“The challenge is to myself and not to the mountain.” — “Clouds from Both Sides,” by Julie Tullis
Alexandra David-Neel, the author of several books on Tibetan mysticism and a traveler in Buddhist domains such as Bhutan, Korea and Japan, immersed herself in esoteric studies for several years before setting out on a journey to Lhasa, the capital of Tibet, in 1923. She was the first woman to pass through the gates of the forbidden city. Part of her preparations included perfecting the ancient discipline of “thumo reskiang,” by which a person’s body temperature can be raised through meditation, a practice that was to save her life when she was buried in a snow drift.
Personal ambition this intense has often helped women travelers overcome not just physical obstacles, like mountains or extreme weather, but also social and religious taboos — at least if their writings are anything to go by.
For women travel writers, the road has been a long and grueling one. The recent flowering of the genre, often taken to be a purely contemporary phenomenon, actually stems from a considerable body of work that has been quietly incubating over the centuries.
Although there were notable exceptions, like the Roman traveler and diarist Egeria, of whom Valerius wrote, “Nothing could hold her back, even the labor of traveling the whole world,” women who traveled long distances without a husband, chaperon or other minder, were mostly frowned upon. It was not so much the physical risk as the moral one that was deemed hazardous.
Yet restraints often brought out the best in writers when they eventually did manage to break free. Some women even attempted to overcome the social and physical restrictions that dogged their sex by disguising themselves as men.
One early exponent of incognito travel was the 19th-century writer Isabelle Eberhardt, who fled the straitjacket of an aristocratic Swiss upbringing to travel widely in North Africa. Shunned by European expatriate society in the Arabian states after her conversion to Islam, Eberhardt, author of “The Passionate Nomad,” was a troubled woman who lived a hand-to-mouth existence to support her worsening drug habit.
An even wilder spirit, perhaps, than the French poet Arthur Rimbaud, who also experienced self-inflicted hardships as well as a literary awakening in North Africa, Eberhardt left a number of diaries as a record of her travels. The diaries are less concerned with the perceived exoticism of the Arab states than with exploring the psyche as it evolves in response. The fiercely individualistic life she enjoyed for a few fleeting months during her last trip, however, cost her dearly. The woman who wrote, “The way I see it, there is no greater spiritual beauty than fanaticism, of a sort so sincere it can only end in martyrdom,” died at the age of 28 after being swept away in a flash flood at Ain Sera.
While many Victorian or early 20th-century women traveled because they were “women of independent means and without domestic ties,” others had more compelling reasons. The Christian stalwarts Francesca French and Mildred Cable endured the rigors of traveling through India, South America and the Gobi Desert as missionaries. Mary Kingsley and a more contemporary figure, the Irish writer Dervla Murphy, set out only after death freed them from the burden of caring for elderly parents. Isabella Bird took to the road at the age of 40, after a doctor advised her that it might help cure a lifelong back problem. It did, and the intrepid Bird, the first women to address the prestigious Royal Geographical Society, never turned back.
Among the wealth of motives that drove women to seek out remote corners of the earth, the more straightforward imperatives of work stand out. For serious-minded women like Maria Merian, who undertook a dangerous sea voyage and overland exploration to Suriname to study insect life, or the Victorian Marianne North, who studied plants in Java, Ceylon and India, there was little time for the conventional pleasures or thrills of travel. This legacy of intellectual inquiry was sustained in the 20th century by such brilliant travel writers and scholars as Freya Stark and Gertrude Bell.
Other women used their professional gifts as vehicles for travel. Emily Hahn, one of the first American women to qualify as a mining engineer, turned her talents to volunteer work, teaching and journalism in order to support herself in such places as the Belgian Congo, North Africa and China. She managed, between the demands of travel and full-time employment, to produce no fewer than 57 books.
An urgent sense of now-or-never drove some women to actions that were deemed reckless or unbecoming at the time. Maud Parrish, whose book “Nine Pounds of Luggage,” records her restless life as a dance-hall girl in the Yukon, as a gambling house owner in Peking and other colorful callings, was one such. Despairing that she might never break free of the social constraints of San Francisco, she set off for Alaska at the turn of the century.
“I ran away,” she later recalled. “I hurried more than if lions had chased me. Without telling him. Without telling my mother or father.” Never one to mince words, Parrish describes the social climate in San Francisco at the time as one where “you got married, were an old maid, or went to hell. Take your pick.”
Parrish later claimed to have circled the globe no fewer than 16 times. The traveler’s life seems to have agreed with her. She died in good health at the age of 98.
Travel writing demonstrates not only women’s literary skills, but their determination to overcome obstacles in the face of stiff opposition from society and the closed shop of the genre. Some of these obstacles must have seemed almost insurmountable at the time. In the world of Arabian travel and scholarship, for example, women suffered an obvious disadvantage in terms of image. Most found it impossible to compete with the likes of T.E. Lawrence or Wilfred Thesiger, accomplished Arabists in the habit of being photographed in tribal garb, the flowing robes and turbans beloved of the publishers, press and public of the day. Few European or American women travelers, dressed in native attire, could rival the allure of a female Berber, eyes smoldering inside rings of dark kohl, or the appeal of a feisty, barefoot Egyptian fellahin, slinking across mud floors in body-clinging black silks.
If women’s travel writing displays a wealth of creative ingenuity, it also conceals a world of covert motives. Unknown to much of 18th- and 19th-century Western society was the fact that many women writers, the ones we stereotypically picture as whale-bone-corseted models of rectitude, intimidating heathens into reciting the Lord’s Prayer, were often closet sexual adventurists, whose libidos were as strong as their personalities and physical constitutions.
Margaret Fountaine, who recorded a series of love affairs and flirtations in diaries begun at the age of 17, seems to have feared the derision of the snooty, avowedly racist European expatriate communities in the countries in which she traveled — Africa, Asia, Australia and elsewhere — in search of butterflies. The butterflies were the pretense, the hope of amorous encounters the real motive. Taking up with an Arab companion in Damascus, a relationship that was to continue until the man’s death in 1929, Fountaine left instructions just before she died that her journals were not to be read until April 15, 1978, a century after she began them.
In our own time, women travel writers are firmly back on the road, this time without the entourage of porters, canvas baths and bone-china tea sets that were standard equipment for many Victorian lady travelers. Such luxurious liabilities have been replaced by lighter and more portable equipment, the symbols of independence: rucksacks, camera bags and bicycle panniers.
Although women’s travel writing is perhaps in danger of becoming a commodity, a genre lending itself too conveniently to slick packaging and marketing, the way women perceive the world and describe their journeys suggests that the form will continue to evolve and change. Many women readers, in fact, find that the travel experiences of male writers seldom correspond with their own. Although there are many notable exceptions, men tend to describe the external environments they pass through, with less consideration for the effect the journey is having on their own interior lives. The recognition by women of a parallel landscape, a corresponding inner consciousness that transforms as the journey unfolds, is one of the features that set their contributions to travel writing apart. Lawrence Durrell once described Freya Stark, that quintessential woman traveler and embodiment of the spirit of inquiry, as an introspective soul who, “as she covers the ground outwardly, . . . advances inwardly.” Today’s best woman writers tread in the footsteps of such forebears.