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TraveLit--A blog about travel literature. 

     Even with the best of maps and instruments, we can never fully chart our journeys.

Book Review

Unbeaten Tracks in Japan
By Isabella Bird. First published in 1880 and reprinted in many editions.

A lady an explorer? A traveller in skirts?
The notion’s just a trifle too seraphic.
Let them stay and mind the babies, or hem our ragged shirts,
But they mustn’t, can’t, and shan’t be geographic.
Punch (1893)

In Britain, where they take their travel seriously, serious travel was long considered a male province, even after women had crossed the borders. During the Victorian era the number of serious women travelers surged, yet as late as 1893—not long after Isabella Bird had returned from exploring Persia, and Kate Marsden from traveling Siberia—the Royal Geographical Society was heatedly debating whether women could qualify as explorers and, perhaps more to the point, as Society members.

The furor over female membership—nicely mocked in the above limerick from Punch--is described with wry humor by Dorothy Middleton in Victorian Lady Travellers. “Throughout,” she observes, “the controversy generates that flavour of ‘The Ladies! God bless 'em!’ so typical of assemblies of Englishmen when called upon to take women seriously.”

But serious these Victorian women travelers were, and they were hardly lacking in toughness. Of Mary Kingsley, who in 1893 set off for West Africa, Rudyard Kipling once said: “Being human, she must have been afraid of something, but one never found out what it was.”

For sheer stamina, few travelers surpass Isabella Bird, who in her explorations pushed herself—almost obsessively—to her physical limits. Unbeaten Tracks in Japan gives us the early Isabella Bird, already the consummate traveler: interested, undaunted, enduring.

As she makes her way through Japan in 1878, seeking out regions where no travelers have preceded her, there is little that fails to engage her, whether dress and customs, life among the aborigines (the Ainu), or, above all, the terrain, which is always to be investigated. At the volcano of Torumai, we find her putting her arm down “several deep crevices” to sense the heat, and at a hot spring she is checking the temperature by seeing how fast the water will hard-boil an egg (8 1/2 minutes).

Throughout, Bird mentions the fleas and mosquitoes, the wretched food, the cold, the harrowing roads and rivers, but she seems to thrive on discomfort. Tumbling from her horse into a hole, she tells us, “the sense of the ridiculous situation was so overpowering that, even in the midst of the mishap, I was exhausted with laughter, though not a little bruised.” For Bird, travel was intensely active, and Unbeaten Tracks, constructed as a series of letters, has an immediate energy, conveying the author’s sheer pleasure in direct, heightened experience of the world

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