The Illustrated Virago Book of Women Travellers
- Not rated
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.