Resigned to yet another hex on foreign travel, the other week the book group I belong to discussed The Virago Book of Women Travellers
, first published in 1994 and much reprinted during the following decade. Initially, we gave it a muted welcome. We tend to prefer novels into which we can escape into another dimension. This choice suggested a buffet of bitesize snacks that might leave us unsatisfied. However, we went with it and although some of the initial entries didn't immediately enthrall, the more we read the more we enjoyed it.
The book contains over 50 accounts. The earliest was by the aristocratic Lady Mary Wortley Montague, who followed her husband to Constantinople in 1717 – when he was appointed British Ambassador to the Sublime Porte – and sent lively, detailed letters home describing the lives of the Ottoman women she met. She recounts details of her own sumptuous Turkish costume, its layers of embroidered damask, loose sleeves and jewelled waistband. Images show her sporting a turban. She ended up not pitying these women's outwardly constrained lives but, surprisingly, envying the concealing garments that enabled them to conduct secret liaisons about the city without being recognised.
In a hammam in Sophia, she reluctantly revealed her corsets to a group of curious women, which, she claims, 'satisfied them very well, for... they believed I was so locked up in that machine that it was not in my power to open it, which contrivance they attributed to my husband'.
On her return to England, Lady Mary tried to introduce an early form of smallpox inoculation using live smallpox virus, which she had encountered in Istanbul. Her brother had died of smallpox in 1713. She had fallen ill with it but recovered. Unsurprisingly, the medical profession of the time were sceptical and, although she had her own children inoculated, this form of it, also known as variolation, proved not entirely safe and it wasn't until Dr Edward Jenner used a cowpox strain some 70 years later that an effective vaccine was finally developed.
Freya Stark, a noted Arabist, travelled widely in the Middle and Far East, and worked for the Ministry of Information in London. Very much the grande dame, nothing fazed her. Neither overawed nor intimidated by uppity officials or potentates, she stood her ground with dignity to ward off potential conflicts. The American author, Edith Wharton, travelled to Morocco for a month during WW1 as a guest of the French Resident General Lyautey. She was assigned a car and chauffeur for her travels, and in Marrakesh was accommodated in the harem quarter of the Bahia Palace, built by the Grand Vizier of the Sultan Moulay-El-Hassan in the late 19th century.
These ladies were well-heeled and well-connected. They took few risks. Other women travellers faced greater challenges, often as an antidote to years of looking after aging and invalid parents. Mary Kingsley went in search of 'fish and fetishes' among the tribal communities of West Africa. She recounts on one occasion fending off an eight-foot-long crocodile which gripped her dugout canoe in its teeth, and on another, wading through a mangrove swamp, up to her chin in water, emerging with 'a frill' of leeches round her neck like an astrakhan collar. What would horrify most of us, she treats in retrospect with humour. A trained nurse, she was toughly pragmatic and survived the swamps. Sadly, she lost her life at the age of 38 to typhus, caught while nursing in South Africa during the second Boer War.
Isabella Bird was prescribed a sea voyage after her parents died and went to the Rocky Mountains. There, while temperatures plummeted below zero, surrounded by a landscape of snow and ice, she climbed the precipitous sides of Long's Peak with the gentlemanly support of her guide, Mr Nugent, known as 'Rocky Mountain Jim'. She doesn't disguise her fears or sense of inadequacy. He read poetry, and even wrote some, but mixed with a wild crowd and she was distressed to learn of his death the following year, shot by an associate accidentally or by design.
Afterwards, she continued to travel widely and even married, although her husband died five years later. She went to India and set up a hospital in his memory in Kashmir. Back home, she became something of a celebrity, in 1890 becoming the first female Honorary Fellow of the Royal Scottish Geographical Society and two years later the first woman allowed to join the Royal Geographical Society. Falling ill after a trip to Morocco in 1904, she died in Edinburgh and is buried in the Dean Cemetery there.
Later travellers ran different risks. Christina Dodwell and a friend paddled a dugout canoe from Bangui on the Oubangui River down the Congo to Brazzaville, as much by night as by day, having a close brush with a snake with a rat in its mouth and drawn for miles past targeted camping grounds by the irresistible current. Dervla Murphy muddled through mountains of rural Madagascar, barely eating, sleeping rough, her 14-year-old daughter in tow. Back home, social services would have had something to say about that, had they known. Helen Winternitz lived for two years researching lives in a Palestinian village and, aside from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, found herself one day the target of a hail of stones, having unwittingly driven into the midst of a more local civil war.
They were a formidable lot, these women. It's quite humbling to read about them all. The most adventurous thing I ever did was to drive solo from Edinburgh to Fes in Morocco in a small Fiat Panda in the mid-1980s, while my mother thought I had lost any sense I was born with. I still remember the dark silhouette of the upturned hull of the ill-fated Herald of Free Enterprise we ferry passengers witnessed in silence as our boat approached Zeebrugge harbour in the cloudy morning light.
Subsequently, my husband and I have often completed variations of the same long journey in more commodious cars. Each trip was a new adventure with some interesting encounters on the way. However, with a warning amber light and another virus variant en marche, we are stuck here for now.
Gillean Somerville-Arjat is a writer and critic based in Edinburgh