Friday 23 April 2010

Books for Lady Travellers

The pile in the photo represents a small sample of the interesting and inspiring travel books I have read over the past nine months. Many of them have been by women – but not all.
The first book to mention isn’t in the photo because it’s out of print and I haven’t been able to track to a single copy of it outside a library. It is of course the original Hints to Lady Travellers, At Home and Abroad by Lillias Campbell Davidson, from which the lines under the blog title are taken. I’ve written about it here and here so will only add now that if anyone ever comes across a copy they can name their price (a dozen lemon tarts for example).
The second book, which has, I think, saved my sanity on more than one occasion, is Unsuitable for Ladies, An anthology of women travellers, edited by Jane Robinson. I think this is out of print too, but there are plenty of second hand copies available. The selection of writing is wonderful and the book introduced me to writers I don’t think I’d have come across otherwise. For example, there’s a description of a flea-ridden bed in Hungary from a book called (what else?) A Girl’s Wanderings in Hungary, written by a young woman by the name of Ellen Browning in 1896. Oh! vanity of vanities! Is anything more deceitful than hope of rest when fleas are around? The book provided comfort reading in the sense that, though I was travelling alone, it made me feel that I was part of a bigger group, somehow.
Then we have The Wild Places by Robert MacFarlane which kept me awake on the Holyhead to Dublin ferry after having driven from Dublin to London and back and feeling very tired and emotional. As the person who gave me the book suggested, it’s a reminder of all the beautiful places close to home in Ireland and Britain.
Two books by Paul Theroux, both about train trips: The Great Railway Bazaar and The Old Patagonian Express. One of the core ideas in both books is that the journey begins at the beginning – as soon as you step outside your front door – not just after you’ve travelled 10,000km by boat/plane/train. He also says something about travelling solo which has stuck in my mind ever since I read it last August (I found this excerpt while I was in Greece and it was so freakishly apt for my state of mind at the time that it felt like some kind of deus ex machina. If you can say that about a book.) Travel is at its best a solitary enterprise: to see, to examine, to assess you have to be alone and unencumbered. But, of course, he points out the flip side: Traveling on your own can be terribly lonely … I think of evening in a hotel room in a strange city. My diary has been brought up to date; I hanker for company. What to do?
Isabella Bird Bishop had what they call the pen of a ready writer and a talent for finding herself in the remotest of places carrying out the most prosaic of activities. I am very fond of A Lady’s Life in the Rocky Mountains (in fact A Lady’s Life in… was an early contender for the title of this blog) and am planning to read Unbeaten Tracks in Japan as soon as I can lay my hands on a copy.
And then there’s Lesley Blanch’s The Wilder Shores of Love, a present from my wise mama. This book is fabulous – almost as extraordinary as its author whose biography I was about to volunteer to write until my mama presented me with a companion book by Anne Boston: Lesley Blanch - Inner Landscapes, Wilder Shores. The Wilder Shores of Love consists of four biographies of four women who found themselves in exotic circumstances beyond their wildest imaginings – well, actually, in a couple of cases it was exactly because of their wild imaginings. The stories blend fact with … imagining. In one story, that of ‘Aimée Dubucq de Rivery, a convent girl captured by corsairs and sold into the harem of the Grand Turk’, Blanch fills in the ginormous gaps in the evidence with over the top descriptions of what might have happened. But she does it so well, and it’s all so much fun. And then she coined the phrase ‘character plus opportunity equals fortune’. The biography of Blanch herself is also excellent and good at demonstrating that Blanch filled in the gaps in her own life as imaginatively as she did in the lives of the women she wrote about.

There are more, but I’ll come back to them another time. Today is Official Hints Day and the hint is simple: read one of these books.

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