Off the Beaten Track: Three Centuries of Women Travellers a book written by travel writer and Guardian columnist Dea Birkett, accompanies the exhibition of the same name at the National Portrait Gallery, London. Dea Birkett was talking with Austin Williams (Director, Future Cities Project) at Stanford’s Bookshop, Covent Garden.
The exhibition charts pioneering travelers from 1660 to 1960 in portraits and through the souvenirs they brought back with them. Only a handful of these women are generally known. Amongst them are the anthropologist Mary Douglas and Agatha Christie, not only writing her detective fiction but working with her husband on excavations. Marie Stopes, famous for her pioneering birth control work, spent time studying coal and fossil plants on an Island off Japan. But most are anything but household names, a testament to their lowly status compared with that of men. Though many of those featured in the book and exhibition were clearly privileged, they tended to travel out of necessity – for financial reasons, on doctor’s orders, or as a means of escape from a relationship or the constraints of domesticity.
But perhaps something else took hold, a curiosity that sustained their interest and continues today. Birkett described how she loves the sensation of movement and the feeling of going somewhere. She understands the restlessness of these women and the sense that ‘arrival is almost a disappointment’. Perhaps the author had in mind Amy Johnson, unusual in so far as her interest began and ended in the cockpit of her airplane, beating the distance world record in 1930 before her untimely death in another pioneering flight. But all were undeniably extraordinary women. Many, often unmarried, were frowned upon. Some were lucky enough to be accepted as ‘honorary males’.
These women endured much greater physical discomfort than we do today. They were sometimes sent to far off countries to recuperate from debilitating illnesses. For us, leaving the country supposedly brings with it endless perils to our health, from the air rage, 9/11 groupies and vein trouble associated with the flight to the risks wherever we are foolish enough to venture. But today’s explorers make a ‘show of risk’, Birkett said, when they are doing little more than mimicking the pioneers of the past. She thinks the rest of us live out our fantasies through them. Perhaps there is something in this. Since the relatively recent boom in world travel with ever-cheaper package holidays and economy flights available to more and more, most of us to travel ‘with a small ‘t”, as she put it.
The Victorian period dominates the exhibition, providing a suitably stern rebuke to our meek times. Isabella Bird, considered an ‘invalid’ at home, developed photographs while hauled by opium-fueled boatman on the Yangtze River. Bird is an imposing figure, pictured in austere Victorian garb outside wrought iron gates. Similarly a poignant photograph of Margaret Stevenson, mother of novelist Robert Louis, looks as majestic as the ‘Empress of India’ herself, on an informal visit to her fatally tubercular son in Samoa. There is also Mary Kingsley – the rather spooky voodoo-like power figure (or ‘Nkisi’) collected on her trip to the Congo in the 1890s is punctured with nails and blades that were thought to ‘activate’ it. Her canoe apparently was prone to overturning in crocodile infested waters, and a only ‘good thick skirt’ saved her after an unfortunate fall into a pit of stakes.
But despite her exploits and hardy nature she insisted ‘no woman equals a really great man’. Gertrude Bell, alongside Laurence of Arabia, traced the line in the sand that led to the formation of ill-fated Iraq. However, her more than womanly deeds abroad didn’t stop Bell opposing the extension of the franchise at home. The first woman to visit Timbuktu, Dorothy Mills, ‘remained elegant throughout’. But Florence Dixie, war correspondent on the Zulu War in 1879 promoted sexual equality at home. Barbara Bodichon was a keen advocate of women’s rights and was to found Girton, Cambridge’s first college for women. And Clare Sheridan, also ahead of her times, caused her cousin Winston Churchill much embarrassment with her advocacy of free love and adoring sculptures of Lenin and Trotsky.
Attitudes to slavery, and even on occasions aspects of empire, were rather more hostile. Harriet Martineau spoke out against slavery in a tour of America, as did the author of anti-slavery novel ‘Oroonoko’ (1688), Aphra Bean, and Fanny Trollope, mother of novelist Anthony. Fanny Kemble was to divorce her rich American husband when she discovered his vast wealth a consequence of his involvement in the slave trade. Flora Shaw, Colonial Editor at The Times, and responsible for the naming of Nigeria where she was to live with her husband the first Governor General is the exception, described as a ‘firm believer in the benefits of the British Empire’. In 1836, Emily Eden abroad with her brother, India’s Governor General, was clearly more troubled, declaring ‘We horrid English have … spoilt it all’.
