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Mary Kingsley VS The Universe
Travels in West Africa is one of those books that I found in a charity shop as a teenager and read until it literally fell apart. A while ago, I decided to source a new copy and see if it was as much fun as I remembered. After several weeks, wherein Amazon sent me variously no books, or the wrong book, I finally got a copy.

So let's talk about Mary Kingsley: my favourite Victorian Lady Adventuress OF ALL TIME.

MARY KINGSLEY: As a single lady in her thirties finding herself for the first time without any pressing short-term engagements, what shall I do?
MARY KINGSLEY: Travel around West Africa! OBVIOUSLY.
VICTORIAN SOCIETY: That was not exactly-

SCORE: Mary 1; Victorian society: nil

GUIDE 1: Oh, we always keep two new-dug graves open at this time of year for Europeans. The other day we had two white men to bury before twelve and another on the steamer at four.
MARY KINGSLEY: Frightening tourists with exaggerated stories is highly irresponsible behaviour.
GUIDE 2: She's right.
GUIDE 2: It was 4:30, actually.

MARY KINSGLEY: I must learn to paddle one of these dugout canoes. FOR SCIENCE.
MARY'S FRIENDS: You'll be drowned, you lunatic!
MARY KINGSLEY: I thought that half an hour ago, but it's all right now; I can steer!

CROCODILE: * attacks canoe *
MARY KINGSLEY: * retires to the bows and hits it on the snout with a paddle *
MARY KINGSLEY:  He was only a pushing young creature. Bless.

SCORE: Mary 2; Crocodile: nil.

MARY KINSGLEY : So, French Authorities, I was thinking of travelling up these dangerous rapids in your part of Africa.
FRENCH CONSULATE: But..but you have no husband! Single ladies cannot travel up deadly rivers!
MARY KINGSLEY: I have consulted the Royal Geographical Society's elaborate lists of articles necessary for travellers in tropical climates and there is NO MENTION OF HUSBANDS.

SCORE: Mary 2; France: nil

MARY KINGSLEY: Let me introduce my new guides, the Fans.
MARY'S FRIENDS: Aren't they...notorious cannibals?
MARY KINGSLEY: We get along famously.

MARY AND THE FAN GUIDES: * delayed in village while the head guide is on trial for murder *
MARY KINGSLEY: What is that odd smell permeating the hut? Hmm, it appears to be coming from my companion's bag. I shall investigate. FOR SCIENCE.

BAG: * contains human eyes, ears and toes*

MARY KINGSLEY: …I think perhaps I shall open a window now.

MARY KINGSLEY: You should never wear in Africa anything you would be ashamed to be seen in in London.
MARY KINGSLEY: Besides, the layers of skirt come in very useful as protection when you fall into an elephant trap with 12-inch spikes.

MARY KINGSLEY: Hey kid, could you send a note to the English trader here that a British traveller has arrived in need of a change of clothes and a bath?
KID: He says you can borrow some of his, old man!
MARY KINGSLEY: If there were any smelling salts available, I WOULD HAVE FAINTED!


MARY KINGSLEY: * Falls in*
MARY KINGSLEY: I can tell you that there is a depth of between fifteen and twenty feet on either side. FOR SCIENCE.
MARY KINGSLEY: But I really cannot be expected, by the most exigent of scientific friends, to go botanising underwater without a proper outfit.

SCORE: Mary: 5; The Universe: nil

Mary Kingsley did eventually lose to fever, aged thirty-seven. Kipling said of her: “Being human, she must have been afraid of something, but one never found out what it was.”

Of course, the book is problematic: being written by a Victorian explorer and anthropologist, its outlook is inherently racist. Part of the problem of getting a copy was that most of those available were abridged and, for reasons of nostalgia and completion, I wanted the one I'd originally read. And Mary Kingsley wasn't a feminist. She believed in traditional gender roles and stereotypes (although not to the extent of ever actually letting them get in her way). But she was an amazing and formidable lady, and Travels in West Africa is hilarious. (And in my opinion, much more fun than Isabella Bird's A Lady's Life In The Rocky Mountains, which Amazon sent me by mistake. Because hey, those Victorian lady adventurers: all the same, amirite?)

What do you think? Did you enjoy it? Who's your favourite Awesome Victorian Lady?


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