Like Dorothy in "The Wizard of Oz," for centuries women have gone looking for adventure -- and presumably happiness -- far from their own back yards.
Jane Robinson has identified about 400 of them in her "Wayward Women: A Guide to Women Travellers," an annotated bibliography (Oxford University Press, $35). By her own admission, the work is incomplete, her task to produce a "detailed list of all the first-hand travel accounts even written by women in the English language" having partly fallen victim to her infatuation with her subject. Instead of just producing the list to end all lists, she committed the "cardinal sin" -- for bibliographers -- of actually reading the books. But how could she help it?
Who among us hasn't fallen under the spell of such plucky spirits as Karen Blixen and Beryl Markham? And there are countless more models of the feminine adventurer and voyager, long forgotten -- women who do not fit the stereotype, writes Robinson, of the "intrepid Victorian spinster, vigorously prodding the ends of the earth with her parasol." In unearthing accounts of their travels, the author concentrated on her native England, which unfortunately ignores a host of American sisters -- there are accounts by pioneer women, for example, worthy of including. And there are other oversights. Where, for example, is Martha Gellhorn, traveler, war correspondent and former Hemingway wife? Never mind, there are enough wayward women in the book to keep us haunting secondhand bookstores here and in Britain and scouring the shelves of libraries for some time to come.
Take Osa Johnson, for example ("I Married Adventure"). Actually, she married Martin Johnson and the two of them spent their lives in far-flung filming of vanishing native cultures (headhunters in the Solomon islands) and African game. While Martin filmed, Osa -- "an expert markswoman," writes Robinson -- covered him. Or consider Amy Johnson, whose flying exploits are not nearly as well known as Markham's or Amelia Earhart's, but who in 1930 flew a tiny open-cockpit plane 13,000 miles from England to Australia in 19 1/2 days. There were missionaries and scientists, mountain climbers, dessert nomads, big-game hunters, sailors and expedition makers of all kinds, who stole into forbidden Muslim cities disguised as men, fought in wars, got caught in sieges, were shipwrecked and kidnapped and served as governesses in royal harems.
Robinson's book contains maps, a geographic index, and not nearly enough photos and portraits of her subjects.
Picture of Provence
Carrying on in the mold of the spirited British woman traveler is "Sara Midda's South of France: A Sketchbook" (Workman Publishing, $17.95), which ostensibly records a year in Provence. In fact, it's the product of eight years of sojourns. Midda, a London-based artist and designer and author of the enchanting "In and Out of the Garden," has produced a sketchbook-journal to savor before or after a trip -- the kind you'd do yourself, if you could only just get the right side of your brain drawing.
Deliciously and wittily illustrated with miniature watercolors, the sketchbook catalogues all things Provencal, capturing the special colors of the south of France: "faded espadrille, peeling shutters, lavender field, green olives, sunflower, shrimp, stucco, vineyards in autumn, and night sky, minus the stars," among other delightfully synesthetic hues.
Along with the drawings, Midda has lovingly copied out quotes in elegant calligraphy from writers describing the countryside and proffering bits of local wisdom ("You cannot put roosters and hens together without making eggs" -- Jean Giono). While there is not a lot to read here, you could happily lose yourself in this little book, jammed with the trappings of Provence -- inventories and catalogues of faithfully drawn edibles (every variety of olives, luscious fruits, tempting pastries, bonbons and breads); scenes from markets and men playing boules; facades of charming farms and city villas; drawings of Provencal pottery and fabrics.
"Provence has a thousand faces, a thousand aspects, a thousand characters, and it is false to describe it as a single and visible phenomenon," writes Giono. Midda's delightful book makes a start toward capturing them.
Also drawing on her love of France -- Paris, this time -- is American Mary Ellen Jordan Haight, who has produced her second book of walking tours of that city ("Walks in Gertrude Stein's Paris" being the first). In "Paris Portraits: Renoir to Chanel -- Walks on the Right Bank" ($12.95, to be published in April by Gibbs Smith Books), she provides not so much walking tours as what she calls "word-portraits," a term borrowed from Gertrude Stein.
Books of walking tours can often be deadly, best used as glorified maps. While Haight dutifully marches us around the sites, she brings them vividly and amusingly to life, marshaling her knowledge of history and anecdotes and gossip about the host of literati and artists who crowded Paris's Right Bank from 1850 to 1950 -- painters and poets and ex-pats, novelists and journalists, musicians and composers and fashion designers. All the homes and haunts of the Parisian all-stars are here -- among them Toulouse-Lautrec, van Gogh, Chanel, Sarah Bernhardt, Henry James, Berlioz, Balzac, Gertrude Stein, Nijinsky, Offenbach, Colette, Proust, and those fun couples (in their various incarnations) the Hemingways, Fitzgeralds and Picassos.
Haight's descriptions of the goings-on in these places is delicious and a little wicked. Gertrude Stein, for example, refused to ride the new subway to Picasso's studio to sit for her portrait, preferring the omnibus. Zelda Fitzgerald, obsessed with turning herself into a ballerina at the age of 28 despite a clear lack of talent, slaved away at the barre at her studio in the Olympia Music Hall eight hours a day. And Truman Capote, visiting Colette in her apartment on the Rue de Beaujolais, described her thus: "The old darling: she looks like a doll saved from a fire."
Haight shows off her own eccentricity describing her favorite walk through the Montmartre cemetery, best done "when it is raining ... pouring with rain. I often go there and I have many friends there." She also guides us to all the picturesque (or once picturesque) spots associated with Paris: Le Lapin Agile in Montmartre, cafe hangout of Picasso, Gauguin and Apollinaire; Le Rat Mort Cafe, of Toulouse-Lautrec fame; Harry's Bar, haunt of Fitzgerald and Hemingway and Gershwin; and Le Boeuf sur le Toit, the Dada-inspired cabaret. In all, there are eight walking tours, illustrated with maps, vintage photos and paintings.
In the company of all these venturesome women, one hopes for something equally spirited from Linda White, in "The Independent Woman's Guide to Europe" (to be published in March by Fulcrum Publishing, $13.95). Unfortunately, the book has little that is useful for women flying solo -- independent or otherwise.
There is a smattering of helpful tips on "customs and idiosyncrasies for businesswomen" (Italian men think it's unladylike for women to pour the wine; don't ask a man for directions in Poland, unless it's a policeman). But much of the information is just not all that essential, or even gender-specific. Do we really need a list of opening hours for taverns and a selection of national beverages, or such advice as "break in your shoes" or "plan your wardrobe" before a trip? In other words, what is offered here comes under the category of just plain common sense (which does not cost $13.95).
Writes the author: "This book is not a listing of hotels and restaurants that welcome women as independent individuals, nor is it a listing of 'women's activities.' " Too bad: Either one would have been more useful than the information provided here.
End of a Series
On the other hand, comes the unfortunate news from Bantam Books that its travel guide series, which a lot of readers do find quite useful, will no longer be published. The guides were introduced two years ago, but sadly, says spokesman Stuart Applebaum, failed to find their readership or "catch on in a market already glutted with very good guides." Most recently published at the end of last year were Bantam's guides to Florida, the Caribbean, the Soviet Union and Scotland. All titles in the series will remain on bookstore shelves through the end of this year. Barbara Ann Curcio is a Washington writer.