Happy Birthday, Mary Kingsley!
Mary Henrietta Kingsley, author of Travels in West Africa, was born 146 years ago today.
A couple of years ago I got onto the thread of Victorian travel writers, especially the female ones. (If I were one of them, I would no doubt have continued the preceding sentence with "..., of whom there were a surprising number, meaning more than zero". The long-winded sentence structure of the 19th century tends to wind around the brain like a bush rope after the first several hundred pages.)
The stereotype of the Victorian woman is "Not allowed to do anything without the permission of or under the protection of a man". So I was surprised to learn about the likes of Isabella Bird, Marianne North, Gertrude Bell, Edith Durham, and Lady Mary Anne Barker.
Later on I learned about 19th century needlework books, and here I found women writing books, when my vague impression was still that women of the time weren't allowed to do much of anything.
It was a silly impression, since industrialization meant that a lot of women and girls were working in factories, and a lot of women whose birth would have otherwise led to a life of hard work found themselves married to men with a considerable amount of money from running factories. These women, literally the nouveau riche, needed something to do so as not to go off their heads, and the flood of needlework books of the time was directed at that need.
Another huge movement of that time was the very early women's rights movement. Even then you find the roots of the tension between women who crusade for their rights, and women who make things with their hands, and if you want to read vitriol directed at knitting, go read Elizabeth Cady Stanton telling off Eliza Osborne.
But, as Mary Kingsley says, "But I must forthwith stop writing about the Gold Coast, or I shall go on telling you stories and wasting your time...".
I read Isabella Bird's The Englishwoman in America, and then I read her Among the Tibetans, and then I read Mary Kingsley's Travels in West Africa.
What a contrast between two authors!
Where Isabella Bird describes a Tibetan girl's costume and ends her sentence with "...a costume pre-eminent in ugliness" and complains bitterly of the noise and the dirt and the smoke and the smell wherever she travelled (with a few exceptions), Mary Kingsley writes about things like noise from a more humorous perspective:
Never noticed mission had donkey yesterday,
but they have, and it's off in an epileptic fit. As the sound
amplifies and continues a flash of reason succeeds this first
impression. It's morning service in the church, and the
natives are just singing hymns.
Even when she is travelling through the West African jungle with cannibal Fang tribesmen, and sleeps in the chief's house
the smell in the hut was violent, from being shut up I suppose,
and it had an unmistakably organic origin. Knocking the
ash end off the smouldering bush-light that lay burning on
the floor, I investigated, and tracked it to those bags, so I
took down the biggest one, and carefully noted exactly how
the tie-tie had been put round its mouth ; for these things are
important and often mean a lot. I then shook its contents
out in my hat, for fear of losing anything of value. They
were a human hand, three big toes, four eyes, two ears, and
other portions of the human frame. The hand was fresh, the
others only so so, and shrivelled.
or falls into a spiked game pit
I made a short cut
for it [the path] and the next news was I was in a heap, on a lot of spikes,some fifteen feet or so below ground level, at the bottom of a
bag-shaped game pit.
It is at these times you realise the blessing of a good thick
skirt. Had I paid heed to the advice of many people in
England, who ought to have known better, and did not do it
themselves, and adopted masculine garments, I should have
been spiked to the bone, and done for. Whereas, save for a
good many bruises, here I was with the fulness of my skirt
tucked under me, sitting on nine ebony spikes some twelve
inches long, in comparative comfort, howling lustily to be
hauled out. The Duke came along first, and looked down at
me. I said, "Get a bush-rope, and haul me out." He grunted
and sat down on a log. The Passenger came next, and
he looked down. " You kill ? " says he. " Not much," say I ;
"get a bush-rope and haul me out." " No fit," says he, and
sat down on the log.
or gets stuck in a mangrove swamp on the ebb tide with a crocodile investigating her canoe
Twice this chatty little incident, as Lady MacDonald would
call it, has happened to me, but never again if I can help it.
On one occasion, the last, a mighty Silurian, as The Daily
Telegraph would call him, chose to get his front paws over the
stern of my canoe, and endeavoured to improve our acquaintance.
I had to retire to the bows, to keep the balance
right,1 and fetch him a clip on the snout with a paddle, when
he withdrew, and I paddled into the very middle of the lagoon,
hoping the water there was too deep for him or any of his
friends to repeat the performance. Presumably it was, for no one did it again. I should think that crocodile was eight feet
long ; but don't go and say I measured him, or that this is my
outside measurement for crocodiles. I have measured them
when they have been killed by other people, fifteen, eighteen,
and twenty-one feet odd. This was only a pushing young
creature who had not learnt manners.
1 It is no use saying because I was frightened, for this miserably
understates the case.
she manages to write about the experience without metaphorically climbing up on a chair and shrieking, however she might have felt at the time.
PS: I hope this answers the question, "Where were you most of last week?"
Having just gotten my own copy of Travels in West Africa, I've been in the mangrove swamps and game pits with Miss Kingsley.
If I've convinced you that you must have your own copy, mine is the 1988 paperback from Beacon Press, ISBN 0807071056, which I found via BookFinder. The National Geographic Society (ISBN 0792266382) and other publishers have more recent softcover versions. More than one digital copy shows up in Full View at Google Books besides the one I have linked to in the first paragraph of this post.