By Penelope Tuson, 2014


The Arcadian Library in London holds one of the finest collections of writing by Western women travelling to the East. The books and manuscripts cover almost four centuries of travel and range from Mary Wortley Montagu’s incomparable early eighteenth-century ‘Turkish Letters’ to the publications of twentieth-century archaeologists, journalists, diplomatic wives and flamboyant adventurers. The best-known—for example Harriet Martineau, Lady Florentia Sale, Florence Nightingale, Amelia Edwards, Gertrude Bell and Lady Anne Blunt—are represented, alongside lesser-known European travellers such as the early Victorian writer Julia Pardoe and the Belgian-born Italian nationalist, Carla Serena.

This book discusses the style and content of women’s writing about the East and the ways in which writers negotiated and adapted their narratives to conform to their readers’ expectations while often, at the same time, challenging contemporary gender roles. Often they were more able than male travellers to observe and appreciate cultural difference and they recorded their impressions with enthusiasm and genuine understanding. Their intimate and detailed accounts of their cultural encounters provide fascinating insights into the West’s relations with the East.

Many women travellers were also talented artists and their sketches, watercolours and photographs illuminate much of their writing. A generous selection of these art works has been reproduced here in full colour.


Chapter 1. ‘The Most Excellent Talents’: Eighteenth-Century Journeys to the Seraglio
Chapter 2. Beyond Istanbul: Desert Journeys and the Overland Route to India
Chapter 3. From Kabul to the Crimea: Women, War and the ‘Great Game’
Chapter 4. ‘Shaped by the East’: Feminists and Revolutionaries in the mid-Nineteenth Century
Chapter 5. The Queen’s Daughters: Finding a Female Voice in the Age of Imperialism
Chapter 6. Shifting Identities: Politics and Adventure on the Borderlands of Empire
Chapter 7. Dancing to the Dig: Women and Archaeology before the First World War
Chapter 8. Arabia Deserta: the Najd Journeys of Lady Anne Blunt and Gertrude Bell

Author Information

Penelope Tuson is an archivist and historian and was formerly Curator of Middle East Archives (India Office Collections) in the British Library. She later worked with the British Library's Consultancy Services, providing research and documentation services to academic and Government clients and subsequently joined the International Dispute Resolution Practice of a major U.S. law firm. She now specialises in collection development consultancy for libraries, archives and private individuals, while concentrating her personal academic interest on women’s history. Her publications include The Queen’s Daughters: an Anthology of Victorian Feminist Writings on India (1995) and Playing the Game: Western Women in Arabia, 1892-1939 (2003).

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Chapter 1. On Thursday 2 August 1716 Lady Mary Wortley Montagu sailed from Gravesend on the first stage of her famous journey to Istanbul. The wife of a diplomat, she began her travels as an ‘accompanying person’ although she subsequently journeyed and lived alone. Lady Mary recorded her experiences and her opinions in her own inimitable voice, in great detail and with elegant style, and her ‘Turkish’ Letters, first published in 1763, were to establish the genre of European women’s travel writing. Opinionated, energetic and flamboyant, they present a seductive, sophisticated and challenging vision of the European encounter with the Orient and they set a standard to which many subsequent writers aspired but few ever achieved.

Mary Wortley’s precocious early intellectual life was a sign of things to come. Born in 1689, she was the daughter of Evelyn Pierrepont, later 1st Duke of Kingston and Marquess of Dorchester, and his first wife, Lady Mary Fielding. The novelist, Henry Fielding, was a cousin. After the early death of her mother in 1692, Mary was brought up at her grandmother’s home until she was nine and then by her father. She later described her formal teaching as ‘one of the worst in the world’ and complained that her governess tried to ‘fill my head with superstitious tales and false notions’. Escaping into her father’s extensive library, she embarked on a programme of self-education, learning Latin, Greek and French, reading Ovid, Dryden and Molière, and writing her own poems and prose. Through her father’s intellectual circle, she was exposed to the stimulus of dinner table conversation with contemporary literary figures among whom were Joseph Addison, Richard Steele and William Congreve.

Chapter 2. By the early nineteenth century the travels of women such as Mary Wortley Montagu, Elizabeth Craven and Mary Elgin had established a pattern and precedent for well-heeled and intellectually inquisitive female adventurers. Much quoted by later travellers, Mary Wortley Montagu’s letters, in particular, proved that educated and energetic women were supremely able to compete with their male peers in investigating and illuminating societies and cultures beyond the boundaries of Europe. Moreover, they were accepted as having, on account of their gender, the ability to open up those female and feminine areas of knowledge previously only hinted at and largely imagined by contemporary and earlier male travellers.

