“I am only a woman”: English travel writers in the 19th century

In recent years, a series of publications, anthologies, and documentaries have rescued the figure of the 19th-century English traveling writer. On the screen we can also see the life of the traveling woman adapted to neo-Victorian fictional characters.

Generally, these protagonists are branded as “rebels”, “intrepid”, “ambitious”, “brave”, “queens” or even “adventurous”. Their lives serve as an inspiration for contemporary writers and artists who, for whatever reason, are eager to teach us a different version of women’s history. For many, their stories are inspiring; for others, almost implausible. Weren’t the Victorians very repressed?

In general, the writings of these travelers collect the experiences of writers of diverse nature and social class, although they tend to show the experiences of wealthy-class women. This is due to the availability of these texts and the mark that these women have left in historiographical archives and in ourselves.

It is important to remember that our interpretations of their travels and experiences can be influenced by cultural and social bias, so it is necessary to take a little distance when reading travel accounts written by nineteenth-century women. We must not forget that when we read traveling writers we are peering into the experiences and inner world of “one” woman, undeniably conditioned by her environment, her culture and her own history.

Travel writing in Victorian times

During the 19th century, England was part of the British Empire. It was a time in which the trip was not made only for pleasure, but also had overtones of conquest or exploration. Colonial voyages were reserved for men, who had a more active role in spreading the Empire. They had to fight or participate in diplomatic missions away from home.

However, we often forget that British women also played a decisive role in these desires for conquest. On many occasions they traveled to the colonies with their husbands, parents or brothers to try to replicate English society in the colonial settlements. There they would create those family nuclei, surrounded by their sons and daughters, their servants (in the case of the wealthy classes) and their social events.

Of course, many of them also wanted to relate their experiences in the first person. These writings, perhaps because of the novelty of seeing a woman outside the traditional home environment, aroused much interest in the country and were often published in newspapers and magazines. Probably, the readers and the readers were wondering: “What picturesque event will our narrator have had to face this week?”

When we talk about travel writing in the 19th century, we usually distinguish between two types of texts: on the one hand, rigorously scientific texts, which normally deal with socio-political issues and have anthropological overtones. On the other, more “light” and observational texts, perhaps of an anecdotal nature. They reflected an alternate experience and dealt with lifestyle, people, and generally mundane topics.

Those who discover and those who observe

As we can imagine, it was common to classify the writings of traveling women in that last section. In Celebrated Women Travelers of the Nineteenth Century (1882), one of the leading anthologies on women travelers of the 19th century, writer William HD Adams differentiates between two broad categories of travelers: those who discover and those who observe.

Those who discover, according to Adams, venture into regions previously unknown to civilization, adding new lands to the maps. Instead, those who observe simply follow the path of their daring predecessors, gathering more accurate information. For Adams, the women travelers of the time belonged to the latter category and could not be compared with great names in exploration such as David Livingstone, Heinrich Barth, John Franklin or Charles Sturt.

Adams’s print is a good illustration of the tendency to dismiss the work of nineteenth-century female travel writers. As we have seen, her stories are dismissed as not very new: they are followers, not pioneers. The gender ideology of the 19th century placed women in the private sphere, in the home, and made it difficult to see the relationship between women and scientific, political or economic issues. In this way, an infantilized or not very serious image of everything produced by them is perpetuated.

Furthermore, we must remember that many women’s access to “elite culture” was quite limited. Not all of them could receive an education beyond elementary school nor could they have the time and resources necessary to develop their interest in science.

“Only a woman”

Portrait of Mary Kingsley.
Wellcome Images / Wikimedia Commons, CC BY

It is common to read in the introductions to the texts of women travelers or in their private correspondence phrases expressing modesty or apology for their “daring” to meddle in masculine issues. Many of them exaggerated their status as women and took care to remind the reader that they were “only” women. Of course, this was nothing more than a resource to avoid censorship from his peers.

A notable example is that of Mary Kingsley who, displaying her scathing sense of humor, describes herself thus in one of her letters: “I am only a woman and we, although we are great in details and concrete conceptions, are never capable of devotion to things that I know well enough to be great, namely, abstract things.

Similarly, Anna Forbes hides behind her status as a woman to avoid being criticized for dedicating herself to writing. Forbes calls herself “a very feminine little woman” in her Unbeaten Tracks in Islands of the Far East (1887), reminding the reader of her status as a respectable woman.

Some of the traveling writers managed, with great effort, to earn the respect of their compatriots. One of the most recognized examples is that of Isabella Bird, the quintessential nineteenth-century traveler.

file 20221207 11275 gnsmah.png?ixlib=rb 1.1
Reverend James Heywood Horsburgh was the first Church of England Missionary Society missionary sent to Sichuan. This photograph was published in the book The Yangtze Valley and Beyondby Isabella Bird.
Wikimedia Commons

She was the first woman to be accepted into London’s prestigious Royal Geographical Society in 1891, after trying for many years. Her writing, honest and descriptive of her, aroused suspicion among her readers for being often too explicit (among others, the amount of double meanings of a sexual nature in her writing is often commented on).

Bird traveled alone, but often relied on local guides, men who knew the terrain she explored. It’s not hard to imagine why this might be uncomfortable for the more conservative audience. In addition to writing, Isabella Bird took photographs of the people she encountered on her travels through Persia, Japan, Korea or Manchuria.

Bird, Forbes and Kingsley are just a few examples that show us that there is no single “traveling writer”: there are as many as we want (and can) rescue from oblivion. Hopefully, the adaptations and versions of them that we see in popular culture will help us feel some curiosity about their very real and therefore very possible lives.

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