Perhaps because this is my final year at Winona State, I am starting to dream about traveling the world and wondering what I might see and learn. So, I guess it isn’t surprising then that I have been reading a lot of stories and journals about travel in days gone by and imagining what it would be like to be a traveling companion to some of those early explorers. How would I have reacted to the discomforts and dangers of travel in those days? What sense might I have made of people and places so different from the world I know? All I can do is travel the world in my imagination but that shall suffice for today. I will share some of the stories of women travelers who, more intrepid than most of us then or now, set out to explore the world at a time few women dared to travel so boldly, much less set down in letters and published accounts the story of their travels in places that were still remote and mysterious parts of the world to their friends and family back home.
My latest round of reading started with a delightful anthology of writing by women travelers entitled Unsuitable for Ladies. To capture the flavor of this set of excerpts from travel writing across several centuries, I shall simply quote Jane Robinson, the compiler of this collection. “In the distance I can see rather a bazaar collection of women, quite a few in dun-colored Victorian garb with a variety of bonnets, sola topis, and veils; one or two in the heavy habits of the Middle Ages (or even earlier) and several elaborately upholstered in glancing satin finery…and the noise, although muffled by the distance, is considerable.” In this wonderful book, I ranged across the globe, savoring the stories and trials and tribulations of women who were going where few women in their day would have dared to tread.
When I have time, I follow up and read some of the larger texts from which the Unsuitable for Ladies excerpts were derived. My absolute favorite is Travels in West Africa by Mary H. Kingsley. The book chronicles the journey of Miss Kingsley (to use the language of her time) in 1893 when she set off for West Africa to collect botanical specimens, unaccompanied by anyone except her jungle guides. Along the way she fought off crocodiles with a canoe paddle, hit a leopard over the head with a pot, and fell into an elephant trap and was saved by her many petticoats from being impaled on the sharp sticks below.
Mary Kingsley’s travels may be a bit too adventurous for me, but I can imagine sitting with Mary in front of a warm fire back in her parlor in England and hearing the tales. Sabina Murray, in her recent book Tales of the New World, did better than that. She took the story of Mary Kingsley and made a fictional account of her life that draws on Travels in West Africa but also on the rich story of the Kingsley family itself. Mary Kingsley was the daughter of George Kingsley, a physician and himself a travel writer. No doubt, her own love of adventure was sparked by her access to her father’s extensive collection of travel literature. Her uncle was Charles Kingsley, author among other things of a then-popular children’s book, Water Babies.Confined to the duties of a caregiver for her often ill family members, Mary Kingsley finally broke loose and followed her dream. Sabina Murray’s tale fills in imaginatively the details of that dream.
My final choice of traveling companions at the moment would be Dorothy Woodruff and Rosamond Underwood, two Smith College graduates and dear friends, who traveled to Elkhead, Colo., in 1916 to teach the children of homesteaders in that valley in a one-room school house. Nothing Daunted: The Unexpected Education of Two Society Girls in the West (published in 2011) is a wonderful recounting of the stories of these two women, one of whom, Dorothy, was the grandmother of the author, Dorothy Wickenden. A lot happened to both young women in that year. They rode to work on horseback, and contended with unruly students who often had to ski to school in the harsh winter on barrel staves for skis. Their close friend, Bob Perry, was kidnapped by two Greek miners, a story that made the papers all over the country. How in the world did two young women, brought up in cosseted circumstances in a prosperous family in New York, manage all this? Read the book and find out.
There is much to learn from the stories of men and women who were willing to leave the familiar and the comfortable and explore a new part of the world and meet new people whose lives and experiences could open up a very different way of seeing the world. I would dearly love to have met these women and to have heard their stories firsthand. That not being possible, reading their own work and accounts of their journeys will simply have to do.