Wanderers: A History of Women Walking, 2020, Kerri Andrews, Reaktion Books Ltd., 304 pages, London, England.
A walker herself, Kerri Andrews takes readers on journeys with 10 fascinating women in her book Wanderers: A History of Women Walking. Presented chronologically, from Dorothy Wordsworth (1771-1855) through Virginia Woolf (1882-1941) to Cheryl Strayed (1968-), the book chronicles how these women were driven into nature and how their relationships with the outdoors shaped who they are or were.
“[W]here William Wordsworth’s prodigious ambulations added to his prestige as a poet, Dorothy’s were considered by some to be detrimental to her appeal as a woman.”
Andrews points out that while the world is full of stories about the importance of walking in the lives of many men (e.g., William Wordsworth, David Henry Thoreau, John Muir, Robert Macfarlane, etc.), there is scant literature about their female counterparts. This she hopes to counter with this fascinating volume that describes what it was like to be a female walker at a time when pedestrianism was not a seemly pursuit for the delicate sex. Andrews writes, “[W]here William Wordsworth’s prodigious ambulations added to his prestige as a poet, Dorothy’s were considered by some to be detrimental to her appeal as a woman.” Walking was also, sadly, considered to be unsafe for women.
I was astounded by the walking these women did. They often spent hours on paths, climbing mountains and ploughing through snow while dressed in corsets and full skirts. In the chapter on Ellen Weeton (1777-1850), Andrews explains how they hammered nails into the soles of their shoes to descend steep slopes.
Andrews, who lives in Scotland and has climbed 120 of that nation’s Munros – mountains more than 3000 feet high – lectures in English literature at Edge Hill University. Her academic background – according to her website this is her first book written for a “wide audience” – makes Wanderers occasionally read as though the author is making a point rather than allowing the stories to speak for themselves. For many of these women walking was essential to who they are or were. Nonetheless, I couldn’t help sympathizing with Dorothy Wordsworth for whom walking seemed to largely be a way of coping with desperate boredom. Women of a certain class at the time had little to do, and while walking wasn’t exactly readily acceptable for them, they could get away with it. Endless walking, it seemed, was preferable to endless sitting in a drawing room doing embroidery.
Being outside in nature definitely becomes a more acceptable pursuit for women as times goes on. And in the case of Nan Shepherd (1893-1981) from Scotland, it really is essential. She explored the Cairngorms, a highland area bordered by the Dee and Speyside rivers, with an intensity and power of observation that simultaneously overwhelmed me and made me feel depressingly inadequate. Andrews quotes Shepherd’s friend, a fellow poet named Ken Morrice. In 1977, he wrote to Shepherd after her book The Living Mountain was published: “Rarely can such acute observation be matched by a gift for poetic expression. ‘Gentle’ it is not: powerful, muscular, vivid, experiential…The experience of reading it stays with me.” (I was so impressed by Andrews’s description that I read The Living Mountain. A review will appear shortly.)
“They often spent hours on paths, climbing mountains and ploughing through snow while dressed in corsets and full skirts.”
I feel a little guilty quoting a man to close off this review, but if there is a theme that runs through the walking experiences of these woman as described by Andrews, it is in keeping with John Muir’s observation that: “I only went out for a walk and finally concluded to stay out till sundown, for going out, I found, was really going in.”
The women included in Wanderers are: Elizabeth Carter (England, 1717-1808) through Dorothy Wordsworth (England, 1771-1855), Ellen Weeton (England, 1777-1850), Sarah Stoddart-Hazlitt (England, 1774 – 1843), Harriet Martineau (England, 1802-1876), Virginia Woolf (England, 1882-1941), Nan Shepherd (Scotland, 1893-1981), Anaïs Nin (France, 1903-1977), Cheryl Strayed (United States, 1968-) and Linda Cracknell (the Netherlands/England, 1959-).
For more information visit Wanderers.