IN THE DAYS BEFORE photographs showed us whatthe other side of the world looked like, to see a distant vista or a faraway temple, you pretty much had to go there. And in those days way before there were guidebooks especially aimed at the single woman traveler, the ladies who got up and went to places like China and Turkey did so at considerable risk, particularly if their journey was not under the protection of a gentleman. In Leo Hamalian's anthology of the writings of 18th-and 19th-century women travelers, only the title, Ladies on the Loose, is cute. None of his peripatetic heroines is anything but determined, tough and intrepid, and the selections included therein reveal wit and humor, as well.
Beginning with Samuel Johnson's dear friend, Hester Thrale Piozzi, who in the 1780s went to live in Italy with her second husband, we are quickly reminded that sophistication is timeless. "That's our mountain, which throws up money for us, by calling foreigners to see the extraordinary effects of so surprising a phenomenon," a Franciscan friar answers Mrs. Piozzi when she asks him to confirm whether it's really Mt. Vesuvius she sees in the distance. Or here's American journalist Kate Field in Spain in 1875: "Would that the Republic's Minister of Finance and its commanding generals possessed the activity of its fleas! Why will Nature be such a spendthrift? Were she to economize on fleas, there might be sufficient energy in the Peninsula to start the trains punctually and occasionally turn promises into deeds."
Nor were the trips that Hamalian gives us glimpses of merely sedate sightseeing excursions. A hundred years ago, Lady Ann Blunt, Byron's granddaughter, became the first Western woman to visit the Nejd region of Saudi Arabia, surviving an attack by spear-wielding tribesmen. Born to a Viennese merchant family, Ida Laura Pfeiffer circled the globe twice in the middle of the 19th century and died of Madagascar fever after an expedition to that island. In 1891 Kate Marsden trekked across the vast expanse of Siberia to acquaint herself with the exiled lepers living in a colony in the Yakutsk region; she undertook this perilous adventure for humanitarian reasons, having heard of a curative herb effective against leprosy growing in that remote area.
Fanny Bullock Workman, whom Hamalian calls "the foremost American woman explorer of the nineteenth century," published books with evocative titles like The Call of the Snowy Hispar (1910) and Two Summers in the Icy Wilds of Eastern Karakorum (1917), and the sample of her work he gives us describes a strenuous bicycling trip through southern India. "On this day we sat under a spreading tamarind-tree to eat our tiffin. Shortly half a dozen rather small, dark brown monkeys climbed into the branches over us, and watched us attentively." Mary Kingsley, a niece of the novelist Charles Kingsley, was fascinated by Africa and successfully undertook to collect fish specimens there for the British Museum. Referring to one of the native tribes she traveled with, she writes, "A certain sort of friendship soon arose between the Fans and me. We each recognised that we belonged to the same section of the human race with whom it is better to drink than to fight. We knew we would each have killed the other, if sufficient inducement were offered, and so we took a certain amount of care that the inducement should not arise."
It is difficult not to be enthralled by what these singular women went through, whether it was having high tea in the jungle or shooing crocodiles away from fragile river craft. (Mary Kingsley had continually to remind her boatmen to keep their legs inside the boat while they slept!) Not all of them were wide of vision, despite the broadness of their travels, and many kept their prejudices about them for protection in alien lands. Few, though brave, were as game for new experiences simply for the sake of having them as Mrs. Alec Tweedie who tried every kind of sauna bath there was in the Finland of the 1890s, including one in which bags of ants were used to season the water.
Medical care and the plight of women almost always concerned the lady travelers, and Hamalian offers three selections--from Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, Lady Hester Stanhope and Harriet Martineau--deploring the social customs of the Middle East, not the least of which are the portraits of a woman's bathhouse and a harem. Why there are no movies being made of some of these stories is a puzzle indeed, but interested producers can consult Hamalian's bibliography and useful further reading list. And perhaps the last word should go to Mary Wollstonecraft, who stated firmly, while on a journey through Sweden in 1795, that "travellers who require that every nation should resemble their native country, had better stay at home." If not all her fellow female travelers took her advice, our literature is the better for it.