of her long poem about refugees from the French Revolution, The Emigrants. The poem was published in 1793, the year the controversial Aliens Act was passed, bringing in unprecedented levels of surveillance and control of the movements of foreign nationals in Britain. Despite being opposed as breaching basic human rights, the Act was passed in an atmosphere of political and social panic about the new arrivals (Carpenter 35-39). I was editing The Emigrants for a new edition of Smith’s work as the refugee crisis in Europe accelerated. Descriptions in 1790s periodicals and pamphlets of the arrivals from France, who came in need of the most basic assistance, arriving in freezing winter weather in open boats with little but the clothes they wore, felt troublingly contemporary, while The Emigrants itself read like an early nuanced attempt to think through the complexities of what such mass upheavals could mean. Smith puts those displaced at the centre of her texts, arguing forcefully for understanding the complex social causes of displacements of all kinds and their attendant anguishes. She passes this all through her own persona of a houseless, wandering woman, making a gendered understanding of pained mobility central to an understanding of the world.

If we turn to the Romantic-era novel, we find enforced wanderers in the figure of the gothic heroine, hurried from place to place, her lack of control over her own movement a key mechanism in the production of domestic terror. This is how I read Ann Radcliffe. This affective structure of forced mobility (or immobility) is often replicated in quieter form in the contemporaneous sentimental novels of writers such as Frances Burney, Jane Austen’s immediate predecessor, about whom Alan Bewell has recently written. Along with Miranda Burgess, Bewell is perhaps the Romanticist to have dealt most directly and eloquently with the ways in which considering mobility opens up how it is possible to think and write about the literature of this period.

I ended up writing about Burney’s vast, strange, meandering, suggestively-entitled final novel, The Wanderer; or, Female Difficulties (1814). In this work, over hundreds of pages, Burney explores the situation of a 1790s female refugee, trying to find work and safe and secure lodgings in a society that can only see her as a foreigner and a pariah. Among other things, what Juliet, the wanderer of the title, is missing is “network capital”, which mobilities studies theorist John Urry argues can be set alongside Bourdieu’s analysis of forms of economic and cultural capital as a form of capital by which certain people and groups accumulate emotional, financial, and practical benefits (194-210). Network capital is produced by such things as access to the travel documents and money that enable the movement of one’s body from place to place, access to safe places to receive mail and to meet with others, access to others who can offer hospitality, and above all, time to co-ordinate and plan one’s movements (Urry 194-198). It also extends to “movement capacity”, such as having access to transport or being able to walk distances. As a woman travelling alone without name, money, or male relatives to call on, Burney’s refugee protagonist is lacking all these things, and through her, Burney explores the perilous situation of a person, and, in particular, a woman, forced to be mobile but without “network capital”. She is cold; she is hungry; she is imposed upon; she does not know where she will go next; she is ultimately forced to run and hide. It is melodrama and realism at the same time.

Considering the difficulties associated with women’s movement proves an especially challenging undertaking given that a generation of feminist scholarship (not incorrectly) taught us to see women’s escape from the domestic home as a sign of liberation. I have come to think, however, that an emphasis on the exceptionality (and frequently also the eccentricity) of famous female travellers such as Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, Isabella Bird, Mary Kingsley, and Wollstonecraft herself, even in feminist scholarship, can have the effect of confining the vast majority of women of the past to the imagined stationary (and imagined safe) space of the (immobile) domestic. This obscures our view of the many women moving in mundane ways, both in the past and now: women moving house, for instance, because they can no longer afford the rent, or because they or their partners have got jobs elsewhere; moving because their factory work (or short-term university contract) has fallen through or simply involves a long commute; or because they don’t have the correct documents to allow them to live and work in the city where they are trying to make a home for themselves and their families.

Theories of Mobilities and Freedom

But why does this alternate history of wandering matter, and what can it tell us? Why seek such historical genealogies at all? A body of theory I have found particularly useful for illuminating and articulating the politics of this focus, although I did not come across it until I was already deep into the project, has been that from the rapidly-developing interdisciplinary field of mobilities studies. The field has been seen as primarily coming out of the social sciences, in particular sociology and human geography (Hannam, Sheller, and Urry; Falconbridge and Hui 2). Alternate histories, proposed more recently as part of the “humanities turn” in the field, have also reminded us of longer genealogies of thinking about movement in the arts and humanities, in particular in relation to the readings of texts (Merriman and Pearce; Aguiar, Mathieson, and Pearce).

