By Frank Werner
Explorette? Explorene? There is no English word for a female explorer, as far as I know, but there should be, as Charlotte du Rietz has proved so ably in her latest list. She has focused on seven renowned women, from the 18th to the 20th century:
Lady Hester Stanhope, (1776-1839) who left Britain in 1810. Thought to be wildly excentric, she travelled widely in Syria and Lebanon, organized a revolt of the Druzes against Egypt, and finally settled in an old monastery near Mt. Lebanon, where she died in 1839.
Annie Taylor, (1838-1921(?)). She wanted to go to the most inhospitable place in the world, Llhasa, to save its soul, disguised as a Tibetian nun. She was betrayed, sent back and settled on the Tibetan frontier. After 1900, she moved back to England, no-one knows where or when she died.
Mary Kingsley, (1862-1900) made two trips to West Africa between 1893 and 1895. She collected anthropological and zoological information and traded for ivory and rubber. Her splendid writing and great sense of humour still make her books a pleasure to read.
Gertrude Bell, (1868-1926), the “uncrowned Queen of Iraq”. She travelled in Syria, Eastern Turkey, Assyria and through the interior of Arabia. During World War I, she worked for the British Intelligence Service and played a major role in creating the modern Middle East.
Alexandrine David-Neel, (1868-1969) was a French journalist and operatic tenor who converted to Buddhism. Leaving for Asia in 1911, she travelled widely in China and Japan, finally going to Llhasa, disguised as a peasant woman. The purpose was to investigate the practice as well as the philosophy of Buddhism. She died at the ripe old age of 100.
Ella Maillart, (1903-1997) was an enthusiastic skier, sailor and traveller. She explored Russian Turkestan and the Tien Shan range. In China, she investigated Japanese occupied Manchuria. Between 1939 and 1945, she lived in India, where she learned about Advaita Vendata, a school of Hindu philosophy. She also kept a sweet cat named Ti-puss, to whom she devoted a whole book.
Osa Johnson, (1894-1953) led a life of adventure with her husband Martin. For their travels in East and Central Africa, the South Seas and Borneo, they walked, drove, canoed and flew their own airplanes, photographing and filming extensively. When her husband died in a plane chrash in 1937, Osa carried on alone, and produced several more documentary films from old and new material.
For each of these ladies Charlotte Du Rietz gives a short but informative biography, a portrait, and a list of rare books and fine editions by or about them. These too, are shown. The prices are moderate, top of the line being the “Memoirs of the Lady Hester Stanhope” London 1845 in 3 volumes for € 2200. This is followed by Annie Taylor’s “Pioneering in Tibet”, London 1896 for € 1250 all the way down to “Life of Mary Kingsley”, London 1933, for a modest € 50.
These seven ladies stand pars pro toto, as there were, of course, many more female travellers, one of the earliest ones having been Egeria, a third century nun, who took a pilgrimage from France to the Holy Land and sent back letters, describing her adventures. Quite few women accompanied their husbands and did important work during the expeditions, but are hardly ever even mentioned, like Lady Florence Baker, whom Samuel Baker had actually bought in a slave market.
As you can see, collecting books on or about travelling women can be quite fascinating, and you could do much worse than starting with this excellent catalogue by Charlotte Du Rietz!