Article: Road tripping, female adventurers & travel writing

Why is it that road trips, when undertaken by men in literature, seem to be about expanding one’s life and its context, about seeing the bigger world and how the man fits into it, and yet when undertaken by women, are most often in flight from dangerous situations, and seldom, if ever, for pure adventure?

Great article by Bernadette Murphy in Literary Hub examining female role models in road trip literature. 

Murphy recognises that books can provide role models to help us understand our own choices and motivations but, when planning her own road trip, wondered at the relative lack of female literary road trip role models. 

Riding a motorcycle for hours on end, days at a time will disorient you in a way that opens up new vistas. That’s what I was counting on.

In the course of the article, Murphy provides a good list of adventurous female authors who took to the road and wrote about their experiences. The comments section at the end of the article provides a few more suggestions.

Murphy has added to the list of female adventurer/writers with an account of her own 5,000 mile bike trip, Harley and Me.

That trip dilated my perception of myself, of this country, of my place in the world. In a very real and sometimes brutal way, the experience of being out in the elements day after day, enduring long and arduous miles along the nation’s roads took me apart, piece by piece—and then rebuilt me.

In addition to the titles by female authors that Murphy recommends there are, of course, others by female authors that celebrate travel and adventure.  

As well as famous examples like Gertrude Bell, Dervla Murphy and Freya Stark, there are also Emily Hahn, who wrote about driving across the US and some of her many other travels in the memoir No Hurry to Get Home, Edith Wharton’s A Motor-Flight Through France and In Morocco, the aptly named Aloha Wanderwell Baker who drove around the world in the 1920s and also Ella Maillart who, as well as keeping pace with Peter Fleming in Forbidden Journey, wrote about her road trip from Geneva to Kabul with Annemarie Schwarzenbach in The Cruel Way.   More recent examples include Robyn Davidson and Kira Salak. 

Murphy has a good point about women being underrepresented in travel literature in proportion to the journeys they have made when compared to their male counterparts.  

Even when they make the same journeys, the female perspective can be overshadowed by the male.  The Maillart/Fleming journey provides one example and Barbara Greene’s account of her African journey with her more famous cousin, Graham, another.  Many have heard of Graham Greene’s Journey Without Maps, but Barbara Greene’s excellent Too Late to Turn Back is less well known.

However, that ought not to detract from the many fine travel narratives written by adventurous females who have undertaken journeys many others would not dare and continue to inspire those with sufficiently adventurous spirits to follow in their tracks. 

What other female travel writers would you recommend?

Book: Emily Hahn, Maharajahs & Tigers

Tiger House Party: Last days of the Maharajahs
by Emily Hahn

Doubleday & Co (1959)

A headline in a British newspaper I was skimming through read “Indian Princes Threatened with Extinction.”  It made me wonder.

This short but interesting book collects together four feature articles which were originally published as a series in the New Yorker magazine in 1958.

Emily Hahn reports on how India’s 600 or so dethroned princes were faring in the period not long after partition and India and Pakistan’s independence from Britain in 1947.  

Never fully part of the British Empire, the princely states were semi-independent.  As arrangements for the partition of the subcontinent into India and Pakistan (East and West) proceeded, creative negotiation was needed in some cases to persuade the princes to join India rather than Pakistan.   Dethroned, the princes were given no formal role in the new constitution and were transformed from rulers of states with powers of taxation to citizens almost overnight.

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Nevertheless, although divested of all formal power, the former princes were merely down but not out and remained as a social class.

While the princes were getting used to their new order, Hahn was invited by the Rajah of Bundi to a house party at Phoolsagar Palace to celebrate his 37th birthday.  Hahn considers the history of the royal family of Bundi and their descent from the sun and, as well as attending the Rajah’s birthday celebrations and of course describing the party, she joins a tiger hunt, goes flying, takes part in the festival of Holi, visits the old royal palace and also meets the Rajah‘s daughter Princess Kitten.  

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Hahn is not Bundi’s only literary claim to fame.  Rudyard Kipling visited Bundi and is supposed to have written (or at least have been inspired to write) his novel Kim here.  He also wrote the poem, The Last Suttee about the death of the king of Boondi, whose wives mourn his passing and prepare to throw themselves on to the funeral pyre in defiance of the English ban of the traditional practice of suttee.

In 1887/8, Kipling also toured Rajahstan (known as Rajputana at the time) for the Pioneer in Allahabad and wrote a series of letters for them.  The letters which were collected and published as Letters of Marque (available online here, and here) contain his famous description of old Bundi palace:  

To give on paper any adequate idea of the Boondi-ki-Mahal is impossible. Jeypore Palace may be called the Versailles of India; Udaipur’s House of State is dwarfed by the hills round it and the spread of the Pichola Lake; Jodhpur’s House of Strife, grey towers on red rock, is the work of giants, but the Palace of Boondi, even in broad daylight, is such a Palace as men build for themselves in uneasy dreams — the work of goblins rather than of men. It is built into and out of the hillside, in gigantic terrace on terrace, and dominates the whole of the city. But a detailed description of it were useless. 