Mobilities studies looks at the movements of people and things, and the meanings, metaphors, and ideologies attached to mobilities over time. The varied methodologies associated with the “mobilities paradigm” aim to bring into view a new range of movements as movement, and provide ways of exploring what happens to people and things (and feelings), when they are subjected to persistent or enforced mobilities, or simply involved in the mundane movements of everyday lives. The term “mobilities” rather than “travel” is useful because it provides a broader framework for approaching the indeterminacies of what I characterise as “wanderings”. The form of movement I am particularly interested in is kin to Tim Ingold’s concept of “wayfaring”, that is movement without beginning or end, as opposed to “destination-orientated transport” (75); however, I am more interested in how unequally, and often troublingly, such a state can be experienced. In the end, mobilities scholarship has informed my readings of a whole range of texts, providing vocabularies and approaches for foregrounding and connecting different kinds of mobilities and for thinking about the ways in which different forms of “socially produced motion”, to use Tim Cresswell’s phrase, are experienced and represented (3). As an approach, it helps to find ways to read, see, and in turn make visible, alternate experiences and expressions of movement.

More specifically, mobilities studies scholarship signals the importance of complex understandings of historical traditions of movement because of an understanding of mobilities as central to modernity and as rooted in historical shifts in social and political economy and corresponding conceptual shifts. Key early theorisations of the field begin from the assumption that “mobility is central to what it is to be modern” (Cresswell 20; Urry; Adey). This correspondence is exemplified, of course, in the key figures for the modern (and subsequently postmodern) subject in art and theory: the flâneur, the valorised nomad, the tourist, and the exile—all figures which have come under intense scrutiny in mobilities studies scholarship and beyond. At the same time, within historically-grounded, field-shaping theorisations of mobility, the late eighteenth century and early nineteenth century stand as the crucial moment in which it is possible to locate the initial shift to, as Cresswell puts it, “a way of thinking in terms of mobility—a metaphysics of mobility that is distinct from what came before it” (16).

However, and this is where things get complicated, understandings of the intellectual contribution of this period tend to be focused on precisely the influential annexation of mobility to freedom that mobilities studies sets out to critique. Cresswell cites Thomas Hobbes’s equation between human mobility and freedom, along with eighteenth-century English jurist William Blackstone’s argument that the right to personal liberty is “‘loco-movement’” consisting of the ability of “‘changing situation, or removing one’s person to whatsoever place one’s own inclination may direct’” (14-15). Urry, in a similar way, draws extensively on histories of the emergence of male leisure walking both in the country and in the new spaces of the modern city, where footpaths were first introduced in the eighteenth century (66-70, 77-81).

This is certainly important work on historical mobilities, but the very acknowledgement of the problems associated with women’s access to such modes of movement in accounts such as these can have the unintended effect of seeming to re-confine historical women to a stationary position. Moreover, this is an effect that obscures the very real frequency with which a woman, in particular, could occupy the doubly disenfranchised position of coerced, reluctant wanderer, neither stationary (and at home), nor fully able to dictate her own movements. If she is a “wayfarer”, to draw on Ingold’s term, she is often reluctantly so.

Over this period, the literary associations of movement and travel were being profoundly transformed, shifting from connections with travail, that is, labour, toil, and sorrow, to Romantic notions of freedom. Histories of walking and vagrancy show that in medieval and early-modern periods, moving without direct purpose, outside prescribed geographical bounds, was conceived of both as a kind of suffering and as literally criminal (Wallace; Jarvis). By the mid-eighteenth-century, mobility had been separated from its roots in criminality, and was slowly becoming detached from an association with suffering. In his 1755 dictionary, Samuel Johnson still traces to travel to its derivation in travail, but separates this suffering from the verb’s modern meanings, noting that in its modern sense “to travel” signals more properly “to journey” than “to labour”. Johnson links this activity, especially when conceived of as a “journey of curiosity or instruction”. directly to the Enlightenment project of enlargement of the mind and a greater understanding of society. Johnson himself, it is perhaps worth noting, famously hated travel. 

