Anthology follows the adventuresome path of female travelers

September 11, 1994|By Judith Wynn

"Next to the ennui of making a travel through France, I can imagine nothing more tiresome than perusing a journal of one." So wrote one skeptical sojourner as she set out to explore continental Europe in 1843. Scampering hither and yon through this sumptuous smorgasbord of travel writing by women is anything but. Invigorating, certainly. Exhausting even. Tiresome, no.

Antiquarian book dealer Jane Robinson has assembled excerpts from letters, diaries, and written-for-publication accounts drawn mostly from 19th- and 20th-century sources, mainly by British writers. Several selections date back even further, although there's not enough of them to support the claim that "Unsuitable for Ladies" "has covered sixteen centuries."

As it is, this sturdy, cram-packed volume resembles the "small, ,, waterproof stuff bag" that enables one of Ms. Robinson's travelers -- Englishwoman Mary Eyre -- to carry all her voluminous, Victorian gear in one hand while she tours southern France.

Readers may wonder whether the ingenious carryall will suffice. Has Ms. Robinson, the packer, forgotten anything important? Well, yes, she has. A thumbnail biography of each writer -- even if tacked on in an appendix -- would have made this bountiful collection more manageable.

Did the travelers go journeying for sheer enjoyment? To escape domestic discord? To write a salable travel-piece? Where did they find the time -- not to mention the money -- to tackle the major enterprise of foreign travel back in the days before mass air transportation? And did they ever readjust to "normal" life once they got back home?

Ms. Robinson neglects these crucial details. Instead, she prefaces each chapter with a flurry of eye-straining, italicized editorial remarks, but the effect leans more toward the whimsical than the informative. Her own biographical note tells us simply that, as a child, she liked to use a jam tart as a bookmark, and never mind what drew her to travel literature in the first place. (Sticky book jackets?)

That said, let it be added that "Unsuitable For Ladies" is full of color, excitement and adventure -- not the least of which is the traveler's discovery of unexpected inner resources when she exchanges familiar routine for totally different worlds. Dame Freya Stark finds bliss while rope-climbing in the Swiss Alps: " . . . the happiness was almost frightening, for it seemed more than one human being could manage." Proper spinster Louisa Jebb lets her hair down in 1908 Baghdad when she joins a foot-stomping war dance with a band of hunters: "I too was a glorious, free savage under the white moon."

Sometimes, thick, civilized Edwardian petticoats can save one's life -- as when Mary Kingsley tumbles into a spiked, 15-foot-deep game trap in West Africa.

A sturdy canvas hat saves Mrs. W. W. Baille, in 1921 India, when an enraged she-bear tears it off in lieu of her head.

Ambushed while picking flowers in 1890 Burma, Beth Ellis thinks a gang of fierce locals means to abduct her -- but they only want a demonstration of her newfangled bicycle.

Several women take us to a raw, untracked United States. Writing in 1840, Mrs. Houstoun grumbles: " . . . the manners of the Americans were deficient in that real dignity, which consists of finding one's right place in society and keeping it."

Lady Mary Wortley Montegue ends her 1763 Asia-Africa trek with the sobering conclusion (which Ms. Robinson's selections energetically refute) that womankind is "not formed" to enjoy travel.

Writing 200 years later, Martha Gellhorn best captures the book's spirit with her heartfelt observation: "Nothing is better for self-esteem than survival."

"Unsuitable For Ladies" is at times a rough, unmarked hike, but all-in-all a good workout for armchair tourists everywhere.

Ms. Wynn is a writer who lives in Somerville, Mass.

Title: "Unsuitable For Ladies: An Anthology of Women Travellers"

Editor: Jane Robinson

Publisher: Oxford

Length, price: 471 pages, $30

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