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Victorian women explore the world; Victorian Lady Travellers, by Dorothy Middleton. Chicago: Academy Chicago. (425 North Michigan Ave., 60611). 182 pp. $14.95 in hard cover, $6.95 in paperback.

By Sonia W. ThomasSonia W. Thomas is on the Monitor's book page staff. / August 12, 1983



Feminists of the 1980s might well enjoy a good look at their forerunners of the 1880s. As a matter of fact they - and other readers - might be surprised and amused at some of the daring adventures recorded in this volume. In about 1870 an increasing number of women began to journey to remote and often savage lands. Undoubtedly this was part of the vigorous movement toward social and political emancipation for women.

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Male explorers had led the way with polar explorations, mountain climbs, and expeditions to the far reaches of the continents. The women, however, were more apt to travel alone - motivated by a purpose, carrying beads and cloth for barter along with other supplies for the trip, and accompanied only by a few hired locals. Amazingly, they covered thousands of miles of rugged terrain - observing, painting, photographing, collecting nature specimens, or ''missionizing,'' and finally lecturing and writing books about it all.

Picture, if you will, a typical Victorian traveler - British-born Isabella Bird Bishop, who, after being schooled in the conventions of submission to men, strict self-discipline, and undeviating standards of religion, morals, and dress (including long skirts and layers of petticoats), was told that travel might improve her frail health.

Follow her to the rocky terrain of the Sandwich Islands, where she was confronted with the prospect of riding a horse ''cavalier style.'' Observe her reaction, for above all she feared becoming ''masculine.'' After coming to terms with that fear, she had to find or invent a garment that would allow her to ride astride a peaked Mexican saddle. Her solution: ''a dainty bloomer costume'' in ''Magregor flannel,'' in which she was soon to be seen charging to the top of volcanoes and streaking across green open country.

With an improved constitution, she set off to explore other ''health inducing'' locales, such as Hawaii and the Colorado Rockies. In the Rockies she had an unlikely romance with a shaggy mountain man, rode with him to the continental divide, and camped under a full moon (chaperoned by two male companions), then took a solo horseback excursion from Estes Park (some 50 miles north of Denver) to Colorado Springs (some 60 miles south) amid early winter snows. Even the most stalwart of Western women might have quailed before the thought of such a trip.

When ''Victorian Women Travellers'' was first published by E. P. Dutton in 1965, it broke new ground by revealing how British and American women defied tradition and nature in their quest for information and adventure. This new edition has been updated to include more recent findings.

British author Dorothy Middleton, editor for 30 years for the Royal Geographical Society, presents her historical research in a compelling style. It's too bad, though, that the photographs of each traveler couldn't have been consistently coordinated with the biographies surrounding them, rather than appearing at random.

In addition to the chapter on Isabella Bird Bishop, the volume includes brief biographies of artist Marianne North, who traveled to Brazil, India, and other countries to paint botanical specimens; Fanny Bullock Workman, who, armed with a Kodak, charted peaks in the Himalayas and wrote a number of travel books; May French Sheldon, who traveled to Africa to collect native handicrafts, weapons, and customs; Annie Taylor, who trained as a missionary and penetrated inner Tibet; Kate Marsden, another missionary, who ventured to the Middle East and to Siberia in midwinter to observe the plight of lepers and start organizations to help them; and Mary Kingsley, who found purpose, after her parents' deaths, in carrying on her father's work of collecting freshwater fish and other zoological specimens among cannibal tribes in Africa.

This volume depicts the ''new woman'' in all her roles - dedicated, caring, capable, formidable, foolish, and funny. Above all, these women were a match for the male explorers and thinkers of the period, as evidenced by acceptance of three of them into the Royal Geographical Society, theretofore an exclusively male organization.