Around the World

4 Fabulous Female Travel Writers of Days Gone By

Putting pens to paper around the world. Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

With the launch of #gogirlreads, our new Travel Book Club, I thought it would be fitting if, before we started talking about modern writers like Cheryl Strayed and Elizabeth Gilbert, we took a little trip back in time to meet four, fabulous historical female travel writers. No passport required!

1.) Margery Kempe (c. 1373-1438)

“Then the archbishop said to me, ‘I hear bad reports about you; I hear it said that you’re a thoroughly wicked woman.’ And I replied,’ And I hear it said you’re a wicked man, sir. And if you’re as wicked as people say, you will never enter heaven unless you mend your ways…'” — The Book of Margery Kempe, Chapter 52: “Margery addresses the Archbishop of York & company”  

Lady Hester Stanhope. Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

Considered the first English-language autobiography, The Book of Margery Kempe describes the ordinary life of a middle-class medieval English woman.  Margery herself was illiterate, so her memoirs were dictated to and transcribed by a priest that remains unnamed in The Book. Written in chronological order, beginning with her nervous breakdown following the birth of her first child, The Book follows Margery along several spiritual pilgrimages to holy sites in Europe and the Middle East. A proto-feminist text, The Book of Margery Kempe is still vital in our understanding of women’s roles in the Middle Ages.

2.) Lady Hester Stanhope (1776-1839)

“I have nothing to fear… I am the sun, the stars, the pearl, the lion, the light from heaven.” — Memoirs of the Lady Hester Stanhope, Volume 3

When Lady Hester’s uncle died in 1806, he bequeathed her a pension of  £1,200 a year, and with this tidy sum to bankroll her adventures, by 1810 Hester had left England and its upper-crust societal mores for good.  Gibraltar, Constantinople, Malta, Damascus . . . no locale was too exotic for Lady Hester. And by the time she reached Cairo, she had traded her dresses for men’s boots, baggy trousers, a turban, and a sword.  Lady Hester spent the rest of her life in men’s clothing and even began shaving her head and riding her horse astride instead of side-saddle. After several experiences that Lady Hester believed marked her as a sacred queen/prophetess, she withdrew to an abandoned monastery in Djoun, where she spent the rest of her days surrounded by over 30 cats.  Her six volumes of memoirs were published in 1846, many years after her death, by her personal physician, Dr. Charles Meryon.

3.) Elizabeth Cochrane (aka Nellie Bly) (1864-1922)

“It is impossible for you to do it,” was the terrible verdict. “In the first place, you are a woman and would need a protector, and even if it were possible for you to travel alone you would need to carry so much baggage that it would detain you in making rapid changes. Besides you speak nothing but English, so there is no use talking about it; no one but a man can do this.” “Very well,” I said angrily, “Start the man, and I’ll start the same day for some other newspaper and beat him.” — Around the World in Seventy-Two Days and Other Writings

Nellie Bly in California in January 1890. Image courtesy of wikimedia.org.

Nellie Bly in California in January 1890. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

As an investigative journalist for the New York World in the late 1800s, Nellie Bly is perhaps best known for two exceptional ‘stunts:’ her expose on the state of American mental institutions (published first as articles for the paper and then in book form as Ten Days in a Mad House in 1887) and her record-breaking trip around the world in 72 days. Inspired by Jules Verne’s novel, Around the World in Eighty Days, in 1888 Nellie suggested to her New York World editor that she be the one, traveling largely without companion, to turn the fictional trip into reality — taking on a journey by steamship and rail that would total around 25,000 miles. New York World competitor, the newspaper Cosmopolitan, sponsored its own female reporter, Elizabeth Bisland, to travel the opposite way around the world in an attempt to beat Nellie’s time . . . she failed, clocking in at 76 1/2 days.

4.) Vivienne de Watteville (1900-1957)

“The world is full of hundreds of beautiful things we can never possibly have time to discover, and there is no time to be unkind or envious or ungenerous, and no sense in enslaving the mind to the trivialities of the moment. For you can be equal to the greatness of life only by marching with it; not by seeking love but by giving it, not seeking to be understood but learning to understand. And when it is all over, there will be an agony of remorse because one spared the effort and did not make more of that little span of opportunity; and knowing reality at last, who knows but that one will look back with unassuageable regret upon one’s pitiful little faith.” — Speak to the Earth

De Watteville's trusty traveling companion Siki would have looked something like this! Image courtesy of buzzle.com.

De Watteville’s trusty traveling companion Siki would have looked something like this! Image courtesy of buzzle.com.

In 1923 Vivienne and her father Bernard Perceval de Watteville, a Swiss-French naturalist and artist, set off from England for an 18-month safari through Kenya, Uganda, and the Belgian Congo to collect specimens for mounting in the Natural History Museum of Bern, Switzerland. Vivienne, only 23 years old, handled all the taxidermy and first aid duties.  Then, when her father was mauled and killed by a lion he was pursuing through the bush, Vivienne took charge of the remaining time on safari. After she had completed the safari, Vivienne returned to Europe in 1925 and compiled her experiences in her first book, Out of the Blue. Three years later Vivienne returned to Africa, alone but for her armed guard, porters to carry her equipment, and her Irish terrier Siki.  Her second book, Speak to the Earth: Wanderings among Elephants and Mountains, was borne of this experience and is much more spiritual in tone than Out of the Blue. Vivienne’s final book, Seeds that the Wind may bring, published posthumously in 1965, surrounds a 1929 trip to the Dents du Midi in Switzerland and is full of psychological and emotional self-examination.

If these four adventure-loving ladies have whet your appetite for travel writing, join our Travel Book Club! For the next two months we’ll be reading and discussing Kira Salak’s Four Corners.

Ann Santori
Blogger and podcaster
Ann Santori is a B.A. graduate in English Literature and Political Science from Carthage College in Kenosha, WI. She was born and (partially) raised in Chicago, IL before moving to the suburbs and therefore igniting her life-long desire to travel far beyond towns where the only thing open past 9pm is the IHOP.

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