The Derring-Do Of Women Travelers

EVEN now, in the last decade of a century that has witnessed many feminist victories, travel guidebooks still include a special section of precautions for women. Some of these suggestions constitute reasonable advice for all travelers. Still, there remain underlying traces of the outworn attitude that travel may be, in the words of Jane Robinson's provocative title, unsuitable for ladies.

Throughout her anthology of travel writing by women, drawn primarily from the 19th and 20th centuries, Robinson's helpful commentaries concentrate on this perplexity. In the past, quitting home and family was deemed a questionable enterprise for women. Why would a fulfilled wife travel abroad? Why would a single woman risk her reputation?

Despite society's restrictions and expectations, centuries of women travelers have journeyed to the most distant regions of the planet. Their journals, diaries, letters, and books disclose a range of responses as varied as the lands they visited.

Having read more than 1,000 travel books by contemporary as well as historic women writers, Robinson decided to anthologize texts evincing not only the seriousness of purpose and the bravery of women, but also the prejudice and fastidious malarkey that marks some women's response to foreign people and places.

Even though women's travel accounts exist in great number and variety, women were rarely commissioned to travel. Like the estimable Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, who followed her diplomat husband to the Turkish court in the early 18th century, travel writing was the outcome of inadvertent circumstance. Lady Mary's letters often rendered a predictably condescending portrayal of those beneath her station. Yet where later travelers like Frances Elliot could see only disorder, Lady Mary argued that women in Islamic culture may find a special kind of freedom not granted to Western women.

Robinson organizes her selections by geographic location, carefully juxtaposing dissimilar responses. She complements the agitated outburst of Mary Hall, a turn-of-the-century visitor to Africa, on the occasion of the loss of her hat pin, with recent African traveler Dea Birkett's somber thoughts on the gradual loss of the traveler's cultural identity. Oddly, Robinson, an Oxford resident, excludes travel writing about England, yet she includes selections from travelers to North America and Europe.

There's enough derring-do in ``Unsuitable for Ladies'' to assure skeptics that women travelers have done more than sip iced tea on verandas. When Annie Taylor encounters robbers during her 1902 Tibetan trek, she digs in her heels and pronounces, ``I am English, and do not fear for my life.'' Mary Kingsley's 1897 report of her slog through a West African swamp contains a leech infestation episode worthy of a B-movie.

The collection's broad spectrum begs the question of indigenous people's responses to foreign travelers. In recent decades, reports from the point of view of the visited have become more plentiful. An anthology of these accounts, with the range of ``Unsuitable for Ladies,'' would be as welcome as it is overdue.

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