Mabel Bent in exalted, not to say exhausted, company…
‘THIS is an age of plucky, strenuous women. They vie with men in the field of sport, they seek to invade his political kingdom, and they penetrate the remotest corners of the world in search of big game and fresh adventures in a manner which makes man stand amazed at their daring.’
A little research the other day (May 2020) turned up a fascinating, pre-Great War travel article in the Tatler for Wednesday, 30 November 1910 (no. 242, page 270) – and many thanks to the Illustrated London News/Mary Evans Picture Library, whose copyright it is, for allowing us to reproduce it here. It’s a tremendous, rare read. The author is one Joseph Heighton; forgive its title – ‘Pioneers in Petticoats’.
Twenty years or so either side of 1900, the journeys of Western women travellers were headline news – emancipatory, they very much reflected the times these women voyaged in, times every bit as challenging and frustrating for women as the tough terrain and hardships they fought through.
Mabel’s fortitude and abilities over the twenty years of explorations she undertook with Theodore Bent were indeed often written about, frequently on pages intended for women readers (some feature elsewhere in this archive).
The Tatler article is typical in its obvious admiration for Mabel, who has reached the age of 63, and has been travelling since she was a girl – most summers on the continent with her family, and then really taking metaphorical wing once she married (August 1877).
Here is what the Tatler has to say about Mabel:
“Asia Minor, Persia, Mashonaland, Abyssinia, Eastern Soudan, and South Arabia. These are some of the out-of-the-way corners of the globe which Mrs. Theodore Bent has penetrated when she accompanied her late husband on his archaeological expeditions. She has had several narrow escapes from death. In South Arabia she was nearly shot by bandits, while on another occasion she was ordered to dismount ‘in order that her throat might be cut’. Luckily better counsel prevailed with the would be murderers.”
Mabel would not be overshadowed by the company she keeps. And what exalted company it is – very much the great and the good of Western, or adopted Western, women travellers. Of course on one small page there must be notable omissions, e.g. the ubiquitous Isabella Bird (1831-1904), the Nile travellers Amelia Edwards (1831-1892) and Florence Baker (1841-1916), or fellow Egyptologists Marianne Brocklehurst and Mary Booth, both of whom Mabel knew. And the women featured are all English speakers: ‘Europeans’, such as Mabel’s nemesis, Jane Dieulafoy, are not included.
Also absent is the mysterious American Mabel refers to unkindly just as ‘Mrs. Phelps, a very fat American, in man’s attire’. The reference comes in Mabel’s diary entries for the couple’s amazing ride, south-north, the length of Persia in 1889: “They were all amazed indeed when they heard of our resolution to ride those 1300 miles or more ‘with a lady’, for not more than 3 ladies have done this before, and 2, Mme. Dieulafoy and Mrs. Phelps, a very fat American, in man’s attire. And as the days go on they are still more amazed at seeing me sitting serenely wondering what saddle I shall have.” (The Travel Chronicles of Mabel Bent, Vol 3, pages 27-8)
If anyone knows who this intrepid, if large, traveller is, then we would be fascinated to hear and give her recognition on this.
How well known to you are these ‘Pioneers in Petticoats’? Corona lockdown hours may well give you world enough and time to read up on them. A few notes are added here, courtesy of Wikipedia, to get you in the mood for travel…
The article begins with Mary Eliza Bakewell Gaunt (20 February 1861 – 19 January 1942), an Australian novelist with a taste for Africa.
Next to arrive is Barbara Freire-Marreco (1879–1967), an English anthropologist and folklorist. She was a member of the first class of anthropology students to graduate from Oxford in 1908.
Academically the most gifted, coming into focus now are Agnes Smith Lewis (1843–1926) and Margaret Dunlop Gibson (1843–1920), nées Agnes and Margaret Smith (sometimes referred to as the Westminster Sisters), were Semitic scholars. Born the twin daughters of John Smith of Irvine, Ayrshire, Scotland, they learned more than 12 languages between them, and became pioneers in their academic work, and benefactors to the Presbyterian Church of England, especially to Westminster College, Cambridge. Without our access to Wikipedia, Joseph Heighton gets it wrong in his line where he says Margaret Gibson is a friend, she is the twin sister; the girls were born four years or so before Mabel Bent.
Also high in academic esteem is Mary Henrietta Kingsley (13 October 1862 – 3 June 1900), English ethnographer, scientific writer, and explorer whose travels throughout West Africa and resulting work helped shape European perceptions of African cultures and British imperialism.
Again, it seems that Joseph Heighton was not quite right in saying that Charlotte Mansfield (1881-1936), English novelist, poet, and traveller, completed Rhodes’ dream tour of the Cape to Cairo; she made it as far as Lake Tanganyika, good going nevertheless (see Mary Hall a little later).
Mary French Sheldon (May 10, 1847 – 1936), as author May French Sheldon, was an American author and explorer. Born the same year as Mabel Bent (and they, indeed, knew each other, see below), she was made a fellow of the Royal Geographical Society, among the first fifteen women to receive this honour, in November 1892. (Mabel Bent was in line for the next group of women Fellows, but the privilege was shamefully withdrawn and women Fellows were not elected again until 1913.)
Mary Hall (1857-1912) really did make the trip from Cape to Cairo (see Charlotte Mansfield above). Her book A Woman’s Trek from the Cape to Cairo (1907) is available online. After Africa, Mary switched to Australia and the Far East; it seems her adventures there were published posthumously (A Woman in the Antipodes and in the Far East, c. 1914).
Our caravan of great women travellers ends, after the heat of Australia, in the ice of the Arctic with Josephine Cecilia Diebitsch Peary (May 22, 1863 – December 19, 1955), an American author and Arctic explorer of renown.
We know, at least, that Mabel and May French Sheldon (see above) were acquaintances, if not friends. The Belfast Telegraph of Saturday, 27 June 1908 informs us that “Mrs Theodore Bent was ‘at home’ recently to some 200 of her friends, when a very enjoyable evening was spent in the beautiful suite of rooms in her house in Great Cumberland Place, that are much more interesting than many museums, as they are full of the most wonderful curios brought back by Mrs Bent from Persia, Russia, Norway, the Soudan, the Holy Land, and the many other parts of the world in which she has travelled and explored. The hostess, handsomely dressed in mauve, with white lace and many diamonds, received her guests at the entrance to the principal drawing-room, and near her stood her sister, Mrs Bagenal, dressed in black and silver, who had come over from her place in Co. Carlow for this and other functions of the season; and amongst other invited guests were …. Mrs French Seldon, etc., etc.”
Of course, there is a library of literature now available on women travellers. A workable summary is provided by Tracey Jean Boisseau for her contribution under the heading ‘Explorers and Exploration’ in The Oxford Encyclopedia of Women in World History, Volume 1, 2008, pages 227-231.