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The surprising feminist history of the travel guidebook

The surprising feminist history of the travel guidebook
Learn the little-known story of Mariana Starke, the 19th-century woman who broke convention to pioneer the modern guidebook
Scour the internet for famous 19th-century explorers and, chances are, 99 per cent of them will be men. Furthermore, there’ll be little mention of Mariana Starke. 
It’s a striking oversight. A pioneering travel writer who circumnavigated the battlefields of France and Italy during the age of Napoleon, Starke was a woman, years ahead of her time, who has a valid claim to being the inventor of the modern guidebook. 
Sharing the same publisher as Jane Austen, the industrious Mariana undertook much of her research on the bumpy post-roads of continental Europe several decades before the advent of the steam train, and continued to perfect her craft until she was well into her sixties.
"Starke was a woman, years ahead of her time, who has a valid claim to being the inventor of the modern guidebook"
Her debut travel book, Letters from Italy, published in 1800, evolved over a period of 40 years (and numerous editions) from a collection of personal reflections on art and culture, into a consummate travel guide that included meticulous details on everything from steamship timetables to medical supplies.
Many subsequent guidebooks, including the iconic Baedeker and Murray brands, borrowed heavily from her ideas, while most modern travel writers indirectly owe her a debt.
So, who exactly was this unorthodox, trailblazing woman and how did she enter the fickle world of travel writing?

Mariana Starke's early life

Mariana Starke was born into an upper middle-class family with literary leanings in Epsom, Surrey in 1762. Her father had served as a regional governor in British India. Her mother was a thespian and lover of literature who counted the writer and poet William Hayley among her friends. Educated mostly by her mother, Mariana proved to be an erudite and able student. In 1787, at the age of 25, she helped translate the French plays of Stéphanie-Félicité de Genlis into English. The following year, her self-penned play, The Sword of Peace won enough plaudits to be performed at London’s Haymarket theatre.   
In an era when it was customary to disregard female writers as lightweight and unqualified, she published both works anonymously. Yet, undeterred by the obstacles in her way, Mariana continued to challenge the inherent sexism of the era, appearing as a character in her second play The British Orphan dressed as a man. Such intrepidness set the tone for many of her subsequent adventures.
18th century Italy
Italy in the 18th century © Venetian School, public domain via Wikimedia Commons
Starke’s nomadic lifestyle began in 1792 when her family travelled to Italy in the hope of finding warmer weather to cure her sick sister’s tuberculosis. Tragedy hit when her sister died in Nice en route to Rome. In a double blow, Mariana’s father succumbed to the same illness in Pisa two years later. However, rather than turning around and heading home, Mariana spent the next four years musing on Italy’s art and culture, using her experiences to form the basis of a travel book.  
Mining her good literary contacts, Letters from Italy was published by Richard Phillips in 1800 with an updated version, entitled Travels in Italy Between the Years 1792 and 1798 coming out in 1802. 
"Starke's books were written with the express intention of encouraging readers to follow in her footsteps"
Starke’s books were ground-breaking, not just because she was a woman. Dispensing of romantic descriptions of natural landscapes in favour of more practical information, they were written with the express intention of encouraging readers to follow in her footsteps, a concept in marked contrast to most of the effusive travelogues that preceded her. 
While not short of admirers, the guides remained little used for nearly two decades, primarily because Europe was still embroiled in the Napoleonic wars, and not a particularly inviting place for culture-seeking tourists. The situation changed in 1815 when victory by the Seventh Coalition at the Battle of Waterloo ushered in a period of peace and prosperity as the well-to-do members of the middle-classes, encouraged by better roads and cheaper prices, expressed an increasing desire to travel abroad. 

