Not So Fragile After All

Isabella Lucy Bird (1831-1904)

Were Victorian women really as fragile as depicted? Take the case of Isabella Lucy Bird, who is described in her Wikipedia entry as follows:

From early childhood Bird was frail, suffering from a spinal complaint, nervous headaches, and insomnia. The doctor recommended an open-air life, and consequently, Bird learned to ride in infancy, and later to row. Her only education came from her parents: her father was a keen botanist who instructed Bird in flora, and her mother taught her daughters an eclectic mix of subjects. Bird became an avid reader. However, her “bright intelligence, [and] an extreme curiosity as to the world outside, made it impossible for her brain and her nature generally to be narrowed and stiffened by the strictly evangelical atmosphere of her childhood.”

So what did this proper lady do for kicks? She traveled around the world for several decades, writing a series of creditable travel classics. I am currently reading Six Months in the Sandwich Islands, amongst the Palm Groves, Coral Reefs and Volcanoes (1874), which described her seven-month stay in the Hawaiian Archipelago.

Other books and articles describe her travels to Australia, the American West, Japan, Malaya, Greece, Persia, Tibet, China, Korea, and Morocco.

Isabella Bird was by no means the only woman solo traveler of her time. There was also Lady Florence Dixie (1855-1905), who wrote an excellent book about Patagonia; Frances Trollope (1779-1863), mother of novelist Anthony Trollope, who wrote of her travels in the United States; and Lady Hester Stanhope (1776-1839), who traveled extensively in the Middle East.

Dame Freya Stark (1893-1993)

Somewhat later, there was Dame Freya Stark, who traveled by herself among the Arabs and lived to the ripe old age of a hundred. I have read several of her books, which are uniformly excellent.

I can only look upon these women travelers with wonder and admiration.

Women of Adventure

Dame Freya Madeline Stark (1893-1993)

Some of the world’s most intrepid travelers were women. I am thinking particularly of Freya Stark, who tromped all through the Middle East and Afghanistan, in the processing writing a couple dozen excellent books, and died at the ripe age of 100. In her book Baghdad Sketches (1937), she wrote:

To awaken quite alone in a strange town is one of the pleasantest sensations in the world. You are surrounded by adventure. You have no idea of what is in store for you, but you will, if you are wise and know the art of travel, let yourself go on the stream of the unknown and accept whatever comes in the spirit in which the gods may offer it. For this reason your customary thoughts, all except the rarest of your friends, even most of your luggage – everything, in fact, which belongs to your everyday life, is merely a hindrance. The tourist travels in his own atmosphere like a snail in his shell and stands, as it were, on his own perambulating doorstep to look at the continents of the world. But if you discard all this, and sally forth with a leisurely and blank mind, there is no knowing what may not happen to you.

In her book Valleys of the Assassins (1934), she added:

To awaken quite alone in a strange town is one of the pleasantest sensations in the world. You are surrounded by adventure. You have no idea of what is in store for you, but you will, if you are wise and know the art of travel, let yourself go on the stream of the unknown and accept whatever comes in the spirit in which the gods may offer it. For this reason your customary thoughts, all except the rarest of your friends, even most of your luggage – everything, in fact, which belongs to your everyday life, is merely a hindrance. The tourist travels in his own atmosphere like a snail in his shell and stands, as it were, on his own perambulating doorstep to look at the continents of the world. But if you discard all this, and sally forth with a leisurely and blank mind, there is no knowing what may not happen to you.

This woman makes Ernest Hemingway look like a wussy boy in short pants.

And Freya Stark is not the only woman traveler who dared to go solo into the uncharted areas of the earth. There was also Isabella L. Bird (1831-1904), who traveled extensively in Asia, and Mary Kingsley (1862-1900), whose destination was West Africa. In fact, Wikipedia compiled a list of female explorers which sets one to thinking. You can find it here.