October 22, 2007

The Illustrated Virago Book of Women Travellers

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This is a wonderful anthology of writing by women travellers, originally published in 1994 as The Virago Book of Women Travellers and re-published in this larger, illustrated paperback edition earlier this year. The collection draws together 46 extracts spanning nearly 300 hundred years, from Lady Mary Wortley Montagu's 1717 letter in Embassy to Constantinople to Leila Philip's 1989 The Road Through Miyama. The extracts are arranged chronologically, allowing the anthology to "chart feminism through women and their journeys" as Mary Morris writes(11), whilst emphasising the book's concern with providing the beginnings of a tradition of women writers. Travel literature is a field that has historically been somewhat dominated by male writers, largely due to the simple fact that less women have been able to travel: "for centuries it was frowned upon for women to travel without escort, chaperon, or husband. To journey was to put oneself at risk, not only physically but morally as well" (8). Yet this collection seeks to make clear that many women have travelled and written seriously about their journeys, and provides a space in which these narratives may be heard. The women in this collection are the exceptions, and their writing is often exceptional, frequently portraying events in which perceived gender constraints are overcome by women determined that their sex should not prevent exploration. Sometimes their defiance is explicit, such as in Lady Mary Anne Barker's narrative in which she is the only woman on a bush-trekking expedition in New Zealand, in amongst a group of men who share, as she writes, the "unexpressed but prevailing dread" that "I should knock up and become a bore, necessitating an early return home; but I knew better!" (57); at other times, gender limitations are surpassed more discreetly, as in the case of Isabelle Eberhardt who, maintaining that "the human body is nothing, the human soul is all" (55), travelled through North Africa in disguise as a man.

Whilst gender issues resonate throughout the extracts, the anthology is striking in its variety. The extracts are taken from a number of different narrative forms, including letters, travel books, journals, diaries, extended prose narratives, articles, anecdotes, memoirs, and essays. The accounts encompass a wide range of destinations, including Turkey, Peru, the American Prairies, West Africa, Morocco, New Zealand, Madagascar, Persia, Russia amongst many others, each location offering a new adventure or encounter, whether it's rambling across the Dolomites, horse riding in Iceland, or harvesting rice in Miyama. The style of each writer is as varied as the content, but each displays a vivid attention to detail whether describing unfamiliar landscapes or the customs of foreign societies.

The collection draws together writers who are well-known for their travel writing, such as Flora Tristan and Isak Dinesen, those who we may be more familiar with as writers of fiction, like Edith Wharton, women who we may know for their non-fiction writing, like Mary Wollstonecraft, along with many others who are relatively unknown, especially to readers who know little about travel writing. The collection does have its limitations, the editors recognising in the introduction that the selection lacks racial diversity in its focus on women writers from England and America. However, the anthology provides an excellent and highly enjoyable introduction to women's travel writing for general readers and many indicative starting points for further research for those who want to find out more; I've already been prompted to investigate the work of Frances Trollope from reading some of her writing here. Although each extract is short, the anthology gains from being read over time as the pieces have been well selected and are packed with ideas that engage the reader and leave you needing time for reflection before moving onto the next piece- it's taken me a couple of months to get only half way through as I've been enjoying reading the book so much! The beautiful illustrations encourage this, making it the perfect book to leave lying on your coffee table to dip into on a lazy afternoon.

- 3 comments by 3 or more people Not publicly viewable

  1. One of the important things about this book, of course, is that it’s illustrated, and I think it’s very interesting that they released an illustrated and a non-illustrated version of the same thing. You mention quickly how the illustrations encourage reflection as you read, but I was wondering what else they add to it? Would you recommend paying the extra for the illustrated version?

    25 Oct 2007, 15:22

  2. Charlotte Mathieson

    You’re right, I did skim over that rather quickly. The illustrations add little to the actual content of the book, besides making it pretty (although I should add that they are very good photographs- I can’t find any on the internet unfortunately), and the newer addition is annoyingly sized, too big for a standard bookshelf (hence why it’s still sitting homeless on my desk). It strikes me as very much a display book; it demands to be seen, purposefully looks attractive, contributing to the sense that this is a book for leisure, pleasure, taking time over. Surprisingly, this doesn’t irk me, I actually think it fits the rest of the book rather well. As I said, this isn’t aspiring to be a scholarly edition; even though it does undertake a worthy cause of bringing women travel writers to attention, ultimately this is a first port-of-call for the general reader with an interest in travel writing rather than an in-depth study. As such, I think the illustrations add something by simply making the book pretty- I think the black-and-white paperback collection must come across as a little disappointing in comparison mainly because it is just compiled of short-ish extracts. As it is, the book comes across as something a bit special, something to give as a gift, something that’s attractive, it stands out and draws attention to itself. It is ultimately designed as a coffee-table book but I don’t think that’s a bad thing because as I said, it’s a book for taking time over and enjoying. Whether it’s worth the extra money, well it all depends on what you want it for. For me, I find it nice to have a semi-academic related book that I’m reading for pleasure mark itself out as one for enjoyment. Even if it doesn’t fit neatly in the bookshelf.

    25 Oct 2007, 21:34

  3. Robert O'Toole

    I saw this book in Waterstone’s a few weeks ago, picked it up, scanned through the contents and thought “mmmmh interesting”, then noticed a few of the illustrations, and immediately relegated it to the ‘coffee table vacuity’ section of the virtual library in my mind. That just goes to prove how our prejudices about genre have been manipulated by the marketing strategies of the publishers.

    I’ll go back and have another look.


    22 Nov 2007, 10:56

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