Travel writing has a long literary heritage – but which eye-opening travelling tales were penned by women? Harriet Horobin-Worley, Digital Assistant Editor for Penguin, takes you on an adventure through the eyes of female authors…
There is a rich tradition of literary history to tap into when looking for inspirational travel books. From classical literature (The Odyssey, of course, or perhaps Bashō the wandering poet), to the Beat Generation (Kerouac’s On the Road, obviously) to contemporary writers (Roger Macfarlane, Roger Deakin or Iain Sinclair). However, there’s a certain privilege inherent in the travel books written by men and in the wanderings of an able-bodied male. The long and winding road of literary history becomes much narrower when we start to look for female travellers, adventurers or flaneuses.
A woman’s place is in the home. She is the ‘Angel of the House’. In nineteenth century literature, at any rate, the appropriate place for a woman was in the private sphere, and venturing out of the safety of the home, school or church could only bring trouble. The social restrictions on female movement are beautifully illustrated in Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South. As the heroine Margaret Hale grows more comfortable on the bustling streets of Milton, so her confidence and independence grows too. But when wealthy Aunt Shaw acts as her chaperone, “matronly propriety” requires that outings once made alone “at all hours of the day” are now only allowed with the trappings of bourgeoisie expectations, such as a carriage and a maid.
As the Everyday Sexism project showed, walking down the street today can still be a minefield for a woman. Even in online spaces, women seen to be exercising their independence, their voices and creativity are a target for harassment and threats of violence. In the documentary The Punk Singer, Kathleen Hanna describes her album as sounding like something made in a “girl’s bedroom”. The privacy of the bedroom has been a site of creative inspiration for teenage girls for generations – but the problem is that these bedrooms aren’t connected to each other or to the wider world.
So, below is a starter itinerary for a reader’s own exploratory journey. Women writing about travel, women going on journeys, women just stepping outside their front door with style and aplomb. There might be some dead ends, some misdirections or a few unscheduled stops – but remember, it’s not the destination that counts, it’s how you get there.
1. Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God – When a woman returns to the town she left years ago, the neighbours judge her clothes, her body, her age, and most of all the way she carries her head high. They wished her good evening but she “kept walking straight on”. Through three marriages, a house-wrecking storm and a murder trial, Hurston’s first novel follows the life of Janie Starks. From her childhood in her Grandma’s rural house to a life of financial independence in the first incorporated black town of America, Hurston’s sensual flaneuse remains her true inimitable self.
2. Jane Bowles, Two Serious Ladies – First published in 1943, the novel follows the lives of two women navigating social expectations and private desires. Bowles’ enigmatic, opaque prose emphasises the tilting, ambiguous plot. Christina Goering is a wealthy spinster who ups sticks to a remote island. After obsessively seeking a higher level of asceticism and dragging two devoted followers in her wake, she then yields to encounters with strange men. Frieda Copperfield, our second serious lady, accompanies her husband to Panama, only to disengage herself and embark on a drunken romp through the city in pursuit of a teenage prostitute.
3. Joan Didion, The White Album – Joan Didion is of course the ultimate chic traveller and her books are the ultimate travelling companions. The White Album collects some of her best essays of the 1970s, documenting her travels through 1960s counter culture, an encounter with Linda Kasabian, her investigation into California’s water supply, Georgia O’Keefe and Doris Lessing. The book will also give you a packing list for your next trip, including but not limited to, a leotard, a typewriter and a bottle of bourbon.
4. Erica Jong, Fear of Flying – Jong’s protagonist is Isadora Zelda White Stollerman Wing, a 29-year-old poet on a quest for the perfect “zipless fuck”. Isadora’s sense of humour, her intelligence and her ballsiness make this an incredibly enjoyable journey. Written in the 1970s, it is a female Portnoy’s Complaint – reflecting the issues of feminist liberation and sexuality that are still as relevant today as they were forty years ago. Jong dives deep into the vacillating self-obsessed neuroses and sexual desire of the main character, displaying a raw honesty that turns a fun romp across Europe into a dazzling novel about the human condition.
5. Molly Crabapple and Laurie Penny, Discordia – In July 2012, artist Molly Crabapple and journalist Laurie Penny travelled to Greece. Fuelled by coffee, alcohol and good conversation, Laurie’s insightful writing and Molly’s masterful illustrations capture what it really felt like to be on the streets of Athens during that hot summer of unrest.
We’d love to hear about your favourite travel book written by a female author or following an adventurous heroine – tweet us @PenguinUKBooks and use the hashtag #onthepage.
To keep up to speed with the stories, interviews, features and galleries we have in store for you this month, follow #onthepage on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. For monthly literary titbits straight from the Penguin’s beak, sign up to our monthly newsletter here.
You can find even more amazing content from some of our best loved authors, talking about their heroines, on the Five Dials page now.