Wild Women And Their Amazing Adventures over Land, Sea and Air, Mariella Frostrup (ed), 523 pp, £25, Head of Zeus, ISBN: 978-1788540018
Lepers, wild horses, angry elephants, black lambs and peach blossom, a New Zealand snowstorm, the dwellings (yurts) of Mongol nomads, siestas interrupted by children and goats, the island of Iona as a monastic centre, pastel-painted Ottoman houses, a ghostly castle set upon a mound, a Turkoman serai on the edge of the Steppes, the experience of being trundled about in a wheelbarrow by the side of an Icelandic geyser … these are among the sights, reflections and events in store for all the intrepid women who turn their backs on comfort and security and set off for unknown territories and sensational adventures. “Keep moving! Steam, or Gas, or Stage / Hold, cabin, steerage, hencoop’s cage,” Coleridge advised in 1824, “For move you must! ’Tis now the rage, / The law and fashion of the age.”
Actually, what the poet had in mind was an embryo form of tourism, not the drive to go it alone which animated early, resourceful, middle class women in the grip of a vehement wanderlust. But both forms of voyaging cater to the impulse to disrupt the routines of home and get taken out of oneself. As far as women were concerned, there were, in the past, many shackles to be evaded, wills to assert and social expectations to confound. Before the twentieth century, women abroad on their own or with local guides could be viewed as a manifestation of a feminist imperative, and congratulated or mildly derided for putting their best foot forward. It is hard, indeed, to repress a soupçon of mockery at the thought of all of them striding forth in their good thick skirts, alpenstock in hand, “hopping” into a racing car in the 1920s and scooting across seventy-five countries, or sailing up the Amazon on a barge with two nervous horses.
The band of wild women assembled by Mariella Frostrup ranges between Lady Hester Stanhope (writing in 1812) and travellers of the present century, such as Sara Wheeler (2011) and Cheryl Strayed (2012). Strayed, author of Wild, has strayed on purpose onto the wild Pacific Coast Trail in North America, and deserves credit not only for staunchness but for feasting on huckleberries and blueberries along the way and leaving passing deer and rabbits alone. Other travellers gladly take on the role of hunters. Gretel Erlich (2001), for example, assists at the slaughter of polar bears in Greenland; and her list of the clothes she is wearing reads like a catalogue of cruelty: sealskin mittens, polar bear pants, Arctic hare lining, dog-hair ruff. It requires a particular kind of phlegm to stomach all this.
It also requires a rather unusual disposition to embark on a journey filled with plentiful perils, or precipitate oneself into utterly alien surroundings. Not everyone, I imagine, would jump at the chance to be writer-in-residence at the South Pole, or allow herself to become nearly dead from fever, ticks and hunger in a ruined ancient Mayan city in Mexico. Many people would baulk at the prospect of encounters with small snakes, ill-intentioned aborigines or a wagon-load of Congolese soldiers in search of diversion. Constant exposure to thrilling or unnerving circumstances might leave one drained of energy ‑ or, on the other hand, imbued with what the novelist Diane Johnson called “natural opium” (the title of her 1993 collection of travelling tales).
The travellers we know about are all equipped with literary as well as survival skills. Writing about it is half the point of going to it. It’s not enough to savour the strangeness of foreign landscapes and customs: you have to convey it too. Some are better at this than others. Some accounts, such as Edith Wharton’s Moroccan memoirs (1919), are saturated with atmosphere: “A long court enclosed in pale-green trellis-work … the fresh gloom of a cypress garden … jasmine tunnels bordered with running water … arcaded apartments faced with tiles and stucco-work…”. Mildred Cable, too, in The Gobi Desert (1942), shows herself to be wonderfully responsive to an eerie stillness in the dead of night while she travels with a convoy of carts along an ancient trade route. “I found a breach in the wall, and walking through it saw in the bright moonlight an old street with ruined buildings, and the remains of what had once been human homes. It was a city of the dead …” Others have a more overtly sociological (“The government allowed missionaries to rule many of these reserves and to confine and control the people”) or didactic purpose: “There is a considerable iron manufactory at Laurvig …” Some are bubbling over with high spirits, like Juanita Harrison, whose Great, Wide, Beautiful World (1936) discloses something pleasurable or something noteworthy at every turn: “I had a delightful trip from Naples on the beautiful steamer to Genor” (sic). Harrison’s orthographical eccentricities ‑ of which there are many ‑ contribute to her off-beat charm ‑ and her contribution to Wild Women is one of those in which the emphasis falls on personality rather than detached observation.
