...like marianne north (on the bottom right corner) and isabella birds, i feel ill if i am not on the move...In 2004 I saw an exhibition at the national gallery entitled Off the Beaten Track: Three Centuries of Women Travellers. Since then, those women travellers, all driven by the same curiosity, longing for freedom, affirmation of their personality and anti-conformist values, have been elected the great- or great-great-grandmothers i have never met.
in this post, i am going to chronicle some interesting facts and anecdotes of those who caught my attention and triggered a smile in me. despite coming from different backgrounds and travelling for different reasons, most of them shared the same ideals and fate: they married in secret, had more than one lover, outlived their husbands, condemned american slavery and were authors of novels, articles or travel reports, or gifted photographers or drawers.
from the left:
isabella bird (1831-1904) - her spinal problems and other illnesses vanished every time she went abroad, but reappeared every time she returned. unlike nowadays exotic places were safer than england and many people travelled abroad to benefit from a better environment. She took trips around the world (India, Tibet, Persia and elsewhere) and married a doctor 10 years her younger who died five years later. she learnt photography and recorded a three-year journey to China, Japan and Korea, developing her photos at night on the boat.
violet cressy marcks (1895-1970) - she travelled by all means of transports in her capacity of journalist and correspondent. she interviewed mao tse-tung in a cave for five hours.
jane-lady franklin (1792-1875) - when her husband failed to come back from an exploration to find the north-west passage linking the atlantic to the pacific, she set on a few trips in search of him, to relieve her anxieties.
annie taylor (1855-1908) - first european woman to enter tibet. she was captured and declared: i am an english woman and do not fear for my own life.
mary kingsley (1862-1900) - she was a proper adventurer. mountain climbing, fending off crocoodiles from her canoe and other extreme sports were amongst the activities she experienced on her travels to africa. however, she believed that "no woman equals a really great man".
dame freya stark (1893-1993) - she learnt several languages abroad. due to an accident when she was 12, she lost her right ear and developed the swept-across hair style. she went to lebanon to learn arabic and travelled across middle east. she learnt persian and went to yemen where took impressive photos. she continued travelling until she was 90.
penelope chetwode, lady betjeman (1910-1984) - daughter of a commander in chief of the army, she grew up in north india, married in secret a poet/writer but within a year she went studying in berlin while her husband was having an affair with their maid. she was more interested in animals than humans. when she was pregnant, she said: "i wish it was a little horse".
amy johnson (1903-1941) - speed and flying interested amy more than visiting the places she visited by her light aircraft. she flew to karachi in six days setting the distance record in 1930. she performed other solo-flights to japan and cape town and set other records. at the outbreak of WWII she joined the air transport auxiliary but failed to fly back in 1941.
jane digby (1807-1881) - married to a man twice her age, she fell in love with an austrian prince and ran away with him creating big scandal. she did a tour around europe and titled more european men. reaching syria she finally found lasting love with an arab nobleman young enough to be her son. she loved that place and adapted to the local customs.
gertrude bell (1868-1926) - she wanted to be treated seriously, as a man. although she is infamous for having opposed votes for women, she proposed the present-day borders of iraq and supported an arab government. she took a fatal dose when she was 58.
isabel, lady burton (1831-1896) - wife of diplomat sir richard burton, she travelled extensively across middle east with her tactless husband who, when was called back from damascus to london, left a message to his wife reading: "ordered off: pay, pack and follow". and so she did. both enjoyed dressing up during their travels and translated together a thousand and one nights. it is also wort mentioning that he was much criticised for translating the kama sutra.
clare sheridan (1885-1970) - her wild behaviours and belief in free love were source of shame for her cousin sir winston churchill. married with three children, she lost one child and carved an angel for him. sculpture became her passion. upon her husband's death, she took her children to live in turkey and then in the sahara. when her second child died, she retired in the blackfoot and blood tribes of montana.
rosita forbes (1890-1967) - she crossed the desert in disguise as a muslim woman called khadija and met prominent arab leaders. she took photgraphs with a concealed camera. she travelled to yemen, ethiopia, india, south america and finally settled in the bahamas.
i am lucky enough to be surrounded by independent and strong girlfriends who could be seen as the modern counterparts of my english great-grandmothers. it is to them that i dedicate this post.