Istanbul, with its artistic splendours, its sophisticated urban culture and well-established European diplomatic communities, still provided the ideal destination for both ‘accompanying’ and independent women travellers, although the French invasion of Egypt in 1798 stimulated alternative travel routes to the Eastern Mediterranean alongside a new interest in Egyptology and ancient civilisations. By 1830 the consolidation of British territorial rule in India and the development of the overland route from Europe via Suez and the Red Sea had also begun to provide opportunities for a much broader class of female travellers to take in the sights while en route with brothers, fathers and husbands to administrative, military or commercial enterprises in the Indian subcontinent. The early decades of the century consequently witnessed an explosion of women’s travel and travel writing which in the eighteenth century had been the preserve of only a handful of wealthy individuals.

Two very different accounts of Istanbul illustrate the changing attitudes and aspirations of women travellers. Lady Hester Stanhope, who arrived there in 1810, perpetuated the tradition of the well-connected pre-Victorian aristocratic traveller, elevating the role to new levels of eccentricity. Much less well-known, Julia Pardoe, novelist and historical biographer who visited the city two decades later, represented an entirely new type of professional and practical woman traveller, intent on earning a living from writing and publishing.

Chapter 3. Lady Florentia Sale was born in India in 1787 into a family with a tradition of East India Company service. She married Captain Robert Sale in 1808 and travelled with him to military postings in Ireland and Mauritius. In 1823, with their five children, the Sales arrived in Calcutta, where Florentia remained while Sale was on active service, earning the name ‘Fighting Bob’ for his bravery in the First Anglo-Burmese War. Afterwards the family lived in a number of Indian garrison towns, including Agra where Sale commanded the military station. On 7 August 1839, when the ‘Army of the Indus’ entered Kabul to restore Shah Shuja, Sale led the 1st Bengal Brigade. Awarded a knighthood and promoted to the rank of major-general, he would be second-in-command in Kabul.

Chapter 4. When Florence Nightingale landed at Scutari in November 1854 she was 34 and destined to become, after Queen Victoria, the most famous Englishwoman of her generation. The formidable organizational efforts of the ‘Lady with a Lamp’ in the battlefield hospitals of the Crimea and the subsequent creation of a modern nursing profession were momentous and enduring achievements. For Nightingale herself, however, they were the culmination of a painful spiritual and political journey of self-discovery which had taken her through revolutionary Europe and to the life-changing experience of a voyage up the Nile. In accounts of her long and active life her early travels have often been neglected but they are all crucial to an understanding of the woman and her work. Nightingale was one of a group of women who, in the mid-nineteenth century, turned to travel and politics as a means of escaping or challenging the boundaries of their own lives. They were almost all connected with each other through shared family, political or religious networks. Their writings on travel ranged from the personal and private to the overtly pedagogic and they almost all attracted some measure of hostility from contemporary commentators. […]

Steeped in Italian culture and politics she [Florence Nightingale] returned to England and, a year later, still searching for spiritual fulfilment and independence and now additionally burdened and depressed by unwanted offers of marriage, Nightingale was persuaded to set off again with the Bracebridges on a further journey of self-discovery, this time via Greece to Egypt, from where she continued to write extensive letters to her family, describing the physical aspects of her journey as well as the spiritual, and keeping an even more introspective private diary. The letters were subsequently edited by her sister, Parthenope, and printed for very limited and private circulation in 1854, the year of Florence’s departure to the Crimea. That they were never intended to reach a wider audience is clear from the personal nature of their style and content and the unrestrained language and imagery. Florence herself admitted that she was ‘dismayed’ by her sister’s action.

Before leaving she immersed herself in the Orientalist literature of the day. Parthenope recalled that Florence travelled laden with books, including the two volumes of Edward Lane’s Manners and Customs of the Modern Egyptians. During her earlier trip to Paris Julius Mohl had ‘crammed learning’ into her and in London she had talked to Christian von Bunsen, Prussian Ambassador to England and a renowned expert in Egyptian studies. Her letters reveal an immensely erudite and well-read young woman. With a background in European classical studies, however, her main interests lay in the still relatively new discipline of Egyptology and in comparative religion and there are pages and pages of lengthy and detailed descriptions of monuments. The realities of contemporary Egyptian life, on the other hand, were to shock her into self-righteous outrage and into controversial personal observations which have subsequently, and unsurprisingly, provoked hostile critical commentary but which have to some extent diverted attention from the pivotal importance of the journey in Nightingale’s own path to glory.

