BOOK REVIEW / Skirting round the globe: 'Unsuitable for Ladies: An Anthology of Women Travellers' - Jane Robinson: OUP, 17.95 pounds

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The Independent Culture
BY 'travellers' we do not mean tourists: even 'explorers' is not quite strong enough a term for some of the women in this anthology.

'The top of the lion's head was blown to smithereens,' wrote Agnes Herbert, saved by her cousin Cecily's skill with a heavy-calibre rifle. 'I snatched my gun and fired at the leader of the herd,' recalled Osa Johnson, defending her husband from a charging elephant. 'My host had been murdered a few minutes before,' declared Emily Innes, wondering why the poor fellow was so quiet. Lady Sale had a stroke of luck when fired on during her escape from a besieged fort in Afghanistan: 'Fortunately only one ball in my arm'. 'It was hellish dark and smelt of cheese,' complained former Sunday Telegraph cookery columnist Marika Hanbury-Tenison, stuck in a Chinese steamer: 'I knew we were all going to die that night.' It turned out that she was wrong, as was Violet Cressy-Marcks: bitten by a snake on the Amazon, she decided 'If I was going to die it was a fine spot for it.' 'The place smells of blood,' according to Gertrude Bell, stuck in a real-life Arabian Nights scenario. 'The air whispers of murder. It gets on my nerves.' Well, it would. One has to be practical about these things, like Lady Mary Hodgson: 'Skirts are an impediment when fleeing for your life in Ashantiland.'

There have certainly been some self-possessed women (many of them Ladies) trotting about the globe. Self-propelled too, in the case of bicycling Bettina Selby, for whom Timbuktu was just one of her destinations. Few men have, like Rosie Swale when sailing round Cape Horn, been forced to head for land by a miscarriage. Few 19th-century chaps had to ask the Egyptian ambassador to send emergency supplies of stays, as did Florence Baker on the Uganda-Zaire border. Women also managed to slide into places barred to men, such as the Turkish harem where, Lady Elizabeth Craven discovered, the inmates spent so much time in the bath that their flesh started to dissolve.

According to Lady Elizabeth Eastlake, the hallmark of male correspondents was dull pontification and feeble puns. By contrast, modesty has been the traditional virtue of women who travel light. This applied, of course, to dress: when her Hints to Lady Travellers advised in 1889, 'Let the skirt be as short as possible', Lillias Campbell Davidson only meant sufficiently high 'to clear the ankles'. Even the titles of their books make modest claims: Slight Reminiscences of the Rhine by Mary Boddington; Diary of an Idle Woman in Constantinople by Frances Elliot; Lispings from Low Latitudes by the Hon Impulsia Gushington, alias Lady Helen Dufferin. Sarah Belzoni's gripping extract about her time in Cairo, 'that sink of vice and wickedness', is taken from what she called Mrs Belzoni's Trifling Account.

The compiler Jane Robinson can boast about the exotic variety of her anthology, but she ought to be extremely modest about her toe-curlingly embarrassing links between the extracts. Ignore them and concentrate on, for example, Freya Stark describing a mass circumcision in a Turkish village, or Cara David's piercing account of the earlobes of a friendly woman on a tropical Australasian island - they had holes in them big enough to store a pipe when it wasn't being puffed. And Mary Kingsley, booking her steamship passage to West Africa, discovered that only one-way tickets were for sale: did the travel agents know something she didn't?