A world rewritten

Learning Persian, reading Froissart and sketching: according to the ODNB these were some of the diversions of the young Maria Dundas on board the HMS Corneliabound for Bombay, which she boarded with her family in December 1808. There she met Lieutenant Thomas Graham, with whom she shared a passion for reading Dugald Stewart’s Elements of the Philosophy of the Human Mind. They were engaged before the ship docked. The Grahams continued their travels, principally in the southeast; Thomas Graham died at sea in April 1822, as they were on their way to Valparaíso in Chile.

Throughout these experiences Maria Graham (later Maria, Lady Callcott) had been keeping a journal. Among many other literary achievements, including holding her own in a dispute with the president of the Geological Society, may be counted path-breaking works of travel literature such as Journal of a Residence in Chile During the year 1822 (1824). It was her first-hand knowledge of the Chilean earthquake of that year, as well as her scientific knowledge, that led to her victory in the later dispute. She rightly features prominently in Chawton House’s current exhibition, Trailblazers: Women travel writers and the exchange of knowledge. Packed into two rooms, here is the evidence, clearly and sensibly presented, of a world being rewritten over the course of the long eighteenth century.

One of the first things that Trailblazers does for a visitor is to offer a sense of the hardships and perils, not to say sheer tedium, that female travellers of this period were both discovering and writing about. As you walk into the first room you are confronted by a vast dark-blue map of the world, across which thread the colour-coded courses of various voyages. A relatively modest loop stands for the experiences of Jane Vigor (1699–1783), the author of Letters from a Lady, who resided some years in Russia (1775). A deeper purple line charts Maria Graham’s course to the fatal tip of Cape Horn (where her husband, the captain of the ship, died) and round to Valparaíso. Several women writers made it to India, while there is no mistaking which thread represents Mary Ann Parker (1765/–-1848), the author of A Voyage round the World, in the Gorgon Man of War (1795). Here again was an expedition to witness by a captain’s wife.

Trailblazers concentrates on a small number of significant and distinctive women writers but also suggests something of the relevant contexts – imperialism, trade, the curiosity of the reading public. It also gathers up information about both the necessities of travel and writing home about travel. In the same room as that map is the firman, or permit, required by the formidable Lady Hester Stanhope (1776-1839) as she penetrated deep into the Ottoman empire; less time, a copy of aManuel du voyageur par Madame de Genlis en six langues assists the tourist expecting to cross several European borders in how to enquire after buying books or having visiting cards printed, whether in London or Lisbon, Paris, Madrid, Hamburg or Rome. A sturdy wooden chest, propped open, suggests some of the items any traveler, male or female, might find useful on the road, including a miniature “soldier’s comfort” – a portable stove with a handle, with which meals might be frozen and frozen hands warm. Even as some journeys were obviously more arduous than others, the literary dimension to their various challenges remains prominent here: in her much revised and republished Travels on the Continent (1820), Mariana Starke (1761/2–1838) advises her readers on “requisites for travellers” that range from “a moschetto-net” to clogs, warm pelisses and a sword case. Bad German roads might require cords to be attached to your carriage’s wheels; on entering an inn, a “strict bargain” should be made at once with the landlord. An overlooked pioneer, perhaps, Starke is an antecedent to the practical travel guides that became commonplace during the age of the railway, the steamship and Karl Baedeker.

The second room in Trailblazers will detain the visitor who wishes to be further immersed in the lives of Stanhope or Graham – but first comes Lady Mary Wortley Montagu (1689–1762). A rare surviving letter of hers, written from Constantinople on March 23, 1718, sits in a case next to a later copy of her published works. When you reach Lady Hester you find another letter, a century on, in which the British ambassador to the Ottoman empire warns her that war is coming and that it might be best to retreat to a place of greater safety. She ignored this advice, stayed put, wrote and died in Lebanon. Another leap forward in time, to 1989, brings another letter from a British ambassador, as he reports to Geoffrey Howe at the Foreign Office on the accidental disturbance of Lady Hester’s grave and her re-interment, twice delayed “because of fighting in the Chouf area, near Abey.”

Although this second room is dominated by displays of open books and fragile manuscripts, there is no mistaking the dramatic possibilities they conjure up, the dangers these travellers courted. Those encountered by Helen Maria Williams (1759–1827), with her forthright Letters Written in France (over eight volumes, beginning in 1790), are well known; but she is also represented here by copies of her A Tour in Switzerland (1798), a later attack on her written by a French politician (“Who is this Helen Maria Williams, who is so big with our revolution?”) and what seems to be the newly discovered passport her mother required for a return trip to Paris in 1795. Physical hardships and perils aside, there is also the intellectual struggle that, most obviously, engaged Mary Wollstonecraft (1759–97). The author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792) scored a hit four years later with her Letters Written in Sweden, Norway, and Denmark. The latter may be seen as a refutation of the model of womanhood excoriated in the former. “A man, when he undertakes a journey, has in general, the end in view; a woman thinks more of the incidental occurrences, the strange things that may possibly occur on the road … above all, she is anxiously intent on the care of the finery that she carries with her, which is more than ever a part of herself.” This exhibition as a whole, meanwhile, may be taken as a refutation of the idea that any woman traveling, and writing about traveling, need be concerned exclusively with “the end in view” or “incidental occurrences”. Such questions may linger as you leave, passing the portrait of Maria Graham painted by John Jackson in Rome in 1819, depicting her with an embroidered turban and a pensive gaze.

Michael Caines is an editor at the TLS and co-editor of the Brixton Review of Books. He is the author of Shakespeare and the Eighteenth Century2013

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