While there are women who work exclusively as travel writers, many women writers, journalists and novelists among them, have chosen at one time or another to temporarily commandeer the travel vehicle to get their ideas or dreams across.
The distinction between travel and other forms of writing, such as fiction, is barely perceptible in the work of the English novelist Rose Macaulay. Halfway through her book “The Towers of Trebizond,” many readers find themselves searching through the publisher’s blurb or dust-jacket notes in an effort to establish whether or not they are reading a novel or a firsthand travelogue.
Macaulay in fact only produced one travel work, “Fabled Shore,” a book almost unparalleled in its influence on readers’ travel patterns, inspiring thousands of people to follow the writer’s itinerary: a car journey undertaken in 1948 along Spain’s then semi-deserted east coast, from Port Bou south to Cape Vincent.
It was a modest enough journey, without the dangers or rigors associated with the travel accounts of contemporaries such as the Saharan traveler Eleanor Clark or the extraordinary Ella Maillart, who lived and wrote among the Kazakh and Kirghiz tribes. But despite the almost wholesale ruin of that coast in the decades since she wrote, Macaulay’s pithy, literary-journalistic observations remain part of the standard English-language commentary on Spain.
Jan Morris is another writer who was drawn to Spain. Morris’ transformation into a woman writer was achieved in the most literal sense after the journalist, then known as James Morris, underwent the sex-change operation described in her autobiographical work “Conundrum.”
Interestingly, the highly regarded Morris, one of the world’s premier travel writers and author of “Hong Kong,” “Spain,” “Destinations” and a score of other travel classics, as well as the towering historical collection “Pax Britannica,” has never, as far as I know, been included in any anthology of women’s travel writings.
The scouring eye and accumulation of detail that typifies Morris’ prose style owes a great deal to two distinguished travel works by the journalist and novelist Mary McCarthy, often described as America’s first lady of letters. In her two travel accounts, “The Stones of Florence” and “Venice Observed,” the writer, known for her biting satire, astringent wit and exacting character analyses, applies the same methods to dissecting these two great Italian cities and the ambiguous emotions they evoke.
War correspondent Martha Gellhorn, in travel pieces like “Cuba Revisited,” is another in a long line of woman writers who have demonstrated that it is possible to cross genres without loss of integrity.
For the Egyptian writer Nawal El Sadaawi, travel has provided an opportunity to talk with feminists in Finland, experience the poverty and injustices of East Africa, denounce tea-plantation owners for their exploitation of women in India, and to question the lavish expense accounts of those who work for the United Nations. In Bangkok, El Sadaawi disguised herself as a man in order to gain entrance to a massage parlor.
Taking stock of her accumulated notes and experiences on these highly directed journeys, the novelist, ex-political prisoner and former Egyptian director general of health education, decided to collect her reflections in a book, “My Travels Around the World.” Sadaawi belongs to a generation that, having grown up listening to the Koran, seems to have grasped its essential themes, presenting an Islam that was gracious, pacifist, inclusive, generous and mystical, before it was co-opted by medieval-minded, wild-eyed mullahs and sheiks.
In Sadaawi’s travel and other writings we sense the voice of reason, a poem read against the din of the mob.