No Place for a Lady, and Other Stories of Victorian Women Travelers


I recently read about Scottish twin sisters in the Victorian era who made the adventurous trek to St. Catherine’s monastery in the Sinai desert--an excursion I later made myself in the seventies when I was a student in Jerusalem.

Timeless Adventure

What an incredible trip of a lifetime that was, even in my day, when we traveled by motor vehicle instead of camel, camped out under the stars, lived on matzoh with some kind of chocolate spread, and met, as the sisters did, Greek monks at the foot of Mount Sinai.

In a time when women so often did not get the credit they deserved, these women, Agnes Smith Lewis and Margaret Smith Gibson, were linguists and scholars who discovered a Syriac palimpsest of the Gospels at the monastery, and made important contributions to Biblical studies that are now being recognized.

You can read about Lewis and Gibson on one of our San Mateo County Library databases:
"Agnes Smith Lewis." Contemporary Authors Online. Detroit: Gale, 2001. Gale Biography In Context. Web. 22 Jan. 2011.

This reminded me to read about some other Victorian women travelers.

Photo of Isabella Bird by Wikimedia CommonsIsabella Bird (1831-1904)

Bird was an invalid back in England, but whenever she went overseas for her health, she miraculously improved. The Library has a little book of excerpts from her letters home, Adventures in the Rocky Mountains.  The book starts with a lyrical description of the Sierras back in 1873, and a ride alone on horseback--from Truckee to Lake Tahoe--which almost ends when the horse encounters a grizzly and throws her. It only gets better from there, as Bird becomes friends with a handsome, one-eyed, dangerous outlaw. Bird also wrote about travels in the Sandwich Islands (Hawaii), Japan, and elsewhere.

Photo of Gertrude Bell by Wikimedia CommonsGertrude Bell (1868-1926)

Bell was the highly intelligent daughter of a wealthy family who was allowed to go to a progressive school for girls and then on to Oxford, where she was one of the first women to take a degree. Bell never married, but became a well-known traveler, making trips to Persia, Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, Transjordan, Egypt, and Mesopotamia. She was also an archaeologist.

Her most famous journey was to the center of Arabia; she was the first Western woman to visit it. Her astute observations and knowledge of the desert and peoples of Arabia earned her a place in British intelligence in Cairo, as well as the friendship of T.E. Lawrence. She became a stateswoman who helped formulate British policy and actually drew the borders of Iraq, as well as choosing its first monarch, King Faisal. She founded the Iraq National Library and the Iraq Museum, and was serving as the director of the museum in Baghdad when she apparently took her own life in 1926. Read all about her in Gertrude Bell, Queen of the Desert, Shaper of Nations by Georgina Howell.

Photo of Lady Florence Baker by Wikimedia CommonsLady Florence Baker (1841-1916)

Baker (read on--I’m only in the B’s!) was born in Hungary and became a refugee at the age of 4 after her father joined an ill-fated Hungarian revolution. She was abducted from a refugee camp in the Ottoman Empire, and from then on was brought up in the harem of a merchant family in what is now Bulgaria. At the age of 14, she was shocked to discover that she was about to be auctioned off as a slave.

Luckily for her, a British adventurer, Samuel Baker, was present at the auction and either bought her or spirited her away. The two fell in love, and after a few years, Florence accompanied Samuel Baker on a journey to find the source of the Nile. The two became famous explorers of the Sudan and the highlands of Abyssinia (Ethiopia), and were outspoken opponents of the slave trade in Africa. American anthropologist Pat Shipman is the author of To the Heart of the Nile: Lady Florence Baker and the Exploration of Central Africa.

Photo of Alexandra David-Neel by Wikimedia CommonsAlexandra David-Neel (1868-1969)

David-Neel was a French student of Buddhist philosophy and religion who traveled extensively and lived in India and the Far East. After several attempts, she became the first European woman to make it to Lhasa, the Tibetan capital. In Tibet: Journey to the Forbidden City: Retracing the Steps of Alexandra David-Neel by Tiziana and Gianni Baldizzone,  you can look at large, gorgeous color photos of Tibet and its people, juxtaposed with David-Neel’s own black-and-white photos. There is also some text about both David-Neel and Tibet, but it doesn’t detract from the photos.

No Place for a Lady: Tales of Adventurous Women Travelers by Barbara Hodgson isn’t the best travel book (or group biography) I’ve ever read. It sounds great, but the writing is pedestrian. Ironically. The pictures are interesting, but I liked it mainly for the bibliography, which I recommend.

Explore our Library catalogue for more on intrepid women like these, who are heroines to many trepid people and armchair potatoes (like me) in the twenty-first century!

Photo credit:  Wikimedia Commons


Author Bio:

Vaughn Harrison works at Half Moon Bay Library and on the Bookmobile. Her traveling days are not over, as she had feared.


Gertrude Bell

I should make a correction: Anne Blunt accompanied her husband to central Arabia (Hayyil) before Bell made the trip "alone." (She had local camel drivers and escorts.) Vaughn Harrison

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