The best books on travel and exploration written by women in the Victorian Era

Tracey Jean Boisseau Author Of Sultan To Sultan - Adventures Among The Masai And Other Tribes Of East Africa
By Tracey Jean Boisseau

Who am I?

As a historian of feminism, I am always on the lookout for sources that reveal women’s voices and interpretation of experiences often imagined as belonging primarily to men. Whether erudite travelogue, personal journey of discovery, or sensationalist narrative of adventure and exploration, books written by women traveling on their own were among the most popular writings published in the Victorian era. Often aimed at justifying the expansion of woman’s proper “sphere,” these books are perhaps even more enthralling to the contemporary reader —since they seem to defy everything we think we know about the constrained lives of women in this era. In addition to illuminating the significant roles that women played in the principal conflicts and international crises of the nineteenth century, these stories of women wading through swamps, joining military campaigns, marching across deserts, up mountains, and through contested lands often armed only with walking sticks, enormous determination, and sheer chutzpah, never fail to fascinate!


I wrote...

Sultan To Sultan - Adventures Among The Masai And Other Tribes Of East Africa

By M. French-Sheldon,

Book cover of Sultan To Sultan - Adventures Among The Masai And Other Tribes Of East Africa

What is my book about?

“The white queen is coming”. In April of 1891, May French-Sheldon—a 44-year-old, white American woman—left her husband back in London while she set out to “conquer” Africa at the head of an expedition of 140 African porters dressed in a ballgown of white silk topped with a tiara and waist-length blonde wig, carrying a whip coiled at her back, two hip pistols, a ceremonial sword, and an alpine staff from which flew a banner emblazoned with the Latin phrase: “noli me tangere” (“touch me not”).

After four months exploring the lakes at the foot of Mount Kilimanjaro, this flamboyant Victorian-era traveler returned to publish a narrative of her travels in East Africa from “sultan to sultan” illustrating the effectiveness of what she deemed a “womanly” form of (less violent) colonial conquest.

The books I picked & why

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Visit to Iceland and the Scandinavian North

By Madame Ida Pfeiffer,

Book cover of Visit to Iceland and the Scandinavian North

Why this book?

In 1842, after 45 years of frustratingly sedentary domesticity, the Austrian-born Ida Pfeiffer gave full vent to her wanderlust. Within five years, her jaw-dropping round-the-world journeys would make her one of the most widely-traveled persons of that century, while her talent for vivid portrayals made her one of the most well-known travel writers. Of her many chronicles, I especially enjoy this tale of her 1845 trip to the northern reaches of Scandinavia and Iceland—a place almost no continental Europeans had visited and few even knew existed. Pfeiffer’s insights and thoughtful reportage, as well as a newly emerging fascination with Iceland and Icelanders in our own time, has given this rare travel narrative new currency.

Wonderful Adventures of Mrs Seacole in Many Lands

By Mary Seacole,

Book cover of Wonderful Adventures of Mrs Seacole in Many Lands

Why this book?

The first autobiography published by an Afro-Caribbean (“Creole”) woman, this “adventure story” chronicles the life of Jamaican icon and national heroine, Mary Seacole who, in her own time, rivaled Florence Nightingale as a founder of modern nursing. The “yaller doctress” became known for her devising of successful treatments for cholera, yellow fever, and malaria in Jamaica and, later, Panama, and became internationally renowned after founding her own hospital-hotel at the frontlines of the Crimean War (1853-1856) where she nursed members of the British military. Upon publication, Seacole’s best-selling life-story gained her awards, acclaim, and the respect of the British nation (denied her by Florence Nightingale, by the way). Seacole’s effervescent writing bubbles over with optimism and can-do spirit.

A Thousand Miles Up the Nile

By Amelia B. Edwards,

Book cover of A Thousand Miles Up the Nile

Why this book?

Marking a turning point in women’s travel writing and scholarly publications, British artist, writer, and Egyptologist, Amelia Edwards, brought unparalleled expertise and knowledge of Egyptian antiquities to her narrative, in the process helping to found the modern study of Egyptology. Written by a gifted writer and accomplished novelist, her book follows her trip up the Nile River to investigate some of the world’s most important ancient archeological sites and is beautifully illustrated with her own watercolors as well as witty, insightful stories of everyday life in nineteenth-century Egypt.

Memoirs of an Arabian Princess from Zanzibar

By Emily Ruete,

Book cover of Memoirs of an Arabian Princess from Zanzibar

Why this book?

In 1865, the 22-year-old Salama bint Said (later known as Emily Reute), daughter of the great Sultan Said of Zanzibar, become involved in a failed coup against her older brother. Fleeing for her life with her German lover, Rudolph Ruete, she would find herself widowed with two children and marooned in Germany without financial support at age 26. Written as a heartwarming series of letters addressed to her children, the first known autobiography and travelogue published by an Arab woman poses serious challenge to the rationales underlying both women’s subordination and economic dependence on men as well as European imperialism in Africa and the Arab world.

Around the World in Seventy-Two Days

By Nellie Bly,

Book cover of Around the World in Seventy-Two Days

Why this book?

Bly was a brilliant investigative journalist best known in the United States for her exposé of the Women’s Lunatic Asylum based on her feigning of insanity as an undercover patient … until she became even more famous for her circumnavigation of the globe, inspired by Jules Verne’s fictional Around the World in 80 Days. Sponsored and encouraged by Joseph Pulitzer (editor of the tabloid newspaper, The New York World) and written in a witty, breezy style, Bly’s pithily-told tale upends every stereotype of fragile Victorian womanhood; her gutsy candor about her madcap race around what was supposed to be a wholly man’s world still stuns and delights!

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Interested in Victorian, Germany, and Iceland?

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Victorian Explore 61 books about Victorian
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Iceland Explore 42 books about Iceland

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