Extraordinary female travel writers

Cecily Blench

Most of the names that crop up in lists of classic travel-writing are male, but there have always been intrepid women exploring the world and producing brilliant works of travel literature. Here are a few grand dames of the genre… 

Dervla Murphy

Dervla Murphy is in my view the ultimate travel writer. She was born in Lismore, Ireland, in 1931, and until the age of 30 was a carer for her disabled mother. When her parents died in their fifties it was the bittersweet beginning of the life she had longed for.

In 1963 she set off by bicycle for India, crossing Europe and travelling on through the Middle East. Her book about the journey, Full Tilt, is a thrilling record, and was the first of two dozen books about journeys from Cameroon to Laos to Siberia to Palestine.

Dervla is wonderfully intrepid and refreshingly unconventional. She drinks like a sailor, smokes cigars, and beds down wherever she happens to find herself. She is generous, prefers the company of the humblest people, and entertainingly budget-conscious. She is now in her late eighties, and still travelling. There is no one else like her.

Start with: The Waiting Land: A Spell in Nepal (1967)

 

Gertrude Bell

Born in 1868 into a wealthy English family, Gertrude Bell was not content to live the pampered life of her peers. After studying at Oxford, she mastered Arabic and travelled across Arabia numerous times as she gathered detailed information and produced some of the first maps of the region.

In the First World War she served in Cairo and Baghdad as an intelligence officer. This led to a pivotal role in the founding of the new state of Iraq, before her premature death in 1926. 

Her writings form a vital record of the Middle East, and she is remembered as a remarkable writer, traveller, and diplomat, who threw off the golden shackles of her birth to find real greatness.  

Start with: The Desert and the Sown (1907)

 

Martha Gellhorn

In her fearless career as a war correspondent, Martha Gellhorn (born in Missouri in 1908) produced some of the best travel writing of the 20th century.

Her first major commission was researching the effects of the Depression across the USA. Her writings from this period, both fiction and non-fiction, show an extraordinary grasp of people and of place. 

Later she reported on the Spanish Civil War, sent dispatches from wartime Finland and Southeast Asia, and was the only woman to land at Normandy on D-Day. She lived all over the world.

Martha is often remembered for her short marriage to Ernest Hemingway, but he was a footnote in her extraordinary life. Her bravery, the clarity of her descriptions, and her ability to talk to people made her a fine journalist and a brilliant writer.

Start with: Travels with Myself and Another (1978)

 

Freya Stark

Freya Stark (born 1893) grew up in Paris, Devon, and Asolo (Italy). Rebelling against the oppressive expectations of her class and family, she swore to live on her own terms, and went East.

Freya had a zest for adventure. More than once she was captured as a suspected spy, but she was charming and humorous and was released unharmed. Her books about Arabia are filled with vivid descriptions of the rich red desert, the endless skies, and the generous people she met along the way; one of her great virtues was the way she responded alike to rich and poor.

After working in intelligence in the Second World War, she continued to travel, publishing books about Afghanistan, Iraq, and Turkey among many others, and as a Dame finally retired back to the Italy she had loved all along.

Start with: The Southern Gates of Arabia (1936)

 

Jan Morris

Jan Morris has described herself more as a writer who travels than a traveller who writes. She was born James Morris in 1926, and her transition in the 1970s is probably one of the less remarkable things in a life in which she witnessed the conquering of Everest and sent back dispatches from across the world.

For much of her career she was a journalist, reporting on events from the Suez Crisis in 1956 to the handover of Hong Kong to China in 1997.

She is the author of exquisitely detailed portraits of countries and cities, among them Venice, Oxford, Sydney and Spain. She is poetic and philosophical about the places she visits, ascribing characteristics and moods to cities and landscapes.
She is largely retired now, and lives in Wales with her life partner Elizabeth, their relationship the one constant in a life spent searching for the next adventure. What a woman; what a life. 

Start with: Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere (2001)


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