Spinsters Abroad: Victorian Lady Explorers
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
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. . . .
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
From the Preface to Spinsters Abroad. Victorian Lady Explorers