Friday, May 13, 2016

Adventure Seekers – Women Explorers of the Victorian Era

By Lizzy Drake

1887 travelling party of the Smith twins
Wikimedia Commons [Public Domain]

In a male dominated era in the western world, it is easy to assume that all women of the time were docile, meek things, despite England, one of the greatest nations, having a strong woman monarch. Yet even with formal teachings of domesticity, and a general lack of higher education for girls, there were some memorable women who defied the status quo, forging themselves against their male counterparts and finding success in their efforts.

While there are more than the three examples set below, these are the women who stand out to me in particular as being some of the most inspiring and defying the environments that wouldn't even allow women to vote, let alone explore, lecture or write for top newspapers.

The first of these examples is Nellie Bly who writes in her travel book (only 50cents!), Around the World in Seventy-Two Days, on how she found the inspiration to attempt her around the world adventure:

Nellie Bly 1880's
Wikimedia Commons
[Public Domain]
'This idea came to me one Sunday. I had spent a greater part of the day and half the night vainly trying to fasten on some idea for a newspaper article. It was my custom to think up ideas on Sunday and lay them before my editor for his approval or disapproval on Monday. But ideas did not come that day and three o'clock in the morning found me weary and with an aching head tossing about in my bed. At last tired and provoked at my slowness in finding a subject, something for the week's work, I thought fretfully:
"I wish I was at the other end of the earth!"
"And why not?" the thought came: "I need a vacation; why not take a trip around the world?"
It is easy to see how one thought followed another. The idea of a trip around the world pleased me and I added: "If I could do it as quickly as Phileas Fogg did, I should go."'
And go she did. As her title suggests, she also did it in less than 80 days, proving that not only could she do the most adventurous things all her male counterparts were talking about someday doing, she could also publish it and carve her own place in history as a woman adventurer.

She gives a very detailed account of her adventures in her book and it sold very well to adventure-hungry Americans. Here is a beautiful excerpt of her book in which she explains why she doesn't decide to carry a firearm:
'The evening before I started I went to the office and was given £200 in English gold and Bank of England notes. The gold I carried in my pocket. The Bank of England notes were placed in a chamois-skin bag which I tied around my neck. Besides this I took some American gold and paper money to use at different ports as a test to see if American money was known outside of America.Down in the bottom of my hand-bag was a special passport, number 247, signed by James G. Blaine, Secretary of State. Someone suggested that a revolver would be a good companion piece for the passport, but I had such a strong belief in the world's greeting me as I greeted it, that I refused to arm myself. I knew if my conduct was proper I should always find men ready to protect me, let them be Americans, English, French, German or anything else.'
But Nellie was not just an adventurer. She was also a highly respected reporter who was known for uncovering uncomfortable truths as she did with the expose on the appalling conditions and treatment of patients of Blackwell's Island, an asylum in New York City. She was also an advocate for women's rights, and although she married a millionaire 40 years her senior, she still was writing on topics close to her heart until her death at the age of 57 when she was claimed by pneumonia.

Annie Smith Peck
Wikimedia Commons [Public Domain]

Annie Smith Peck, an American adventurer also had the itch to explore outside her comfort zone. Born in 1850 Rhode Island, Annie was a scholar and Latin teacher before she became a mountain climber and scaled many peaks, defying both altitude and Victorian era gender attitude. Although she had attempted to secure her place as a lecturer of archaeology (Classical Greek Archaeology), primarily to support her hobby of mountain climbing, she found that people were entranced with her hobby, and went to climbing full time. She wrote a book in 1911, covering her climbs and experiences entitled The Search for the Apex of America. She was a strong advocate of the woman's vote and even climbed Mount Coropuna in Peru, placing a banner stating 'Votes For Women'. sums up her adventures beautifully, stating that:
'After climbing the Matterhorn in 1895, Annie Smith Peck continued to seek new challenges, especially in the mountains in the Americas. She tackled Mexico's Mount Orizaba in 1897, setting the women's altitude record at that time. Wanting to reach heights higher than anyone else - male or female - had done before, Peck tried several times to climb Mount Illampu in Bolivia. Despite this setback, she tried to reach her goal by climbing Mount Huascarán in Peru. Peck was victorious on her second attempt in 1908. Having reached a height of 21, 812 feet, she set the record for the highest climb in the Western Hemisphere at the age of 58. For her amazing feat, the peak she scaled was named Cumbre Aa Peck in her honor.'
But a favourite pair of adventurers of mine are the twin Scottish sister explorers, Agnes and Margaret Smith (later to marry and become Agnes Smith Lewis and Margaret D. Gibson), who were educated by their father as if they were boys. With a natural ability to pick up languages, their father (a widower as his wife passed when the girls were very young), indulged his daughters with the ploy that for every language they learned fluently, the family would go and visit that respective country. They visited many countries with their father, but when he passed away at a relatively young age, they broke their cardinal rule of learning the language first, and travelled unchaperoned to the Middle East in search of old, undiscovered religious texts. What they found sent shock-waves through the academic world.

Syriac Sinaiticus
Wikimedia Commons [Public Domain]

At a visit to Sinai, Agnes first discovered the Syriac Sinaiticus, one of the biblical gospels hidden under another hand written text of female saints. She photographed it, at first not knowing its significance, then immediately funded and organized a return expedition with a recognized scholar to help prove her findings. Although the trip was a success on many levels, socially there was fallout between her scholar, a good friend, and the two sisters as the newspapers were keen to attribute the discovery to the women while the scholar was determined to get their name erased from the find. However, after their scholar did such a poor job of translating the manuscript, Agnes went on to study Syriac and do her own translation, which outshone the first. Eventually she became a highly respected scholar herself. There is a plaque commemorating the two women at the University of Cambridge.

Plaque at Cambridge University
Wikimedia Commons [Public Domain]

One of the many things these adventures illuminates, is how the human spirit of adventure and discovery will overcome every obstacle, even in a time when a particular group of people are pressured to socially and morally not do so. Women in the Victorian era is just one facet of such human determination, and one that still inspires people today.


-Bly, Nellie – Around the World in Seventy-Two Days; The Pictorial Weeklies Company, New York, 1890

-Gibson, Margaret D. and Agnes Smith Lewis – How the Codex was found: a narrative of two visits to Sinai from Mrs Lewis's journals, 1892-1893; Macmillan & Bowes, Cambridge, 1893

-Lewis, Agnes Smith – In the Shadow of Sinai: A story of travel and reseach from 1895 to 1897; Macmillan & Bowes, Cambridge, 1900

-Soskice, Janet – Sisters of Sinai, How Two Lady Adventurers Found the Hidden Gospels; Vintage, London, 2009

Online links:

Listverse: Top 10 Female Adventures (Annie Smith Peck)


 A Corpse in Cipher
Lizzy Drake is the author of the Elspet Stafford Mysteries, a mystery series set in Tudor times during Catherine of Aragon's time as Queen. Book 1, A Corpse in Cipher – A Tudor Murder Mystery is out now. 

Aside from the early 16th century, Lizzy also has a passion for the Victorian era and adventure. 

You can read more about her on her blog or on Twitter@wyvernwings.


  1. Excellent post! I admire their courage, not just for the exploration, but also for the more difficult endeavour, to go against society's expectations.

  2. Thank you Cryssa! I read their adventures and think I'd better get a move on :-)

  3. Great examples of real-life strong women...they'd make pretty good protagonists in a novel too:)

  4. Mark, yes! And now you know the secret of my next series 😉


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