Just a small thought today, as I’ve been doing some intense sleeping to get over a cold.
I’ve just finished reading Robert Macfarlane’s The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot, which is thoughtful and thought-provoking. It is going to be with me for a long, long time, I think. But all the way through I was struck by something.
Take this extract from the book’s acknowledgements:
I have, inevitably, followed in the footsteps of many predecessors in terms of writing as well as of walking, and to that end wish to acknowledge the earlier print-trails that have both shown me the way and provoked ‘deviations and differences’. The atmospheres, moods and textures of this book arise out of the places through which I have been fortunate to move, but also out of the prose of J.A. Baker, Robert Byron, M.R. James, Patrick Leigh Fermor, Norman MacLean, Cormac McCarthy, John McPhee, Vladimir Nabokov, Martha Nussbaum, Jonathan Raban, Tim Robinson, W.G. Sebald, Nan Shepherd, Rebecca Solnit, Gary Snyder and Colin Thubron […].
Macfarlane mentions more writers in the text, including Edward Thomas, Gilbert White, Coleridge, de Quincy, and Dorothy Wordsworth. I wish now I’d made a list. All these writers who have dealt with the business of walking, and so few of them seem to be female.
And that’s what struck me all the way through the book (and obliquely, in reading Smith of Wootton Major): in literary terms, walking seems to be such a male activity. And yet, every day women walk as much as men. (In Smith Smith’s wife, Nell, travels to visit her daughter to mark her grandson’s birthday, but it’s a firmly domestic visit.)
It may be, I thought, that women haven’t historically been as free to walk as men but nowadays … ? And Nan Shepherd, it should be remembered, devoted herself to walking a specific area, over and over, rather than undertaking a long-distance journey.
Early in the book, Macfarlane describes working at his desk late one evening and then deciding to go out and walk for a while. I tried to picture myself just getting up from my desk and wandering out into a snow-covered Folkestone to walk. And I couldn’t.
In part, perhaps, it’s because Macfarlane makes the artistic choice of stripping his perambulations of any domestic baggage; he has a partner and children who figure in the acknowledgements, and occasionally in the text, but we don’t see the negotiations that presumably went on about accommodating his travels alongside family time. That this is occluded is in itself revealing, rather as Thoreau’s Walden elides his social commerce with Concord.
So, perhaps we can skip the bit where I get up, wander into P’s study, say ‘I’m just going for a walk’, and the bit where he says ‘in this weather? At this time of night? Are you mad?’ and the bit where my favoured daily walk is badly lit at night and it’s not unknown for both women and men to be attacked there, in daylight as well as after dark, and imagine I have gone for a walk … Except that walking in suburbia, and that’s small-town, edge of town, suburbia rather than Metroland, is very different to rural walking, or grand walking. I could go on …
So, I suppose I’m wondering where the women walkers and diarists are … and here I specifically mean walkers rather than riders or any other form of traveller. The Wife of Bath and the Prioress had their ponies, Dervla Murphy travelled by horse and by bicycle, Christina Dodwell travelled by canoe, Robyn Davidson by camel … I could go on and on and on … but I cannot think of a single example of a woman who walks as much to meditate as to explore; or do they not write it down? Or do publishers prefer them to be engaged in an epic struggle with an external mode of transport?
Clearly, there are also certain tropes and rhetorical devices of travel writing at play here. Equally clearly, something is missing …
Addendum: I tried to illustrate this post but when I googled 'woman walking', the images were almost invariably sexualised images of women in landscapes, the emphasis on clothes and skin rather than walking. To portray a woman 'walking', one opts either for an old woman hobbling along, a woman in a non-European country preferably leading a cow or goat, or a 'businesswoman' striding along in heels that would cripple me if I tried to stride in them.