By the time Emily Hahn visited Bund in the 1950s, the royal family had all but abandoned the old palace and moved in to Phoolsagar which, built in the 1940s, had more modern comforts.  Hahn is an entertaining and witty guide to life inside the Rajah’s household, more so because of the wry perspective she gives on the women in the Rajah’s life and the ‘proper’ place of a woman during a tiger hunt…    

As well as being available on Amazon, Last Days of the Maharajahs is also available in the New Yorker’s archive or free online at the Internet Archive:

Emily Hahn had a long and prolific career as a journalist and author.  She wrote over 200 articles for the New Yorker over a period of 70 years (as a staff writer for more than 40 of those), and made her final contribution at the age of 96.  In addition, Hahn travelled widely and wrote more than 50 books on a variety of subjects including her extensive travels.  

Read more about Emily Hahn’s travels here on Travel Without Moving, more about her life in the New York Times obituary, here, or more of Emily Hahn’s work in the New Yorker archives, here

Book: No Hurry to Get Home, Emily Hahn

No Hurry to Get Home
by Emily Hahn

Published by Open Road Media (2014) 

“The old euphoria of the traveller, a sensation I’d almost forgotten in the forest, was stealing over me—that keen expectation of something happening soon, something fascinating.”

“Lazy, that’s your trouble” announced Emily Hahn’s surveying partner while she was studying engineering.  This memoir, however, reveals that Hahn was anything but.
 

No Hurry to Get Home opens with chapters focussing on Hahn’s childhood years.  Hahn reveals that at an early age the urge to get away was manifested itself in running away from home, probably as a result of a “hangover” from reading books with protagonists who “scorned the stale air of indoors”. 

Following Hahn from this early experience through her upbringing in St Louis and Chicago in the first two decades of the 20th century, we encounter a father who was careful to ensure that his daughters conversations about clothes remained practical and never became vanity and sisters who were competitive and poached boyfriends.  Hahn moves on to encounter the male chauvinist environment of engineering school and the joys of drinking homemade gin during Prohibition.  

Hahn’s first real travel experience was a road trip heading West across the States in a Model T Ford in 1924 when such a journey involved “virtuous, healthy discomfort” because of the lack of roadside services and “people still behaved as if motoring was a passing fad.”  The trip changed Hahn who became increasingly restless and recalled thinking:

It was awful to think of everybody in that big place getting up at the same time every morning, taking the same bus or streetcar to work, doing the same things every day at the office. Where in the world were people who did things simply because they wanted to—because they were interested? Did no one ever strike out along new paths? 

Charles Lindbergh’s solo flight across the Atlantic inspired Hahn to new challenges and she quit work and headed West again to become a Harvey Girl.

 Emily_Hahn portrait

Subsequent chapters follow Hahn around the world as she travels to the UK and Africa before heading to Japan and China, where she stayed for 8 years and was at the time of the Japanese invasion and the first part of the Second World War before she headed back to the US.   

Hahn is humorous and candid without being sentimental as she encounters the Kurtz-like anthropologist, Stewart, in the Belgian Congo, makes her way overland to Lake Kivu with a party of bearers, is confronted by racism in Dar es Salaam and recounts a Japanese air raid while she was in China.   In one of the best known essays, The Big Smoke, Hahn recounts her experiences with opium (“I was quite determined. It took me a year or so to become addicted, but I kept at it”).  

Throughout, Hahn reveals common travellers’ preoccupations: communicating with home, the joy of first travel, conversations with other travellers, doubts about the suitability of traveling companions, concerns about the creeping commercialisation of popular travel destinations and the nuisance travellers can be to their families and friends when they return from travels full of anecdotes and extravagant habits. 

No Hurry to Get Home was originally published as Times and Places in 1970.  Originally intended to be an autobiography, the introduction records how Hahn’s enthusiasm for the project waned as she became preoccupied with new projects but had spent the advance.  

The end result became an anthology of articles which had been published in the New Yorker, the magazine to which Hahn contributed over a period of 70 years (as a staff writer for more than 40 of those).  The chapters in No Hurry are therefore stand alone which makes it an an ideal collection to dip in and out of.    

Hahn’s surveying partner at engineering school might have perceived recycling previously published pieces as a further example of laziness.  That, however, would be grossly unfair.  During her prolific career, Hahn wrote more than 50 books on a variety of subjects and made her final contribution to the New Yorker at the age of 96.  Selecting previously published pieces was simply a way of meeting a commitment.  In many ways, a memoir made up of pieces published in the magazine with which Hahn was linked throughout her professional life is a fitting testament and an ideal introduction to Hahn’s life and travels.  

The New York Times obituary of Emily Hahn is here.  Read more of Emily Hahn’s work in the New Yorker archives, here