Where Rebecca Solnit’s Wanderlust is a theoretical and philosophical discussion of women and walking, Wanderers is a set of case studies from three hundred years of (mostly) British women walking and writing about it. It leans on Wanderlust, but it’s a robust book on its own, with depth and range to keep a reader happy for ten chapters of women’s history and writing about walking.
The sheer energy of the subjects is exhausting. I’ve been walking at least three miles a day since October. Using the nifty Walk to Mordor app to record my progress: I am currently nearly three days from Weathertop, and have almost clocked up 300 miles in three months, fitted in with my day job. These women seem to have routinely walked at least twelve miles a day for pleasure, and seem to have found walking thirty miles a day for several days on a journey to be quite unremarkable. Most of them walked alone for choice, though some were lucky to have walking companions with the same energy levels and capacity for endurance. Kerri Andrews investigates for all of us why these women walked so far and for so long, and what walking did for their lives that it might do for ours.
Quick summary of the subjects:
- Elizabeth Carter, eighteenth-century poet, translator and phenomenal genius peregrinus, walking in foul weather with enjoyment into her seventies.
- Dorothy Wordsworth, diarist, Romantic poet, sister of another poet and a long-distance Lakeland explorer.
- Ellen Weeton, nineteenth-century Lancashire governess with a passion for walking on her own as often as she could, avoiding men as for as long as possible.
- Sarah Stoddart Hazlitt made several extraordinary tours of the Highlands on foot while awaiting the results of her divorce from the essayist and adulterer William Hazlitt. In one trip she walked 170 miles in eight days.
- Harriet Martineau, another devourer of the Scottish Highlands on foot, who ‘learned’ the Lake District in under a year.
- Virginia Woolf, a city walker, wrote what her walks let into her imagination.
- Nan Shepherd, lifelong Cairngorms walker and novelist, achieving mystical union with rock and water through nimbleness and endurance.
- Anais Nin, also a city walker and dedicated journal writer, immersing herself in New York and Paris street life to locate her own identity.
- Cheryl Strayed walked 1,100 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail to recover her damaged identity and forge – brutally – a new body.
Amdrews ends each chapter with a reflection on her own life as a walker. These would make a strong book of their own, and might, possibly, have been better collected together as a final chapter commenting on the different ideas that the historical surveys throw up, rather than parked at the end. Their brevity, as end-of-chapter comments, makes what she has to say about her own walking experiences sound almost trite, which they do not deserve. But this book was important for Andrews to write, so to discuss the ways in which walking has impacted on her life, and to measure herself against these historical examples, is a purposeful part of the book.
My only other caveat is to note a disconcerting lack of discussion of these women’s boots, and other walking gear. Harriet Martineau routinely wore a knapsack on her walks: we need pictures! This book is highly recommended, with a warning: after finishing Wanderers you will immediately want to start reading about the Lake District.