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Off the Beaten Track: Three Centuries of Women Travellers

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Off the Beaten Track
Whose Book Is It Anyway?
Museums Journal, September 2004

When travel journalist Dea Birkett was invited to write an exhibition book she became mired in questions of control.

IT SEEMED LIKE A GOOD IDEA. THE National Portrait Gallery (NPG) asked if I’d write a book to accompany its exhibition Off the Beaten Track: Three Centuries of Women Travellers. Of course, I was suspicious at first. Writers can be sniffy, and I wanted to be assured that the word ‘catalogue’ wasn’t creeping into the conversation. The NPG editor was reassuring; this would definitely not be a catalogue but a ‘standalone book’. It would, she said, be sold into shops and still be stocked on their shelves long after the exhibition closed. It seemed like a very good idea.

I’d been approached because of my earlier writing in the same area; my very first book, Spinsters Abroad, was about Victorian lady explorers. Writers are very territorial, and travel writers particularly so. We like to build boundaries around our particular area of interest and expertise, and woe betide any other writer who dares trespass there. There are many tales of rival authors coming near to blows — biographers who happened to have picked the same subject, or travel writers who have ventured to the same far-off land. I have never heard a happy tale of writers collaborating over similar subjects.

There is some of this tension between the author and the curator when writing a book to accompany an exhibition. For the first time, I would have to share the interpretation of these women and their lives with someone else. In every other book I’d written, I’d gathered and moulded the raw material. (For Spinsters Abroad, I’d only included those women who interested me.) And, of course, the title was one that I would choose.

With this book it would be different. It would be called Off the Beaten Track, because that is what the exhibition was called, and I was presented with a list of women who had to be included. It was not definitive, but almost. Because only portraits from the NPG’s collection could be used, I couldn’t just suggest names; for example, I would have liked war correspondent Martha Gellhorn. I could, however, suggest categories of women. So when I noted that there were no missionaries, and that journeys spurred by religious fervour were a strong female tradition, the curator set about searching for someone to fit that bill. She discovered — I’m not sure how — a wonderful photograph of the late Victorian missionary Annie Taylor, dressed as a Tibetan nun, which is now in the exhibition.

Freya Stark - source: National Portrait Gallery
Lady Mary Wortley Montagu
source: Estate of Herbert Oliver

I had to include all the women in the exhibition in my text, but I could also include additional women if I wanted.

Pressure on space, however, made that near impossible. The total word length was under 25,000; apart from a book for children, I’d never written less than 80,000 — the standard book length.

I did, however, want to include a photograph of the unknown traveller Gertrude Benham, who made three trans- African journeys on foot early in the 19th century, clutching a copy of Lorna Doone. I wanted her in there precisely because there was no distinguished NPG portrait of her, just a snap in her pith helmet from Plymouth Museum and Art Gallery. Unknown Benham represented every woman traveller; those in the exhibition were inevitably wealthy or famous enough to have their portrait preserved.

Initially, the gallery wasn’t keen. I sensed I was trespassing into the curator’s domain. While I could determine who was in the text (as long as all the women in the exhibition were included), I couldn’t make additions to the images in the book. It was small battle over whose book it really was. In the end, Benham sneaked in.

For me, Benham served a purpose; an archetype, she could link women spanning centuries. An exhibition can rely on the images and artefacts themselves as a linking theme. But I had to draw out threads between these disparate experiences. Drawing comparisons between Aphra Behn’s 1663 voyage to

Lady Mary Wortley Montagu - source: Estate of Herbert Oliver
Sara Davies
source: Estate of Herbert Oliver

Surinam (where she wrote about the injustices of slavery), and Amy Johnson’s 1930 solo flight to Australia (when she was far more interested in her instruments than the people she hovered above) was a challenge. A book must have argument and purpose, otherwise it can dissolve into a list of colourful anecdotes (or perhaps, even worse, resemble a catalogue!).

I had to devise a way to order this motley tribe of women travellers. The editor had to approve (as for any book), but otherwise it was up to me. The exhibition is arranged geographically. Women of very different times and purpose sit next to each other because they journeyed to the same place. While this works on the walls, I didn’t feel it would work on the page. So I arranged my material according to the way in which women travelled. For example, one chapter is ‘Adventurers’, for the pioneers, and another ‘Companions’ for those who, initially at least, were taken abroad by relatives or friends. In this way, the book didn’t simply mirror the exhibition, but, hopefully, it would take you somewhere new.

Being a writer has few advantages, but independence is one of them. Writing a book to accompany an exhibition inevitably means surrendering some of that autonomy, and it doesn’t come easily. I found it difficult to be told that I had to include at least a few sentences on Penelope Chetwode, wife of poet John Betjeman, for whom I had very little sympathy. How could anyone seriously write a book called Two Middle-Aged Ladies in Andalucia, in which one of the ladies was a donkey? But she was in the exhibition, so she had to be in the book.

While I only managed to sneak in one new image, the text was a more collaborative effort. This was very welcome, as the curator was very knowledgeable on, for example, the Victorian photographer Julia Margaret Cameron. Her additions were an asset. But somewhere in the back of my mind a speck of resentment festered that while the text was up for grabs, the images were a closed shop.

Sara Davies - source: Estate of Herbert Oliver
Freya Stark
source: National Portrait Gallery

So, inevitably, was the exhibition. I was very eager to get involved, offering to lend my magic lantern, as many of the women gave magic lantern talks. I even had a copy of a poster advertising one of their lectures. My ideas were greeted enthusiastically, but somehow none were taken up. The exhibition really wasn’t my business; the book was.

Of course, the gallery was right. I have no idea of the implications of including certain objects in an exhibition. But I wonder now if there were some way I could have made a small contribution. (Interestingly, every interviewer and visitor I’ve spoken to presumes I at least wrote the captions to the portraits, which of course the curator did. While we may make clear distinctions between curator’s and writer’s work, the wider world does not.) In retrospect, I would have enjoyed being able to point to one artefact or portrait and say — that’s the one I chose! It could even be credited as ‘writer’s choice’ (there’s the writer’s ego at work), just as other exhibitions have items chosen by specifically invited outside people.

Despite the self-imposed loneliness, a writer longs to belong. When there was a preview of the exhibition for interested staff, I was not invited. I didn’t see the exhibition until it was opened to the press. This was with the best intentions. The gallery assumed I was far too busy to want to get involved to this degree. One member of staff even asked if I would be able to be there for Off the Beaten Track’s opening night. The mere question stung. ‘But it’s my book launch, too,’ I thought. ‘How couldn’t I be there.’ The attachment an author feels a book cannot be underestimated. Not going to the launch would have been like missing one of my children’s christenings. It’s welcoming a new piece of work into the world.

Of course, this is partly a matter of writer’s pomp and pride. But perhaps these comments unintentionally point to the underlying difficulty of writing books that accompany exhibitions. No one really knows, yet, what these hybrids are supposed to be. Are they really standalone works or commentaries on a series of images? How collaborative should they be? Whose book is it anyway?

I no longer think writing Off the Beaten Track was a good idea. I think it was an excellent idea. I hope it adds to, rather than merely comments upon, the exhibition. And, despite my territorial leanings, the exhibition has inspired and informed my writing. We can only benefit from working together.


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