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Serpent in Paradise
Off the Beaten Track: Three Centuries of Women Travellers
Spinsters Abroad: Victorian Lady Explorers
Mary Kingsley: Imperial Adventuress
Jella: From Lagos to Liverpool - A Woman at Sea in a Man's World

Co-edited by Dea Birkett
Amazonian: The Penguin Book of Women’s New Travel Writing

Spinsters Abroad: Victorian Lady Explorers


Spinsters Abroad

‘Adventure,’ wrote Alexandra David-Neel who trekked through the Tibetan Highlands, ‘is the only reason for living.’ Her words read as a feminist slogan. A gallery of strong, independent, wilful women presented themselves to me: Mary Kingsley breaking free from her life nursing a bedridden mother to canoe up the Ogooue rapids: Marianne North at last escaping the responsibility of looking after an increasingly infirm father to ride sedately in a railway carriage through North America: Mary Gaunt choosing to sway in a hammock along the West African coast rather than wither in widowhood and penury in her London bedsit: Ella Christie freed by the tragic circumstances of her parent’s madness and death for the back of a mule in the mountains of Ladakh. What could be more attractive then doing as these women did and daring as these women dared? Breaking free.

The women travellers observed Children in Burma, 1905, looking at Ella Christie, who's behind the camera.
Children in Burma, 1905, looking at Ella Christie, who's behind the camera.

So I went to the landscapes which had given these Victorian women their newfound freedom. Mary Kingsley guided me through West Africa; Isabella Bird sailed me through the Yangtze gorges; Marianne North accompanied me on a railway journey across the United States and Canada.

On all my journeys, I took with me their Victorian eyes and images. I looked for dangerous landscapes, intriguing and untouchable people. I looked, of course, for the thing which all of them, Isabella, Mary and Marianne had also sought – I looked for a new identity away from that place called home. . . .

Spinsters Abroad

Why had I been attracted to the women travellers’ lives? What had allowed them to roam with the freedom of men in lands so very different and distant to their own? Unpalatable answers began to emerge, illfitting to those claimed as feminist heroines. They became increasingly unattractive rolemodels; my admiration for them grew awkward.

But if less admirable, I was also discovering more interesting women. In these troubled and contradictory lives lay more than simple portraits of feminist heroines, but women who both were exploited by and exploitative of the prejudices of their time. My journeys with the women travellers had come to an end. My journey in search of them – the writing of this book – was about to begin.

From the Preface to Spinsters Abroad. Victorian Lady Explorers

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