Arriving in Alexandria she visited the Great Mosque which impressed her with its atmosphere of inclusivity encompassing both rich and poor, ‘a place where any man may go for a moment’s quiet, and there is none to find fault with him nor make him afraid’. The visit, however, raised the issue of veiling and elicited from her a fierce and unequivocal hostility. Putting on ‘Egyptian dress’ she was

embarrassed when people stared at her, feeling like ‘the hypocrite in Dante’s hell, with the leaden cap on’: ‘it was a hell to me. I began to be uncertain whether I was a Christian woman, and have never been so thankful for being so as that moment. That quarter of an hour seemed to reveal to one what it is to be a woman in these countries where Christ has not been to raise us. God save them, for it is a hopeless life.’ That at this stage she could have very little knowledge of the realities of Muslim women’s lives is self-evident. That she would link her disapproval to religion was typical of her fervent belief in the supremacy of her Christian faith. For Nightingale the veil was primarily a threat to her sense of her own independent self and in spite of fervently protesting a feminist version of individual woman’s rights she had little interest in ‘women’s issues’ and even less understanding of Muslim domestic life.

Chapter 5. The second half of the nineteenth century witnessed a dramatic increase in both travel and travel writing by women. Safer, cheaper and more comfortable means of transport encouraged many more women to venture into areas which had previously been visited only by diplomats, the leisured upper classes, intellectuals and adventurers, most of whom had, of course, been men. Travel became a fashionable pursuit for the middle classes and created an appetite for guide books and adventure stories, some of which were no more than anecdotal self-referential reminiscences and others genuinely courageous, open-minded and informative. One of the most popular and best-selling Victorian travel writers was Lady Annie Brassey, who circumnavigated the globe with her wealthy husband, Thomas Brassey, in his schooner, the Sunbeam, and recorded the journey in A Voyage in the Sunbeam, first published in 1878, frequently reprinted, and translated into five languages. It included an account of Lady Annie’s diversion overland with her children to visit Cairo and the pyramids while the Sunbeam passed through the Suez Canal. Another enthusiastic traveller was Lady Catherine Tobin, the wife of Sir Thomas Tobin, a rich Liverpool mill-owner. The Tobins set off to the East in 1860, in search of consolation after the death of their eldest son at the siege of Lucknow two years earlier. Lady Catherine’s book, The Land of Inheritance, was published by Bernard Quaritch in 1863.

At the same time, and partly as a consequence of this increasing public interest, more and more independently minded women were beginning to regard travel writing as both a vehicle for personal expression and a means of income. By the end of the Victorian era women had proved that it was possible to travel not only to well-known destinations but also to regions previously inaccessible to Europeans. Generally they travelled with husbands, brothers or fathers but an increasing number of them travelled alone or with female companions. Their motives for travel and their experiences of it differed widely, as did their published accounts and perceptions of places as culturally diverse and geographically distant as urban Damascus and rural China. All of them, however, were influenced to a greater or lesser extent by the ideas and the realities of European imperial and colonial expansionism.

Chapter 6. While philanthropy and religion gave many European women a feminine and socially conservative opportunity to participate in the imperial mission civilisatrice, there were other women travellers who were more explicitly interested in identifying themselves as independent explorers and who became involved, deliberately or by chance, in the more masculine sphere of European geopolitics. Harriet Martineau, in particular, had established that women could be successful in popular, professional journalism. Princess Cristina di Belgiojoso, although from a wealthy aristocratic background, also published widely in political and literary journals. In 1852, during her political exile, she passed through Jerusalem where Mrs Finn noted in her diary that, although James Finn called on the Princess, the Italo-Austrian Consul, Count Pizzamano, avoided greeting her and she stayed in the Casa Nuova, a Roman Catholic Hospice. Cristina, for her part, produced her scurrilous and dismissive account of the strangely dressed English missionary couple she met on the road to Beirut who, from her description, could not have been the Finns but whose work the Finns would surely have endorsed.

