read_warbler (read_warbler) wrote,

The Virago Book of Women Travellers

I've been reading The Virago Book of Women Travellers, edited by Mary Morris and Larry O'Connor, all month, dipping in and out of around fifty tales of intrepid women traipsing all over the world and having all kinds of adventures. My kind of book.

Women Trav.

The tales are in chronological order and start in 1717 with an excerpt from a book I've already read - that of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu and her Turkish Embassy Letters. It seems she really was a pioneer for women who wanted to travel. I kind of knew that but not quite to what extent.

A quote from the next contributor, Mary Wollstonecraft, travelling in Sweden, having left her baby daughter behind really struck me:

'I dread to unfold her mind, lest it should render her unfit for the world she is to inhabit.'

Should she educate her daughter or not? At the end of the 1700s marriage was about all women could aspire to and most men definitely did not want an educated, clever wife. Interesting piece from her.

I have to say that I enjoyed the earlier tales much more than the modern, 20th. century, ones. A few I enjoyed:

Frances Trollope (mother of Anthony) was hilarious on the differences between the Americans and British when visiting each other. It seems they sometimes arrived unannounced, sat for an hour saying nothing and then got up and left, still silent. She got lost in the forests of Ohio which really was quite 'edge of the seat' to read about.

Mary Kingsley getting lost in a Mangrove swamp in West Africa was also rather worrying.

Isabella Bird climbing a mountain in the Rockies was also excellent, especially when she tried to get down again. I'd read about her exploits years ago, not just in the Rockies but also travelling in Asia. I'd definitely like to read those again.

Lady Mary Anne Barker went hunting in New Zealand, trying to prove to the men she went with that a woman was strong enough to be up to the challenge. Again they got lost. I sense a theme here of me liking to read about people getting lost...

Margaret Fountaine had two interests in her life - butterflies and men. She combined the two in Love Among the Butterflies which I would love to read as her writing style was both charming and funny. She writes in this excerpt about her stay in and around Palermo and the various men who chased her.

Isak Dineson (Karen Blixen from Out of Africa) writes about flying in Africa and reminded me very strongly of Beryl Markham in West With the Night. Must be something magical about flying in Africa.

Maud Parish had wanderlust and left her husband to go to Alaska (she did in fact travel all over the world). Her book Nine Pounds of Luggage is one I'd like to get hold of.

Emily Carr, a Canadian artist, loved the NW coast of Canada and specialised in drawing Native American totem poles. She managed to get herself into a village that was barred to white people, Kinwancool, and was allowed to paint their artifacts.

Dervla Murphy is another one who got lost, this time in Madagascar with her young daughter and ended up having to walk through the night having no idea where she was. I've read one book by this author and really must read some more.

Emily Hahn wrote what is my favourite piece in the whole book. She was an American journalist who wrote over fifty books and travelled the world, working. This excerpt from Times and Places recounts how, when she was living in China before the war, she decided to start smoking opium and become an addict. It's quite shocking in its matter-of-factness and really quite rivetting to read. This is another author I'd like to read more of.

The final piece in the book returns to Isabella Bird and her adventures in The Rockies, this time recounting how she took her leave, never to return again. Why she didn't stay I don't know, or can't remember, but reading about her descent from the mountains to the plains is really rather sad.

Obviously there are many more writers in this book than I've had time to mention. (Also good were tales from Edith Wharton, Box-car Bertha, Christina Dodwell, Alexandra David-Neel, Mrs. F.D. Bridges and so on.) All in all this anthology of women travellers is excellent. Like all anthologies it's patchy in places but there are very few tales that are not interesting and well written. Sometimes I wasn't too interested in reading about a particular place but the writer usually won me over. What an anthology like this does serve to do is supply the keen armchair traveller like myself with new authors to search out and read, and this one does that very well indeed.

The Virago Book of Women Travellers is my book five for Bev's 2015 Mount TBR challenge.
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