Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Review: The Virago Book of Women Travellers, ed. by Mary Morris


Pages: 438
Original date of publication: 1993
My edition: 1999 (Virago)
Why I decided to read: heard about it through LibraryThing
How I acquired my copy: Awesomebooks, February 2011


The Virago Book of Women Travellers is a collection of excerpts of writing from women traveler, from the seventeenth century through the twentieth. Many, many authors are represented here, from Flora Tristan (who I learned was the grandmother of Paul Gaugin) to Isabella Bird to Beryl Markham, and includes a number of authors who I knew through their fiction but wrote about their travels as well: Vita Sackville-West or Edith Wharton, for example, or Kate O’Brien, who had a lifelong love for Spain that you see in her novels, but experience her love for the country firsthand through her travel writing.

These women represent a number of nationalities, traveled pretty much everywhere, and experienced pretty much everything. Especially prior to the twentieth century, women (particularly single women) used travel as a means of escaping the confined lives they led. It’s interesting to note, from the author lifespans that are given above each excerpt, how long many of these women travelers lived; many lived well into their nineties and spent a good chunk of their lives exploring and having adventures. Even Isabelle Eberhardt, who died penniless at the age of 28 in a flash flood, led a remarkable life. Each and every one of them was or is truly unique and remarkable.

Some of the stories they tell are priceless, too, and very enjoyable. Each of these women had a distinct point of view, which comes across through each of the excerpts chosen for inclusion in this collection. My favorite was probably the one from Emily Hahn, whose excerpt from Times and Places begins,

Though I had always wanted to be an opium addict, I can’t claim that as the reason I went to China. The opium ambition dates back to that obscure period of childhood when I wanted to be a lot of other things, too—the greatest expert on ghosts, the world’s best ice skater, the champion lion tamer, you know the kind of thing. But by the time I went to China I was grown up, and all those dreams were forgotten.


If that’s truly the first line of this work, then that’s truly a great, eye-catching first line!

I do wish that the editor of this collection had included dates of publication for the excerpts; I think it might have given more a context for the work and writer. A writer I wish had been included was Emily Eden, who wrote extensively about her travels in colonial India in the 19th century. But in all, I think this is very strong collection of writing, great for dipping into here and there as the mood strikes.

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