Revisiting the continent

As the map of Europe had been substantially redrawn since Starke’s 1802 guide, the author—by now well into her fifties—produced a more comprehensive update. Writing in the book’s introduction, she commented:  “I determined to revisit the continent; and become an eye-witness of the alterations made there by the events of the last twenty years: events that have so completely changed the order of things, with respect to roads, accommodations and works of art, that new guides for travellers are extremely wanted in almost every large city.” 
Published in 1820, Travels on the Continent went a step further than her earlier tomes, covering the breadth of Europe from Portugal to Russia and including concise advice on inn accommodations, how to hire a horse carriage and the intricacies of personal safety.  
Map of Europe after the Peace of Tilsit, 1807
Map of Europe after the Peace of Tilsit, 1807 © Timewatch Images / Alamy Stock Photo
“English travellers, even when going post, have rarely been robbed; unless owing to imprudence on their own part, or on that of their attendants,” she sagely remarked.  
Starke’s restructured book struck a chord, not just with aspiring "budget" travellers, but with her new publisher, John Murray II.  
A shrewd Scot, Murray was a foresighted man with an uncanny knack for spotting ground-breaking ideas. In 1815, he published Jane Austen’s third novel Emma (and all her subsequent books) while, decades later, his son, John Murray III went on to publish Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species. 
Starke had first approached Murray in 1814 at a time when the notion of travelling for pleasure was entering a new chapter. What had once been the domain of rich young aristocrats on a "grand tour" of Europe’s great art cities with an assemblage of servants and tutors in tow, had become accessible to a wider selection of people. Suddenly, Starke found herself poised at the head of a new trend. 

Murray's tutelage

Under Murray’s tutelage, the book and its subsequent editions sold well and Starke—publishing under her own name—became a minor celebrity. Stendhal, Dickens, and Mary Shelley were all said to have dipped enthusiastically into her guides and pirated copies of the book became common in Europe. Written primarily in the third person, post-1820 editions were more like a tailored guide than a reflective memoir. Sights were ranked in a system of one to five exclamation marks, journeys were laid out in suggested itineraries and detailed appendices contained exhaustive lists on how to behave, what to take and how to travel. Among priceless nuggets of on-the-road advice, Starke recommended readers not leave home without bringing pistols, a rhubarb grater, a medicine chest with pure opium and a sword case.  
John Murray II
John Murray II © Public domain
Some of the book’s more popular sights would remain recognizable to modern travellers. 
“The Louvre, though recently despoiled of many treasures, still boast[s] one of the finest collections in the world of paintings and sculpture,” wrote Starke, alluding to the repatriation of works looted by Napoleon after 1815. In an illustration of changing tastes, she gave Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa (“a celebrated Florentine beauty”) a measly one exclamation mark, his androgynous John the Baptist a middling two, and his Virgin and Child with St Anne a more generous three. 
"Now publishing under her own name, Starke became a celebrity"
Starke undertook several more research trips between 1824 and 1830 enabling Murray to update and enlarge her book well into the 1830s (by which time it counted over 680 pages).  
However, with the author approaching 70, the publisher started looking to milk the emerging travel market for himself. In 1836, Murray’s Handbook for Travellers on the Continent ignited one of the world’s first long-running guidebook series and quickly established a prototype for all books that followed, including the concurrent Baedeker brand launched in Germany in the 1830s. While refining the genre over a period of decades, Murray plundered numerous ideas from Starke including the adoption of inn listings, route itineraries and a subjective star system.  
Murray and Baedeker guidebooks proliferated in the mid-19th century with regular updates covering everywhere from Switzerland to the lightly mapped expanses of Algeria and India. Successive editions became more and more detailed, feeding a new appetite for "tourism" (the word had first been coined in 1811). Murray guidebooks remained in publication until 1968; Baedekers are still produced today and have been complemented by an abundance of Rough Guides, Lonely Planets and other brands.    

Starke's legacy

Superseded by these iconic guidebooks, Starke’s pioneering volumes had slipped off the radar by the late 20th century. But our collective amnesia doesn’t diminish their importance. Defying the conventions of the era, the maverick Mariana was a rule-breaking proto-feminist who crisscrossed Europe by horse-carriage rather than car and wrote with a quill rather than a pen, covering thousands of miles to report on the best places to wash a petticoat, or buy decent milk. Modern travel writers would struggle to emulate her.  
Starke died in Milan in 1838, aged 76, while travelling between Naples and London. The last edition of her book was released posthumously, in 1839. Perhaps unsurprisingly considering her workload, she never married or had children. Instead, her rich catalogue of books stands as her legacy, along with the compelling travel culture it helped create. 
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