About 60 people turned out yesterday afternoon at the Royal Geographical Society in London to hear my talk Lucy Atkinson: One of the ‘Greats’ in the Pantheon of Travellers. My aim in this talk was to place Lucy’s achievements as a writer and explorer in the context of other women travellers from the mid-nineteenth century and before. The exploits of such pioneers as Abby Jane Morrell, Mary Boddington, Eliza Fay, Maria Graham, Lady Florentia Sale and Ida Pfeiffer were outlined in some detail.
Most of these names are probably unknown to all but the most erudite readers, but they all made their mark. At present there is no specific place to celebrate their achievements, although the RGS itself is planning to introduce more inclusive space into the building. Undoubtedly it is an anomaly that a portrait of Lord Curzon hangs above the fireplace in the main entrance hall to the building, as during debates within the RGS in the 1890s he strongly opposed women being granted fellowship on the grounds that they were incapably of scientific work!
My early afternoon talk (1430-1530) is entitled ‘Lucy Atkinson: One of the Greats in the Pantheon of Travellers’. It will make the case that Lucy was a truly intrepid explorer, whose contribution to the history of travel has been overlooked. Her six-year journey with her husband, the artist and author Thomas Witlam Atkinson, covered almost 40,000 miles through some of the wildest and remote parts of southern Siberia and Central Asia. Nor was she simply a passenger. Despite her lack of experience before setting out, she soon mastered riding horses, shooting for the pot and caring for a baby whilst in the middle of nowhere. It was Lucy, who was a fluent Russian speaker, who ran the Atkinsons’ camps, instructed the guides and Cossack guards and negotiated with nomads they came across during their travels. On at least one occasion she brandished her rifle – at which she was a crack shot – in defence of her husband and child.
Of course, there were many woman travellers before Lucy, but most were simply travelling to a specific place with a husband who was on colonial or military service. Few, if any, took part in expeditions into unknown lands. That is what separates her out from other women. In the new introduction to the book, myself and co-editor Marianne Simpson look into the history of women’s travel writing to see if there are any comparable travellers. There is barely a handful.
Until recent times exploration and travel was regarded as a male domain. The walls of the main lecture hall at the RGS in London is inscribed with their names – Scott, Shackleton, Livingstone, Ross, Baker and the rest. Not a woman amongst them. Isn’t it time the record was corrected? Please join us by booking via the link above for what should be a very interesting talk.