Victorian Female Explorers: a Tightrope Walker Exploit

Victorian Female Explorers: a Tightrope Walker Exploit

Shirley Doulière is a third-year PhD student at the University of Bordeaux, France. Her research focuses on the narratives of female Victorian explorers and their constant struggle to be allowed to reject the boundaries of an imposed model of femininity while refusing to be considered as anything less than conventional.

Mapping out Africa and Asia in the Victorian era was no easy task. The long and perilous journeys, the diseases and the sweltering heat were only a few of the dangers explorers faced. Add to this list “being a woman” and you reach a whole new level of complexity. I thus wondered in which way their experience as travelers differed from the experience of male travelers. And most importantly, in the age of separate male and female spheres, how could these women assume a female identity in their home country, only to shed it abroad and adopt the prerogatives of men?

Portrait of Mary Kingsley By A.G. Dew-Smith — Memoires:, Public Domain,

Portrait of Mary Kingsley
By A.G. Dew-Smith

Notwithstanding the distasteful fate to meet an early death in a remote place of Her Majesty’s empire, male and female explorers found equal pride in drawing unknown areas, bringing back new fish species and colourful descriptions of natives. Male explorers tended to travel with a big retinue of natives to carry them in chairs or hammock and were fully funded by learned societies, such as the Royal Geographical Society. The few successful men who did come back from these expeditions became famous: Stanley, Livingstone and Burton, to name a few, and are still widely known today.

Their female counterparts, Mary Kingsley, Isabella Bird, among others, had a slightly different experience. They travelled on their own, that is to say without other women of the same social class, liked to “rough it”[1] by eating native food and taking along as little as their one bag would allow, on top of fully self-funding their expeditions.

With the exception of some very good[2] but, more often than not, romanticized biographies[3] they have found a place in anthologies we could dub “eccentric women travelers”[4] and have long been forgotten by the general public. The one exception to this rule would be Gertrude Bell who still enjoys a relative fame. However, her many biographies and an upcoming movie tend to focus mainly on her love affair with the desert and unhappy love life and don’t pay credit to her great achievements as a cartographer and political strategist.

But these are all trivial details compared to the real hardship faced by women explorers: redefining what it was to be a woman in a country undergoing tremendous technological changes and political unrest, particularly in response to the Divorce Act [1857] and the suffrage movement, both calling into question the power imbalance between genders.

Portrait of Isabella Bird on her wedding day, wearing mourning clothes. 1881. Public Domain.

Portrait of Isabella Bird on her wedding day, wearing mourning clothes. 1881.
Public Domain.

Indeed, there is no denying that the nineteenth century saw a shift in the power imbalance between men and women. Society was witnessing an ever increasing number of women demanding and experiencing more freedom of movement. However, the many excuses women explorers had to make to others and themselves to be able to remain celibate, travel alone, and publish their accounts are quite revealing of the all too relative amount of progress made in terms of gender equity. They could not accept the imposed model of the “Angel in the House” as none of them married (or very unwillingly so in Isabella Bird’s case, who married only because of her sister’s death and after having made her suitor wait for a good 5 years) and none had children.

Nevertheless, they also could not adhere to the image of the New Woman. Doing so would have alienated them from their target audience on whom they depended to buy their books, which were their major source of income. What little institutional support they had, whether it be the British Museum for Mary Kingsley or the RGS for Isabella Bird, was in the hands of men. Consequently they learned to navigate in and out of the boundaries of the patriarchal world, trying to be perceived as lady-like and proper as possible while living their lives with a freedom few other women could enjoy.

In order to do so they had to control their public image, heavily insisting that they dressed like other women even in the middle of the jungle or riding a horse but mostly by publically adopting a persona of extreme modesty:

“When on my return to England from my second sojourn in West Africa, I discovered, to my alarm, that I was, by a freak of fate, the sea-serpent of the season, I published, in order to escape from this reputation, a very condensed, much abridged version of my experiences in Lower Guinea;”[5]

This quotation illustrates perfectly the ambivalence Mary Kingsley felt towards the construction of her identity as an explorer and writer.  Both her new found fame and apparent emancipation made it hard for her to reconcile this image with the identity of a modest and uneducated middle class woman. She was travelling on her own, giving lectures, writing books without a pen name, and privately negotiating with her publisher to raise her percentage, while publically assuming the excuse that she had been forced by circumstances to do so. As if writing a book about a very bold journey through Africa, undertaken on her own, was going to make her seem more conventional.

Portrait of Mary Kingsley By A.G. Dew-Smith Public Domain

Portrait of Mary Kingsley
By A.G. Dew-Smith
Public Domain

This need to dispel the faintest idea that they were taking their lives in their hands and travelling out of sheer personal interest was common to all female explorers who chose to publish. All of them were challenged on the truthfulness of their narratives but never once raised the issue that they might not be taken to their words because of their gender. Instead, they would have their work validated by their male counterparts and checked facts with previous works by male authors using it as a token of the quality of their work.

Even when claiming that the quality of their work was due to their publishers, in private they were a lot more assertive. Kingsley, for instance, rebuked her proof reader when he contradicted her on her observations on African customs as she felt she was the most knowledgeable of the two, her proof reader never having set foot in Africa. She could be openly critical of his corrections and often plainly refused to alter her manuscript.

Isabella Bird could not even confess to her close friends and family that she just enjoyed travelling and would always use the excuse of having to travel for health reasons. To her publisher she would invariably announce that she was undertaking a new journey, to recover her health, insisting it was not to do any kind of work, and that she did not think he would be interested in her account, but should he wish to publish a book she already had a title and the number of pages.

In time, the growing number of women explorers raised the debate to introduce women in learned societies such as the Royal Geographical Society as some were acclaimed authors and regarded an authority in their fields. As they were drawn into public light they became fair game for criticism, and the harshest criticism would come from other women or even female travelers. As if to show that they did not want to threaten the status quo, Gertrude Bell and Mary Kingsley vehemently opposed the right to vote and Isabella Bird remained silent on the matter.

Ultimately the need to justify themselves when it came to their choice of travelling alone and living on the margins of the British Society while seeming desperate to retain its codes and not be excluded from shows that they were never able to reconcile their dual identity.



[1] Barr, Pat. A curious life for a lady, the story of Isabella Bird. Ed John Murray, London, MacMillan, 1970.

[2] Frank, Katherine. A Voyager Out, The life of Mary Kingsley. Londres, Tauris Parke Paperback, 2005.

[3] Howell, Georgina. Daughter of the Desert: The Remarkable Life of Gertrude Bell. Pan Books. 2006

[4] Robinson, Jane. Unsuitable for Ladies, An Anthology of Women Travellers. Oxford University Press, 1994.

[5] Ibid. Prologue.


One response to “Victorian Female Explorers: a Tightrope Walker Exploit

  1. Fascinating article! Anyone interested in this topic might also be interested in my recent chapter ‘Des Exploratrices; Genre Feminin, Voyage et Decouverte dans las Tradition Britannique, 1780-1850’ in the collection Des Voyages vers L’Inconnu Entre 1830 et 1830, ed Florance D’Souza (L’Harmattan, 2016) – and also in Mary Orr’s articles on Sara Bowdich who is an early 19th century precursor to the late century women explorers discussed above. See, for example, this piece by Orr on Bowdich’s Taxidermy:…/07/JLS-8.1-Orr1.pdf).

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