By the early nineteenth-century, wandering and travel had become leisure and literary activities par excellence, associated with social sympathy and vision and almost inextricable from newly intense explorations of the human subject and new experiments in the writing of interiority, often through an evocation of the human subject in nature, most recognisably perhaps in the writings of William Wordsworth. This is true in poetry, nonfiction, and the novel: Romantic literature is full of all kinds of walkers and full of (often highly complex) claims to universalism based on the notion that we are all wanderers gone astray.

Romantic notions of wandering, and more widely travel, as a vehicle of self-discovery, as well as the trope of the journey as narrative of social sympathy as wanderers meet people on the road and hear their stories, have proved hugely influential on subsequent imaginings of mobilities, both popular and scholarly. As a result, it can be hard to see beyond the influential and consequential equation made in this period between movement, freedom of choice, and adventure. As Celeste Langan eloquently argued some time ago, one of the problems with Romanticism’s obfuscating analogy between movement and freedom is that it can seem to create an equivalence between all wanderers, forging an idea of “human community” based on very different sorts of wanderers abstracted from their “determining social conditions” (3, 17).  The ideology that emerged in this moment is part of why it can still be difficult to see concepts such as vagrancy, homelessness, and economic insecurity outside the context of positive imaginings based on choice. Or to see the difference between poet and homeless person, for example. Tourist and migrant. Economic refugee and Indigenous person displaced from their land. A group of strollers and a family on the road in search of work. Graduate student and exile.

To continue the work of bringing this discussion forward into a contemporary context, part of the work mobilities studies scholarship has engaged in is to show how central the insinuation of equal access to, and experience of, mobility has become to neo-liberal politics, and the serious implications of this pivotal under-pinning. As Peter Adey powerfully argues, “Ideological associations of mobility with liberty, freedom, and universalism” and “ideologically charged mobility politics and policies” create real hardships (87). These hardships can range from insecurity of work, including the kind of “flexible” work or gig economy known so well in areas ranging from academia and the arts (Cantrell and Palmer), to those subject to zero-hour contracts with the likes of Uber or McDonalds, to inequality of access to transport routes, to the prosecution of the homeless, immigrants or refugees. If movement = freedom, then those on the move will inevitability be imagined to have, on some level, created the conditions of their own mobility.  

The kind of wandering evoked in texts such as those by Mary Wollstonecraft, Charlotte Smith, and Frances Burney, I have come to believe, is important to understand in part because of the way in which these forms of mobility feed into, and enrich, the basic challenge of mobilities studies scholarship when it sets out to disentangle mobility from a frequently ideological equation with liberty. These literary texts contribute early, lengthy, nuanced, intellectually and emotionally complex engagements with what it can feel like to be incessantly, and reluctantly, “on the move”—rushed from place to place, house to house, job to job. Paying attention to early figures of coerced or difficult female mobility is worthwhile because she embodies the older, darker—and yet still continuous—associations of movement at precisely the moment these were being obscured from view. She still knows that travel has its roots in travail.

While one contribution of this period, then, was to offer up all the pleasures and possibilities for “‘loco-movement’” as freedom, consisting of the ability of moving wherever one chose, it simultaneously played a role in creating a problematic discourse of universalism, in which it is difficult not to imagine that all mobilities are on some level voluntary. The tradition of what I call reluctant wandering tells us early stories of why and how, to quote Caren Kaplan, theorist of more recent discourses of displacement (in a distinctly unRomantic formulation), “all displacements are not the same” (2). In order to fully comprehend the many forms of mobilities and wandering in our chronically mobile present, it is vital to have as nuanced, flexible understanding of wanderers of the past as possible. In scholarly and field-shaping terms, this is important because how mobilities “are framed and approached has implications for the diversity of subsequent contributions” (Falconbridge and Hui 7). To examine these women wanderers turns out to be an exercise in paying attention to failures in social sympathy, and to the experiences of those who fall outside the imagined social bonds of civil society. These wandering figures frequently illuminate ruptures in the fabric of society. They provide early signs of some of the immensely troubling consequences of a mobile world.

