The ‘eccentric female explorer’

 “Only ignorant fools think that because one likes sugar, one cannot like salt” Marianne North, Recollections of a Happy Life.

For much of the population in 2020, travel restrictions have been a common source of discontent, despite the understandable unavoidability of these measures. However, the relative freedom we would usually have had nowadays would have seemed quite the enigma to England’s Nineteenth-Century women, from whom the ‘public sphere’ was already cut off. In this blog, I would like to share the adventures of the ‘eccentric female explorer (s)’, who became ‘a Victorian icon of adventurous travel’ (Wagner, Travel, 175). Women like Norfolk’s Margaret Fountaine travelled ‘in search of adventure, out of necessity, for health reasons, and to contribute to a growing market for publications on ethnography, geography, botany, or zoology’ (Wagner, Travel, 175), sometimes benefitting from a ‘temporary male status’ (Wagner, Travel, 179).  Some met prominent figures, for example,  Marianne North met Charles Darwin and attended a dinner at The White House (though she had been mistaken for the PM’s daughter!). Those who were ‘flaunting conventions and encountering the extraordinary’ (Wagner, Travel, 176), are admirable, and I would like to introduce a couple of these fascinating women, their pursuits and their travel writing.

‘“Have you no misgivings?” asked an intimate before whose imagination the Western World now rose tremendous in its magnitude… I had none… If I had such as would have made me draw back in the last moment, what a world of good should I have foregone! Not only what knowledge, but what store of imagery! What intense and varied enjoyment! And, above all, what friendships! When I look back upon what I have gained, and at how small an expense of peril and inconvenience, I cannot but regard my setting foot on board ship as one of the most fortunate acts of my life.’(Martineau, Retrospect, 15)

Portrait of Harriet Martineau.
Norfolk Record Office (NRO), MC 267/1-3, 684X6

Harriet Martineau should be recognised as a prominent activist, especially for her efforts concerning the treatment of black slaves in America. Possibly the first female sociologist in Britain, Martineau illuminated the hardships of slavery in her book “Retrospect of Western Travel”. This travelogue was written 1838 after she travelled the USA and is integral for the advancement of black rights awareness, but also highlights a message that women’s rights should progress as well. Imagine the reaction of the British public after reading her text-some might have labelled it as preposterous, others would have undoubtedly cheered Martineau on. Either way, with Black Lives Matters increasing in urgency, Martineau’s text is ever-familiar with the prejudices that still exist today. Martineau’s work was also significant for women at home; travel writing was a new way for women to be quietly (or perhaps, not so quietly) informed and educated about countries outside of the ‘private sphere’.

In an undated letter to Horatio Bolingbroke, Martineau thanks him for his aid in getting her ‘object’ completed. While this could signify any of her books, the final line of this letter is especially interesting. Martineau comments that she hopes it will bring a ‘little good to society’. This quotation suggests that the works created after a woman’s travels or research are integral to enacting a change. This indication of activism and an intention of revolutionising something, in however small a way, is admirable in Martineau, especially since this comes almost half a century before the women’s votes campaign and two centuries before the Black Lives Matters protests of today.

Extract from Scrapbook of letters of prominent persons, mostly from Norfolk.
Norfolk Record Office, BOL 4/48, 741X8

Isabella Bird Bishop set a high standard for travelogue writing in the Victorian era. By publishing letters she had written to her sister, Henrietta, she wished to ‘contribute something to the sum of knowledge’  and offer “fuller account”(s) because she was a “lady travelling alone, and the first European lady” in Japan. The reader could ‘share the vicissitudes…difficulty, and tedium, as well as novelty and enjoyment’(Bishop, Unbeaten, 3), shown by the sights, sounds and smells of Japan: the rice cultivation “bright with the greenness of English lawns”, “the glory of the Japanese spring”, the “clatter of 400 clogs”; a world so alike to pictures Bishop had only seen on “trays, fans and tea-pots”(Bishop, Unbeaten, 7). Her writing only improves over time, her descriptions evermore luxurious: “great snow-slashed mountains…dark blue green of pine and cryptomeria…red gold of the harvest fields…rose and white azaleas lighted up the copse-woods…the colossal avenue of cryptomeria which overshadows the sacred shrines of Nikko, and tremulous sunbeams and shadows flecked the grass”(Bishop, Unbeaten, 31). Bishop, therefore, like Martineau, provides the insight that travelling is a pursuit of knowledge and joy in entirely different landscapes for women.

Finally, a quote from Mary Kingsley concludes the fascination and enjoyment women travellers perceived from exploring, suggesting that to be uniquely eccentric is not such a bad thing as their reputations in contemporary society were probably acknowledged. It is undoubtable that their contributions to progressing rights for different groups, opening pathways into science and their offerings to travel writing are still significant today. Our next step is to help their stories and their ‘little good to society’ to be remembered and their courage to inspire us when we can travel freely again.

 ‘The charm of WA [West Africa] is a painful one: it gives you pleasure when you are out there, but when you are back here it gives you pain by calling you. It sends up before your eyes a vision of a wall of dancing white, rainbow-gemmed surf playing on a shore of yellow sand before an audience of stately coco palms; or of a great mangrove-watered bronze river; or of a vast aisle in some forest cathedral: and you hear, nearer to you than the voices of the people around, nearer than the roar of the city traffic, the sound of the surf that is breaking on the shore down there, and the sound of the wind talking on the hard palm leaves and the thump of the natives’ tom-toms; or the cry of the parrot’s passing over the mangrove swamps in the evening time; or the long, slow, mellow whistle of the plantain warblers calling up the dawn; and everything around you grows poor and thin in the face of the vision, and you want to go back to the coast that is calling you, saying, as the African says to the departing soul of his dying friend, “Come back, come back, this is your home.’ (Kingsley, Travels, 9)

Written by Emily Caseley, NRO Research Blogger


Bird Bishop, Isabella. Unbeaten Tracks in Japan. Public Domain Book, Kindle Edition.

Kingsley, Mary. Travels in West Africa. Public Domain Book, Kindle Edition.

Martineau, Harriet. Retrospect of Western Travel, Volume I. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011

North, Marianne. Recollections of a Happy Life, quoted in ‘Travelling with Marianne North’

Wagner, Tamara, S. “Travel Writing” in The Cambridge Companion to Victorian Women’s Writing. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015. Ed, Linda Peterson. Downloaded from University of East Anglia, on 12 May 2020 at 17:24:39, subject to the Cambridge Core Downloaded from University of East Anglia, on 12 May 2020 at 17:24:39, subject to the Cambridge Core

Norfolk Record Office, BOL 4/48, 741X8.

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