Eden’s outburst has a contemporary ring. The ecological footprint of the boot of the humble backpacker is often cited as taking a step too far even by those intent on minimizing their impact on virgin soils. The pioneering spirit itself is implicated in the destruction of bio- and cultural-diversity alike. As if to illustrate this, as one contributor from the invited audience saw it, travel and exploration are as much a ‘subset of trade’ as they are personal journeys into the unknown. Consequently, today’s trekkers and tourists are arguably required to lug an altogether weightier baggage around with them than their forbears despite what Birkett rightly described as their comparatively luxurious starting points.
Travel doesn’t need to be angst-ridden or have a higher purpose, she said. Some of us enjoy going away and there are others who feel compelled to go beyond the experience and somehow document it. Many of the women described did just this, sustaining their travels through painting, photography, writing, or were otherwise driven by a desire to know – doing archaeological digs, embarking on scientific studies – or else keeping detailed diaries for personal consumption back home. But these were unusually driven individuals with stories to tell of their exploits. The point is, said Birkett, we shouldn’t feel obliged by ‘morally loaded’ travel writing to go beyond the purely recreational.
But despite this defence of travel as something other than a guilt trip she was far more ambivalent towards the women themselves. They were actually cowards – the brave ones stayed at home, she said. In the invited audience, Claire Fox of the Institute of Ideas, though sympathetic to Birkett’s criticism of their allegedly indulgent escapism (a view not evident I have to say in either the book or the exhibition itself), was nonetheless inclined to embrace the ‘romantic’ adventures into the unknown that they have come to embody. These women were going beyond themselves. Today’s travelers, in contrast, are typically self-indulgent with far narrower horizons than those that went before them, she said.
Birkett conceded there had been a narcissistic turn. Western travelers increasingly exhibit ‘deep self hatred’ and yet, as she had the earlier insight to note, think indigenous cultures are so feeble that they can’t cope with our presence. What is regarded as entirely positive and rather cosmopolitan over here is seen as wholly destructive and something to be stopped when it’s over there. ‘They’ are much more resilient than we give them credit for, she insisted. But what about us?
I passed on the opportunity to dress up like an Arab boy riding in the Syrian Desert; and refused to try on a corset whilst learning to say ‘hello’ in the languages of the countries visited. I wasn’t convinced that by rearranging a broken piece of imitation pottery I would somehow feel like Kathleen Kenyon, credited with rewriting the history of Palestine through her excavations in Jericho. Yet, irritating as the obligatory and infantilising ‘activity bays’ were, more striking was the continuity with the child playing in a section where we/they were invited to assemble building blocks in the shape of a temple, mosque or church. Though not explicit – perhaps for fear of excluding the inner-child in us gallery goers – this was presumably to keep the kids quiet whilst providing them with an appropriately multi-faith grounding in architecture.
Freya Stark’s camera, passport and notebook presented in a glass case were far more engaging, and they just sat there. Stark was quite a woman, still traveling at 90 years of age, saying ‘to awake quite alone in a strange town is one of the pleasantest sensations in the world’. And this is the question I was left with after listening to Birkett and wondering around the National Portrait Gallery Exhibition. What did these women have in common? Were they really ever fellow travelers? The format of the book and the layout of the exhibition suggested not. Chronology and geography were, I think, adopted by default. For all their similarities they lived very different lives.
Indeed, one might simply conclude that the personal ain’t political and leave it at that. Certainly, however progressive or enlightened some may have been or appeared to be, in the end they were still very much creatures of their time. But this is not necessarily to say this was a bad thing. These women’s endeavours are, and almost without exception – if you put the politics aside – inspiring. They make you wonder what exactly has gone so wrong that their sheer determination to find things out, to dare to immerse themselves in the entirely foreign now seems so problematic in spite of the air miles we routinely tot up today. Despite their very individual and gutsy, extraordinary journeys they were to a greater or lesser degree – and gender aside – going with the grain of the prevailing ideas of their times. ‘Progress’ wasn’t tainted in the same way as it is now – (indeed, the scare quotes are very much of our own making). These women weren’t obliged to find any significance in their travels beyond their own curiosity. And yet evidently found more because of it.
National Portrait Gallery till 31 October 2004