Great Women Travel Writers: From 1750 to the Present

(to download full text in pdf, see below)


Alba Amoia and Bettina L. Knapp (Eds.)
New York, The Continuum International Publishing Group, 2005, ISBN 0 8264 1683 7

This book is an edited collection of articles profiling twenty-two women noted for their writing and travels. The chapters are stand-alone essays, one for each woman, that probe the pages and paths of these remarkable literary and life journeys. Arranged chronologically, seven to seventeen pages in length, the chapters constitute but a brief introduction to a selection of author-travelers of truly extraordinary imagination, expressiveness, and courage. There are thirteen chapter contributors, of which, all but two are women; book editors Amoia and Knapp contribute three and six chapters respectively. Though disparate in time and space, the entries are united by a biographical approach focusing on the women’s “startling experiences, their sorrows, loves, and hatreds, [and] their visceral and cerebral reactions” to the ever changing landscapes and seascapes they “faced and traversed” (p. 9).

Following an all-too-brief one page book introduction, Amoia’s profile of Princess Ekaterina Romanovna Vorontsova Dashkova (1743 – 1810), however, adeptly sets the book’s agenda. She shows that the meaning of the term “travel writer” of the book’s title extends well beyond typical holiday fare; rather, Dashkova’s writing and travel reflect her concern with people, power, and politics. Indeed, she explicitly avoids descriptions of pastoral scenes and leisurely pursuits because, as she notes, “[b]etter pens than mine have described it all before” (p. 12). Nor is the term “great” in the book’s title used casually. A contemporary and frequent ally of Catherine “the Great” – Dashkova calls herself, tongue in cheek, “Catherine the little” (p. 9) – and her travels were meant for nothing less than to collect political information for the advantage of both “Catherines.” Accordingly, her writing focuses on the people “she met – nobility, statesmen, writers, men of letters, and artists” (p. 13). Dashkova traveled widely in Europe garnering great political power as well as scholarly stature. She was a member of the elite Free Economic Society (p. 19), became the director of the Academy of Sciences, and was founding president of the Russian Academy (p. 25). Thus, a high bar of qualifications is set for inclusion in this compilation.

The majority of the author-travelers included in the book are of European extraction. Four are products of the United States (though one was born in Canada) and three are Asian with one each from India, Japan, and China. They all traveled widely, primarily in Europe and the Greater Middle East Region, but also to far flung places including Tibet, Saharan Oases, the Australian Outback, and the Arctic. Some are rather more well-known figures like Gertrude Bell (1868 – 1926) who played a pivotal role in early 20th century Middle Eastern politics and Freya Stark (1893 – 1993) whose work was so celebrated that she was knighted by Queen Elizabeth. Others are less known. Pandita Ramabai (1858 – 1922), for example, grew up in British controlled India and her work explores the supposed east/west divide between her native India and her experiences in the U.K. and U.S.A. Likewise, the book’s historical sweep is equally grand. It spans nearly 250 years from Dashkova’s days playing an important role in Catherine’s Russian coup d’etat in 1762, to Sharon Spencer’s (1933 – 2002) observations of Cuba in her final diary entries in 2002, where she notes, “For the first time I understand at least a little why Cuban exiles in the U.S. are so furious at being forced to leave Cuba. To them, this must feel like the mythic expulsion from the Garden of Eden” (p. 281). The narratives often explore deep into the inner recesses of the mind and body, like Ana├»s Nin (1903 – 1977) who observed, “We travel, some of us forever, to seek other states, other lives, other souls” (p. 219). They also reach outwardly to confront the struggles and challenges of the physical world. Like Xie Bingying (1906 – 2000) who “carried high the bright red banner of the Women’s Corp, and marched at the head of the line” (p. 243) in 1937 to resist the Japanese occupation of China. And Valentina Vladimirovna Tershkova (b. 1937) who was the first woman to explore the frontiers of outer space as a Soviet Cosmonaut in 1963. Of that experience, she said, “It took me just 89 minutes to orbit the Earth and as I saw the planet from space I realized how small Earth is (p. 289).

As women author-travelers, special opportunities and challenges are evident in their experiences. For example, females traveling in the Middle East had access into the harems and their reports serve to challenge popular male imaginations of those gendered spaces. Of the harem, Princess Cristina Trivulzio di Belgiojoso (1808 – 1871) reports in 1855, it is “a [filthy] place of darkness and confusion, infected, … full of smoke … and foul air” (p. 76). Others wrote anonymously in order to hide their gender. Fanny Lewald (1811 – 1889) started writing at age 30, but only then with her father’s permission and his demand that she publish anonymously (p. 88). Fredika Bremer (1801 – 1865) also found early success by writing anonymously (p. 56). Later, however, she became very well known in Europe and the USA for her voluminous and engaging travelogues. Karen Blixen (1885 – 1962), a.k.a. Isak Dinesen, used the later name to make readers think she was a man (p. 179); she told stories about her experiences of living eighteen years in British East Africa. Isabelle Eberhardt (1877 – 1904) challenged gender roles in the late 19th century in ways that remain contested today. Traveling in Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia, dressed as man, she took the male name of Si Mahmoud Essadi, converted to Islam and was accepted into the Sufi Brotherhood as woman/man (p. 173).

There are omissions from the book that readers might lament: i.e. other qualified author-travelers that might have been included; entries from African, South American, Caribbean, Middle Eastern, and/or Pacific writer-travelers that might have been included; or the fact that the book employs no images, offers no qualifying or biographical data on the contributors (although one identifies himself as the author-writer’s grandson), and has no concluding or summary chapter. But for these “marvelous stories” (p. 9), Amoia and Knapp are to be congratulated for bringing these insightful narratives and scholarly analyses together in one reasonably priced book. The stories are a powerful catalyst for further research into these individuals and on travel and writing in general. Equally, the stories will undoubtedly inspire many people, whether for “travel” or “tourism,” to pack a bag and head out into the world to explore it for themselves.

George F. Roberson, PhD
Denver, Colorado, August 2006

Geography Human Dimensions Research Group
University of Massachusetts – Amherst, USA

word count: 1076

Article available in slightly different form at:

Roberson, G (2008) “Great Women Travel Writers: From 1750 to the Present,” in Tourism Geographies, J Dallen, ed. New York: Routledge, v10, n2, p260-2, May 2008. To download in pdf, click here

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