Meanwhile, on the eastern borderlands of European territorial expansion, in the contested expanses of Central Asia, other adventurous women set about liberating themselves from the constraints of middle-class family life and at the same time established themselves as genuine players in the more ‘masculine’ activities of empire-building. Among them was Carla Serena, like Cristina di Belgiojoso a veteran of the European upheavals of 1848 and like Harriet Martineau a successful journalist. Belgian by birth and Venetian by adoption, she was born in Antwerp in 1824 and later married Leone Serena, a shipping broker closely associated with Daniele Manin and the short-lived Venetian Republic. She went into exile with her husband in 1849 and travelled with him to Marseilles, Paris and back to Belgium before eventually settling in London. After giving birth to five children (one of whom, Arthur, was later to endow the first chairs of Italian, at Oxford and at Cambridge, in 1919), Caroline changed her name to the more masculine-sounding Carla and, at the age of fifty, began a career in journalism, reporting on the Universal Expo in Vienna in 1873 for the Belgian paper Précurseur d’Anvers. In August 1874 she set off alone on an extraordinary six-year journey, beginning in Stockholm and travelling first to St Petersburg, Moscow, Kiev and across the Black Sea to Istanbul. From there she went on to Cairo and Jerusalem where she spent a month but declared that the Holy Land was beyond her descriptive capabilities. Taking in Beirut, Smyrna and Athens, she returned to Istanbul and across the Black Sea again to Batum, Tiflis and Sebastopol. Finally she doubled back, via Yerevan and Baku, to Tehran, Qom and Isfahan, travelling up the Caspian to Astrakhan, then to Moscow, Warsaw, Vienna and Rome. The most interesting part of her journey was the route through Georgia and across the politically unstable Caucasus, after which she claimed to have been the first single European woman to penetrate the region. She stayed in the Caucasus for three years before entering Persia, where, in the continuing climate of suspicion created by the Anglo-Russian power struggle of the ‘Great Game’ she was suspected by the Russians of being an English spy.

Chapter 7. In the 1890s the emergence of archaeology and, in particular, Egyptology as a scientific academic activity provided a new opportunity for educated and ambitious women with an interest in both scholarship and travel. When a new student, Margaret Murray, joined the recently established Egyptology Department at University College London, in 1894, there were some twenty women and ‘several elderly men’ in her class. Sixteen years earlier University College had been the first academic institution in England to accept that women could be awarded degrees, and when Murray began her course in Egyptian hieroglyphics she and her female colleagues accounted for over a quarter of the College’s 72 women students. Later, as Lecturer and then Assistant Professor under Flinders Petrie, Murray effectively ran the Department during Petrie’s absences on excavations. During her very long and distinguished career she consistently fought for and advanced the status of women archaeologists both in the academy and in the field.

Women had already been involved, often unacknowledged, in some of the early antiquarian explorations in the East. When Claudius James Rich, the East India Company’s Resident in Baghdad, investigated Babylon and other sites in Mesopotamia in the early nineteenth century he was usually accompanied by his wife and helpmate, Mary. More well-known, Sarah Belzoni not only accompanied and assisted her husband, Giovanni, on his excavations in Egypt but she also travelled alone to the Sinai peninsula and Palestine. She subsequently wrote a separate section for Belzoni’s 1820 Discoveries within the Pyramids, even though it was entitled a ‘Trifling’ account of the Women of Egypt, Nubia and Syria.

The development of Egyptology and modern archaeology as a scientific discipline owed much to the energy and imagination of another woman, Amelia Edwards, co-founder of both the Department of Egyptology at University College and the Egyptian Exploration Fund. Edwards came to archaeology in mid-life after building a successful career as a novelist, journalist and travel writer.

Chapter 8. The journeys of Lady Anne Blunt and Gertrude Bell into the heart of Arabia epitomize the romanticism and mythology of the European Orientalist travel narrative. In the nineteenth century the ‘Cradle of Islam’, with its two Holy Cities forbidden to non-Muslims, and its huge impenetrable deserts with their ancient caravan routes and undiscovered sites of pre-Islamic civilizations, offered temptations to only the most courageous or eccentric Western scholars or misfits. By the last decades of the century the central Arabian region of Najd, focus of a long power struggle between the Saudi amirs, with their strict Wahhabi faith and their capital at Riyadh, and the rival Rashidi clan of the Shammar tribal confederation, based at Ha‘il, attracted the interest of both independent travellers and diplomats.