Freya Stark in Jebel Druze.jpg

Veronique Mistiaen considers a Victorian travel guide for women that feels remarkably undated ...


"If, by my endeavours, I have in any ways assisted my sisters in their wanderings, or encouraged a single woman to join the path of travellers by land or sea, I shall feel I have achieved the object of my labours." So concludes Lillias Campbell Davidson in “Hints to Lady Travellers at Home and Abroad”, the very first British travel guide written for women by a woman.
Campbell Davidson, a prolific Victorian fiction writer, wrote “Hints to Lady Travellers” in 1889, when independent travel by women—at least middle and upper-class women—was becoming more acceptable. Such travel was made easier by a boom in the variety of transport, from bicycles to railways and ocean liners. Before the age of Lonely Planet, Rough Guides and destination websites, her book was a rare source of definitive advice and a must-read for solo female voyagers.
This spring the Royal Geographic Society reprinted "Hints to Lady Travellers". The new edition features additional anecdotes from other pioneering Victorian female travellers, such as Kate Marsden, who became a missionary in Siberia, and Isabella Bird Bishop, who travelled widely in American and the Far East. (Bird Bishop was the first female fellow of the RGS; her striking photographic collection has been digitised and is now available to the public. The reprint of "Hints to Lady Travellers" was timed to coincide with the availability of these photographs.) Though the volume is enriched by the stories of these intrepid explorers, Campbell Davidson's book was written for more ordinary women. With practical advice, safety tips and encouragement, she inspired each reader to become "in her own unescorted and independent person, a lady traveller."
I relished this little book. Browsing through its eclectic themes arranged in alphabetical order—from accidents and etiquette to hand-bags and sea bathing—I travelled back in time in the company of Victorian ladies. I could vividly picture them, sitting in a railway carriage in their soberly sensible dresses, with their foot-warmers, leather medicine chests, luncheon baskets and travel rugs (all of them recommendations of the author).
In direct language, Campbell Davidson dispenses shrewd advice on anything from how to hail a cab in a foreign country to how to treat sunburns (apply sour milk thickly and leave overnight). While some of her must-pack items have a nostalgic air about them, such as the ivory glove-stretcher and the clever portable bath-cum-suitcase, others are very much part of my own travel kit. Among my favourites are a "small flask of brandy", a "reading-lamp" and an "air cushion" covered in satin. Despite its anachronistic feel, the charm of this 19th-century book is that much of the advice remains sound. (Sadly, little is otherwise known about Campbell Davidson. We do know she was an avid cyclist and president of the Lady Cyclists Association, and that she went on to publish another bestseller: "Handbook for Lady Cyclists".)
Frances Linzee Gordon, one of today's best-known guidebook and travel feature writers, says that today's women travellers have much to learn from this spirited guide. Besides the caveats about not forgetting travel insurance, labelling all luggage and avoiding large quantities of cash, Campbell Davidson offers some timelessly handy tips: pack dark-coloured petticoats (which don't show the dirt), and negotiate taxi fares before setting off—“something I find myself exhorting in every guidebook I write," says Linzee Gordon. Campbell Davidson also wisely suggests packing an "eau de toilette" for a fresher smell during less hygienic spells, which Linzee Gordon endorses wholeheartedly. "When travelling for days without access to water, such as when crossing deserts or climbing mountains, a little squirt-squirt can transform the way you feel (and smell).”
Some of Campbell Davidson's travel gripes, such as the "ghastly preparation" of packing, the "traditional tricks of the (money-changing) trade" and the "perfect hotbeds of gossip" that are boarding houses are ageless too. As are the thorny etiquette concerns, such as who can open a train carriage's window and how much to tip, which still trouble me today.
Besides the delightful observations and savvy recommendations, the book affords some insight into a fast-changing era. Some of Campbell Davidson's instructions reflect the dilemma these changing times posed to women travellers. For example, she remarks that having a maid travelling in third class was of no use to the lady travelling in first class, and so concludes: "It is a far more sensible plan to take her maid into the same carriage as herself." For mountain climbing, she boldly recommends that "skirts be as short as possible—to clear the ankles." But should her reader get carried away, she quickly condemns the "modern feminine costume, where the skirt is a mere polite apology—an inch or two below the knee, and the result hardly consistent with a high ideal of womanhood."
Regardless of fashion or entourage, Campbell Davidson strongly urges the lady traveller to explore new countries and embrace new experiences rather than "insisting on living and eating as if she were still in England." If well prepared, well informed, and well packed, women shouldn't fear the "totally unnecessary dread" of travel, but instead experience the sheer enjoyment of discovering new lands, which she describes so vividly.
"From the first moment when the traveller sets foot upon foreign soil, and sees the strange surroundings, the quaint dresses, and curious habits of the natives, enhanced by the clear air and brilliant sunshine, she experiences all the effect of having entered into a new life."
I couldn't agree more.

Veronique Mistiaen is a writer based in London; Picture credit: © Royal Geographic Society