"Women Travel Writers – Just Who Are They?"

On Aug. 17 Diane LeBow wrote to Georgia Hesse, “Kristin [fusion_builder_container hundred_percent=”yes” overflow=”visible”][fusion_builder_row][fusion_builder_column type=”1_1″ background_position=”left top” background_color=”” border_size=”” border_color=”” border_style=”solid” spacing=”yes” background_image=”” background_repeat=”no-repeat” padding=”” margin_top=”0px” margin_bottom=”0px” class=”” id=”” animation_type=”” animation_speed=”0.3″ animation_direction=”left” hide_on_mobile=”no” center_content=”no” min_height=”none”][Zibell] suggested we compile a list of women travel writers – beyond Freya Stark and Jan Morris. Who would you put up there with Paul Theroux, Tim Cahill, Bill Bryson, and Pico Iyer? Perusing travel writing anthologies, [I find] ZIP or maybe aforementioned women writers. C’est tout.” Georgia’s reply follows.
“This is an interesting idea re women travel writers. The trouble is there’s no accurate definition of who a travel writer is, and there’s surely no definition of travel. When Jan Morris first joined the faculty at the Book Passage Travel Writers Conference, she objected to being introduced as a travel writer. In her (his) magnum opus, the Pax Britannica Trilogy, James was widely considered a political historian. Because of the surpassing success of later works, however, Jan doesn’t mind her new classification.
I’ve long wondered about the meaning of travel writer; perhaps it should apply only to the genre of guidebooks. Several years ago, Elaine [Petrocelli] began to delineate on her shelves “literary travel,” which I think better describes the best work done now, i.e. an essay or a book in which history is the major focus, or art or geography or mythology. I asked John McPhee once at Book Passage if he knew why writers involved in geology (that is, who like rocks) are better writers than most so-called travel writers. “I don’t know,” he answered. “Are we?”
You seem to be correct that “women travel writers” are cited mainly in anthologies. I understand that from a historical point of view. A similar situation has long pertained in the beaux-arts. (Remember the Women Impressionists exhibition at the Legion of Honor in 2008?) In the book Great Women Travel Writers: From 1750 to the Present, novelists Edith Wharton and Anaïs Nin get a lot of space.
Intrigued by your question, I perused my bookshelves, writing down the names of those I thought might be imagined as “women travel writers.” I began with the late 18th- and mainly 19th-century British women who had the leisure, the money, and the education to wander the world and to write about it: Isabella Bird, of course, and Laura Fish Judd, Lady Mary Wortley Montegu, Lady Hester Stanhope, Lady Jane Digby, Lady Jane Blunt, Mary Wollstonecraft (mother of Mary Shelley), and Mary Kingsley.
Clearly, it helped if you had a title, and if your given name was Mary, so much the surer.
Then I noted the names of female historians, essayists, mystery and food writers, et alia, who might warrant the designation of “woman travel writer.” Soon I had more than 50 names, in higgledy-piggledy order, including Antonia Fraser, Isabel Allende, Annie Proulx, Genêt, Amy Kelly, Barbara Tuchman, Edith Hamilton, Jill Ker Conway (from bush Australia to first female president of Smith College), Jane Austen, Virginia Woolf, George Eliot, Agatha Christie, Joan Didion, Isak Dinesen, Dorothy Sayers, Rebecca West, Frances Fitzgerald, Maeve Binchy (who died on July 30 this year), M.F.K. Fisher, Willa Cather, Mary Morris (who is still around).
Oh, yes: and Kate Simon, who was great and famous in the 1970s. Among my favorites of hers were/are England’s Green and Pleasant Land and Italy: The Places in Between.
Maybe mystery writer Cara Black deserves a place on this list, too, just for her mastery of Paris’ geography.
So there you are, you see. Where, I do not know, nor whence one goes from here. The trouble is, travel writing includes everything, and it begins the minute you take a step outside the door.




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