Isabelle Eberhardt (The Passionate Nomad, 1900-03) is another whose idiom is extravagantly introspective: “Oh, to lie upon the rugs of some silent mosque … listen to Islam’s song for ever!” Her heartfelt, impressionistic jottings are full of deep gardens, the ancient hustle and bustle of the Arab quarter, the muezzin’s voice, white sandy streets and half-ruined houses …. If her sense of “bliss” is disturbed by shortness of cash, the lack should not surprise her since she’d thrown all her money out the window in a characteristically impulsive gesture. Longing to embrace “an Arab lifestyle”, about to change her own “lifestyle”, Eberhardt’s writing prompts the question: is this the earliest use of what is now a commonplace term?
Some travel commentators are not averse to triteness: “Never shall I forget the magnificent scene which met my eyes” etc. Some do not subscribe, avant la lettre, to the present-day concept of political correctness. “I always have an inclination to laugh when I look at the Japanese men in their native dress.” Flora Tristan, writing in 1840, takes a stern line about the average Englishman: “With his inferiors he is brutal, insolent, harsh, cruel.” Is this a bit harsh and cruel? Some right-minded observers, on the other hand, show pity for pack-mules or are outraged by the persecution of Indians. One has acquired a dog in the Arabian Desert, one laments the loss of her good Dayella pyjamas, and another is invited for a cup of tea by a Bajaura madman. Those who adopt a masculine disguise (a common resort) are apt to be propositioned by homosexuals or pressed to marry the daughter of a local family. Contretemps and adventures abound, some described with a Girl’s Own Paper alacrity, others more soberly assessed or grimly endured. Some regions lend themselves to a highly-coloured approach on the part of the travel writer, while others repel headiness or frivolity. If the Antarctic, for example, seems to bring on an outbreak of philosophical meditation ‑ well, the traveller has no other resource perhaps in an area devoid of indigenous inhabitants with a distinctive “lifestyle” to investigate.
The zigzag momentum, between continents and countries, and between far distant eras, has a disorientating effect. The shifts in atmosphere and tone do not help. One minute you’re in “the land of the Pharaohs”, the next on a plateau up the Cairngorms. There is little rhyme or reason to the structure of this book. It is not chronologically or altogether geographically arranged. An attempt has been made, it’s true, to impose order on the excerpts by covering each continent in turn, in an alphabetical sequence (Africa, Antarctica … ). But the editor does not stick to her own overall scheme. Not only does she whizz from one country to another and back again but she seems to think Afghanistan is in Australia and Mexico in North America. (I suppose she can just about get away with placing Istanbul in Europe, even though Turkey is 95 per cent Asian.) She also gives the impression that she has opened her primary texts and selected the first passages that come to hand. Some excerpts, like Lois Pryce’s (2008), end without letting us know the outcome of a sticky situation. Some do not come into the category of travel literature at all ‑ what, for example, has Beryl Markham’s childhood encounter in Kenya with a not entirely domesticated lion (1942) to do with travelling? She doesn’t go anywhere. Then Annie Dillard (1982) has a good deal to say on the subject of Darwinism ‑ another prolonged side-issue, interesting but not entirely pertinent.
Some of those among Mariella Frostrup’s fifty contributors have strangely appropriate surnames: Fairweather, Wanderwell, Bird, Hill. A couple may cause confusion for the reader trying to digest the abundance of assorted far-flung riches: is “Byl” a misprint of “Bly”? (Both are included.) Many of the great female travel writers are here (alongside the lesser-known), from Gertrude Bell to Jan Morris and Dervla Murphy. There is one inexplicable and unexplained absence though: Freya Stark is mentioned in passing in the introduction, but does not feature in the book. What about her Baghdad Sketches, you might ask, her excursions up the Himalayas on a pony? To miss these is a deprivation.
Wild Women is not an unprecedented undertaking. Others have put together excerpts from travel literature by women (Unsuitable for Ladies, The Virago Book of Women Travellers, etc, etc) with more or less verve. But it contains a lot to rivet the attention, if taken piecemeal. Skiing across Antarctica, being overtaken by elation in the Persian uplands, peeing into the Amazon while perched precariously on the edge of a boat … these make an impact, willy nilly. Brave, resolute, enterprising, foolhardy, oblivious to discomforts: Frostrup’s peripatetic women seem driven by an inner compulsion to see sights and experience wonders, not easily explicable to the stay-at-home reader. George Crabbe, in sardonic mode, puts his finger on the thing that keeps most of us, most of the time, unadventurously in situ: “Do tell me something of the miseries felt, / In climes where travellers freeze, or where they melt.” Plenty of freezing and melting goes on in this anthology, and at least one bad end occurs as a consequence of incautious wayfaring-fever. A biographical note informs us that the “Passionate Nomad” Isabelle Eberhardt lost her life by drowning, at twenty-seven, “in a freak desert flood”.
Patricia Craig is an author and critic. Her books include A Twisted Root: Ancestral Entanglements in Ireland.