Wandering Forms

Finally, if a wider understanding of wandering helps us to see different stories, it also helps us to read different texts, and to read texts differently. Difficult journeys and experiences produce difficult forms. In my book on women wanderers of the Romantic period, I propose “wandering” as a new critical term by which we can re-assess the formal workings of the strange texts of this period and beyond. In writing about wandering, I ended up analysing and exploring a trope that highlights the non-linear, the undirected, and the distressed in literary texts, and shows how formal difficulties can represent literal ones. These texts turn out to enact and perform particular forms of mobilities through their “processes of production” (Merriman and Pearce 500). In this way, the texts of wandering I have written about are also wandering texts.

To briefly give three short examples, then. The concept of formal “wandering” provides a way of thinking about the textual difficulty of Burney’s encyclopedic The Wanderer; or, Female Difficulties, a novel incapable of charting a clear path forward, down to the level of its very sentences, which I have argued carry the weight of a mind that finds itself incapable of even following the direction of its own thoughts. With nowhere for this kind of protagonist to go, it becomes unclear how the novel form itself should work.

Formal wandering proves equally, if differently, useful as a way of thinking about Charlotte Smith’s 92-poem sonnet sequence, Elegiac Sonnets. The sequence starts with a conventional Romantic image of mobility and freedom: “I delight to stray” (Elegiac Sonnets 4.2). The accompanying illustration in subsequent editions depicts a pretty young woman out on an evening stroll, looking pensive in the moonlight. However, Smith quickly came up against the inadequacy of this model for her own experience and what she wanted to evoke. Writing in the wake of the darkening of the French Revolution in which she, like Wollstonecraft, had previously placed personal as well as political hopes, her experience of perpetual wandering becomes “desolate I stray” (Elegiac Sonnets 62.10). Being condemned to repeat a continuously difficult story becomes its own kind of wandering, with Smith’s expanding text evoking a kind of accretion of loss, represented through repetition and intensification of increasingly dark images of wandering.

Or, we have Wollstonecraft, who does not so much end her travel narrative, as refuse to perform a satisfactory textual homecoming, leaving us mid-movement:


Adieu! My spirit of observation seems to be fled—and I have been wandering round this dirty place, literally speaking, to kill time; though the thoughts, I would fain fly from, lie too close to my heart to be easily shook off, or even beguiled, by any employment, except that of preparing for my journey to London.—God bless you!

MARY———                                                                      (177)

In my own work, I have become increasingly interested both in contemporary forms that might be read as “wandering” as well as in the production of these forms myself as a creative writer. I arrived in the United States in 2000 not only to do a dissertation on travel writing but with the draft of a travel book in my bag. Nearly two decades later, having written a dissertation and then a book on wandering, I am now writing lyric essays with mundane movement at their centre, including a car trip back to the farm on which I grew up; walks with students around the site of the university campus where I work, taking in a visit to the campus Marae (Māori meeting house), in an attempt to acknowledge the site’s troubled colonial history; and the pleasures of swimming with my children and parents, set against a backdrop of climate change and increasingly polluted rivers.

I now live in my own house with my two daughters and my (male) partner. We live near the sea, half an hour’s drive from my wider family. On many basic levels, I came home. The challenge of this situation, it seems to me, bears some relation to Judith Butler’s demand for the necessity of a kind of “radical un-housing”, in which response continues to be initiated not on the basis of security and home, but on the base of vulnerability and loss. The challenge is in continuing to apprehend unmoored wanderings of all kinds, to respond without collapsing—and so obscuring—difference, and to continue to stay alert to structures of text and narration and feeling that may seem directionless, meandering, or painfully repetitive, but whose form of expression may be essential to their meanings.


This essay is developed from two talks, one given at Princeton University, 16 October 2018, the other given as a plenary lecture at Aotearoa New Zealand Mobilities Network and AusMob (the Australian Mobilities Network) Symposium 2018, University of Waikato, 3-4 December 2018. I am grateful for these invitations and for the responses of these two audiences.


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Author Biography

Ingrid Horrocks, Massey University Wellington

Ingrid Horrocks is Associate Professor in Creative Writing and English at Massey University in Wellington, Aotearoa New Zealand. Her books include Travelling with Augusta, 1835-1999 (Victoria University Press, 2003), part travel book, part history of women's travel, part love story, and a monograph Women Wanderers and the Writing of Mobility, 1784-1815 (Cambridge University Press, 2017). She also publishes on historical and contemporary New Zealand nonfiction in journals such as Biography and The Journal of Commonwealth Literature. Her current project is an essay cycle entitled, Where We Swim.