Early Women Travel Writers

Lady Mary Wortley Montagu

Nowadays we are totally familiar with the image of lone female travellers, each night there are overseas reporters from the BBC and CNN, travel correspondents in exotic locations and game show hosts traipsing through thick jungles. However, even 100 years ago the sight of a lone female traveller in foreign climes raised eyebrows. Despite this, there were still adventurous women prepared to take on a challenge and discover the world for themselves.

Previously many of the early female travel writers were often nuns, aristocrats or diplomats wives that kept their husbands company on foreign missions. By the nineteenth century it became more common to find women with their own fortunes, these pioneers were intent on seeking strange lands and exotic countries without accompaniment and writing about their discoveries or publishing journals along the way.

One of the earliest recorded female travellers was the pilgrim Margery Kempe (1373 – 1438) whose works were only uncovered in the 1930’s and tell of her travels to Rome, Spain and Jerusalem. Another early author who changed the travel writer genre was Lady Mary Wortley Montagu (1689 – 1762). Her “Turkish Embassy Letters” whilst accompanying her husband, the Ambassador in Constantinople, gave an enlightening first hand account of the private lives of women in Islamic society.

French adventurer, Mary Catherine le Jumel de Barneville, Countess d’Aulnoy (1650 – 1705), she spent 20 years travelling through Spain and England writing fairy tales which were based around her travels. While Celia Finnes (1662 – 1741) in her notes “Through England on a side-saddle” describes her many journeys on horseback through England and Scotland accompanied by two servants.

Mariana Starke (1761 – 1838) redefined travel writing and is credited with being the creator of the first true European travel guide in 1820 covering France and Italy. Previous books had dwelt principally on art and architecture, whereas Starke’s book offered advice on passports, hotels, and food prices, it also included an exclamation mark rating system too.

Marianne North

Colour was added to the journals of Marianne North (1830 – 1890), who after her father died in 1869 decided that as a woman of independent means she would travel the continents. Between 1871 and 1885 she went all over the world producing beautifully rich paintings and articles of native plants flowers and fruits. North’s painting trips took her to, amongst other places, Canada, Brazil, Japan, South Africa, Australia, New Zealand and the Seychelles. Her vast collection of paintings was donated to Kew Botanical Gardens, where they can still be seen today, exhibited in a specially constructed gallery.

Lady Blessington

Letter and article travel writing were also a popular pursuit during the eighteenth century and travellers such as Lady Marguerite Blessington (1789 – 1849), Mary Wollstonecraft (1759 – 1797) and Lady Anna Riggs Miller (1741 – 1781) all had accounts of their European journeys published in book form. Elizabeth Craven – Turkey 1750 – 1828 noted for her exotic lifestyle and direct, no nonsense, editorials added to the travel writer’s armoury with her 1789 travelogue “A Journey Through the Crimea to Constantinople.”

The nineteenth century saw a number of independent, intrepid women take off and record their adventures, such as Isabella Bird’s (1831 – 1904) worldwide exploits and May Crommelin’s (1850 – 1930) travel stories in Idler Magazine about her trips in the Andes, the Caribbean and North Africa. Swiss adventurer, Isabelle Eberhardt (1877 – 1904), converted to Islam and travelled, posing as a man around Tunisia and Algeria. Her exploits were published posthumously after her untimely death at the age of 27 in a flash flood in Algeria.

Nellie Bly

Elizabeth Cochrane aka Nellie Bly (1864 – 1922) was an investigative journalist with the New York World Newspaper. She became the first person to travel around the world in less than 80 days, while re-enacting Jules Verne’s famous novel, meeting the author on route. Armed with one set of clothes, a small travel bag, £200 and a quantity of gold she set off from New York in November 1888 arriving back some 72 days later.

These and many other such ladies who took risks, chances and with their articles, letters and publications helped bring a new, personal perspective to the whole genre of travel writing and in doing so opened up opportunities for others to follow in their footsteps.

3 responses to “Early Women Travel Writers

  1. How wonderful to see Nelly Bly on your list. She is one of my childhood inspirations. I’ve yet to travel the world in less than 80 days, but I have started a writing career. Thanks for including her!

  2. Marvellous article! I shall certainly be looking up some of these redoubtable ladies. The pedant in me, for which I apologise, must point out that ‘foreign climbs’ implies mountaineering abroad and should read ‘foreign climes’, ‘clime’ being a contraction of ‘climate’, as in the phrase ‘taking off for sunnier climes’. I should have been a schoolmistress 🙂

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