Tuesday 24 February 2015

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.

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.



Val said...

Brilliant review ..I'll look out for this book . Long ago I was bitten by the travel bug (via books..lol) and read quite a few of the authors you mention ...but certainly not all..so more treats to come. Dervla Murphy's Full Tilt is fascinating. You'd enjoy Freya Stark too I expect. Any woman who can state an advantage of being a woman when travelling is that you can pretend to be stupid and know one will be surprised had me laughing out loud. Have you read Elinor Pruitt Stewart? (sorry if I'm repeating myself) I think she might appeal to you.
btw the book sounds lovely so I shall magnanimously forgive you for yet again adding to my mt tbr pile .... haha Valx

Val said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jeane said...

This sounds pretty interesting. Are most of the pieces excerpts from other books? or stand-alone essays/short stories the women wrote?

BooksPlease said...

This looks a very interesting and different anthology. I haven't read many travel books.I second Val & co's comments on Full Tilt.

I had no idea that Frances Trollope was an author until I read Anthony Trollope's autobiography recently. She sounds a most interesting person and I'd like to read some of her writing.

Reading your post reminded me I have a book on Explorers and it includes a chapter on Mary Kingsley - must get it out and read it!

And it's also reminded me I still haven't read Out of Africa!

Cath said...

Val: Nice to meet another travel book fan. Freya Stark was in this book as well, too many to mention really. The Dervla Murphy I read was the Ethiopian one, and one other I think. Keen to read more but my library has nothing by her. Will have to trot off to some other towns. No, I haven't heard of EPS. Will go and look her up in a moment.

Sorry about your Mount TBR!

Jeane: The book is *very* interesting. Each of the pieces is from a book I believe... some easily available, others out of print so a bit more difficult.

Margaret: I'll definitely try to get hold of Full Tilt.

Yes, AT's mother was a writer and I think her American book would be fascinating to read.

Nor have read Out of Africa. I really must at some stage.

Jeane said...

Out of Africa is fantastic, by the way! I have read both that one and West with the Night, and there are some close similarities.

Val said...

Letters of a Woman homesteader is here

they also have some Mrs Trollope

Emily Carr's memoirs are here

Isabella Bird is here

also Mary Kingsley

Lady Barker

and Maud Parrish is at archive.orgs lending library (not sure how that works)

erm....you did want a bigger tbr pile...sorry!

Kailana said...

This sounds really good! I will have to see about getting a copy at some point. :)

Cath said...

Jeane: Yes, I know I really must get a copy of Out of Africa. West with the Night was so lyrically written and the OoA excerpt was so similar that I know I would love it.

Val: Oh gosh... thank you so much for all the links! I will investigate them soonish. LOL, yes... I *really* wanted a bigger tbr pile. :-D But at least they'll go onto the Kindle.

Kelly: It's a really good 'dipping into and out of' sort of book.

Unknown said...

Thank you for taking the time to publish this information very useful! I've been looking for books of this nature for a way too long. I'm just glad that I found yours. Looking forward for your next post. Thanks :)

domestic tour packages