Victorian women travellers & the bliss of ignorance

I’ve been thinking about the intrepid women travellers of the Victorian age. When I left university I went to work for a firm of antiquarian booksellers, and we specialised in travel and exploration. That’s what sparked my interest in eccentric, high-achieving women: my first book – Wayward Women – was a biographical dictionary of women travellers and my second – Unsuitable for Ladies – an anthology of 16 centuries of women’s travel writing.

What’s brought them back to my mind is the temporary absence of my younger son, who’s spending five weeks working in a distant rain-forest. His brother’s about to leave for Madagascar. They’re both uni students, both passionate about wildlife, and both completely confident about their expeditions, even though they’re travelling independently. I’ll only be sitting at my desk for the next two months, yet I’m the one who’ll be fretting.

My Victorian heroines don’t seem to have worried about their travels at all. They had no precedent to guide them, and knew they were risking not only their reputations but their lives when they embarked ‘unprotected’ (by male companions) around the globe. Yet off they went, certain that God would look after them; if not God, then their unassailable Britishness, and if not that, then a conviction of the innate courtesy of all peoples towards a benevolent woman.

The extraordinary thing is that by and large, they not only survived, but flourished on their travels. Think of Isabella Bird, Alexandra David-Neel, Marianne North, Mary Kingsley – the list of indomitable Victorian travellers is endless. Was it self-confidence that kept them going, or sheer naivety? Is ignorance bliss? As I foolishly imagine a lurid series of worst-case-scenarios for my boys, I’m inclined to think it is.

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