Whilst in Mexico in 2003 I was awoken by my landlord in the middle of the night bellowing ‘Telefono, telefono, Inglaterra!’ The dark outside, the hour, and the thought that someone was calling me from England who had been well briefed on the time difference, made me think the worse: someone had died or was gravely ill. A moment later my nerves were calmed as my sister explained they had heard on the news about the Colima earthquake and wondered if I was anywhere near to it. I wasn’t. In fact I was miles away and I didn’t even know there had been an earthquake, not having yet heard the news. After a brief conversation and all fears in England were allayed I returned to bed thinking: what if? What would I do if someone passed away in London whilst I was abroad? How would I cope with the shock and grief? On another note I wondered, how my family would cope if the inevitable had happened, I did not come home.
I have investigated between 40-50 diaries, published letters, journals, narratives and memoir which were written by women of various nationalities in the mid-late nineteenth century who travelled abroad. Although my research has mainly been concerned with women, I also examined men’s writing as well. Taking this comparison into account, I still found it difficult to track a distinct feminine way of writing. However, nineteenth century women witer-travellers did exhibit some habits within their texts which were distinct from men’s travel writing, most of which I won’t bore you with here! Nonetheless, one thing is certain, they often used their letters as an outlet for their feelings and emotions, even on short holidays. Although I have to be careful not to be ‘gender blind’ as it is easy to do when writing something that you pertain women exclusively did or do; still, I have increasingly become interested in women’s emotional reactions to situations they find themselves in abroad.
This can be grief, sadness, empathy, joy, happiness, in relation to such situations as being
widowed, a sudden death, health difficulties, difficult scenes (such as slavery) and natural disasters. For example, Maria Graham’s journal (left) of her travels to Chile (published in 1824) is not only famous for its insights on Latin American history, (filled with illustrations like below right) but because her Sea Captain husband died of a fever whilst they travelled, leaving her widowed. Graham’s subsequent published journals about Chile and Brazil, contained numerous descriptions on her state of health and how she coped with her grief whilst abroad. She wrote: ‘This afternoon I stood at my window, looking over the bay. The captain’s barge, of the Doris, brought ashore the remains of my indulgent friend, companion, and husband’. There is no doubt that Graham stayed abroad as long as she did after her husband’s death as a way to deal with her grief
and indeed recuperate her health which was severly effected by that grief. In terms of women’s state of health I also found that travelling to regain, health often tied to leisure, was a very common reason for travel in the first place. This is reflected in the following passage from Clara Bromley’s travels to the Caribbean and Central America in 1853:’The following pages contain a short narrative of travel in South America, Mexico and the West Indies, undertaken by the author for the renovation of health and spirits, severely shaken by domestic losses during the preceding year. The author gladly takes this occasion of expressing her grateful sense of the kindness, courtesy, and hospitality she met with from all whom she came across during her tour”.
It is no surprise therefore that somewhere in women’s written emotional reactions to their travel experience, they recounted their state of health whilst they were on holiday. These explanation were sometimes a continuation of what they were experiencing back home, as Clara Bromley’s explanation for her travel to recuperate from ‘domestic losses’ so aptly described.
As these two examples show, life did not stop for these women simply because they were abroad. Today, travel brochures would have us believe just that fact. The plethora of TV Holiday advertisements we get bombarded with after Christmas, travel web sites and newspaper supplements, plead to us to take a break from life by going abroad. It is only in these times of austerity, and the cosy pro-England feel that the 2012 Jubilee celebrations and Olympics brought, that vacation suggestions now include the stay-cation or holidaying in England into our consciousness. However, even nineteenth century women found that they were enticed by early holiday advertisements, one Mrs Foote who travelled to Nicaragua in 1853-4 had ‘selected the route through Nicaragua, having been induced to do so by the glowing advertisements and verbal assurances of all the Company’s agents, who represented it to be in perfect condition for the transit of passengers’. In fact, Mrs Foote’s journey was horrendous, where she wrote about her encounter with a live volcano: ‘We were awakened in the night by the strong and suffocating smell of sulphur, and on opening the outer door found a thick shower of ashes falling continuously, and silently’.
There were not many women who discussed their emotional reactions to dire disaster but as Mrs Foote demonstrated, there were some. Eliza Fenwick for instance, who went to Barbados in 1814 also wrote of her experiences during a hurricane on the island around the same time. We all know someone who has suffered from at least unexpected bad weather whilst on holiday – let alone tragedy; Hurricane Sandy’s recent battering of the East Coast is testimony to that as is today’s Japanese quake! Disasters both natural and otherwise are numerous like the 2004 Indian Ocean Tshnami and earthquake and the Costa Concordia (above left) shipping disaster in January of this year. The only difference with contemporary accounts as compared to nineteenth century ones, is that with the former contemporary reports of disasters come through multiple mediums. We have the choice of watching startling and often disturbing imagery, to a plethora of accounts from news bulletins in print, Television and internet; and oral testimonies and documentaries.Whilst I watched the awful events of the Concordia disaster earlier this year, ironically in the 100 year’s anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic, I was surprised at the parallels which could be drawn with some of the women I had researched. For example Miss Metcalf’s wrote a note to her mother and posted on Facebook ‘my name is Rose, its Friday 13th and I am one of the last survivors still on board the sinking cruise ship off the coast of Italy, pray for us to be saved’. The ability to connect to each other with such immediacy, unlike nineteenth century women’s experience, doesn’t hide the fact that the human need to communicate her fears to someone else was at the forefront of her mind even as ‘the water rose’.
So why do I have an interest in all things emotional and as it turns out, catastrophic again? Oh yes! travel – which can sometimes run the risk of getting lost in the analysis – something to watch! Perhaps my Mexican ‘so near to an earthquake experience’ scarred me for life? Though I did turn to my pen and write copiously about my experience there…(note to share with you at some point!) Or maybe I just have a preoccupation with disaster. One of my other pastime is watching disaster movies – you figure it out!!