Out of the picture, Lydia Wevers

Lady Travellers: The Tourists of Early New Zealand 
Bee Dawson
Penguin Books, $39.95,
ISBN 0141004150

Lady Travellers is a successor to Bee Dawson’s Lady Painters, which appeared in 1999, and makes me wonder if there’s a series planned – Lady Prime Ministers, perhaps? The possibilities seem endless. But that is also the problem with these books. They are so clearly aimed at a market. Someone has done some research indicating that most books are bought by women and what they want to read is undemanding stories about inspirational women, with lots of pictures. I’m not sure who is actually reading what Bee Dawson has produced, and maybe there’s a really large audience out there, but from a conventional critical point of view, Lady Travellers leaves a lot to be desired.

The format is familiar. Twelve women (well, one of them is a four-year-old child when her travelling is done but let’s not quibble) – Betsey Broughton, Sarah Mathew, Caroline Chevalier, Mary Dobie, Constance Astley, the Richardson sisters, the Countess of Ranfurly, May Kinsey, Freda du Faur and Constance Barnicoat – whose travelling spans a bit more than a century, are described in between six and twenty pages each. There are a lot of excellent illustrations and for me these were the strength of the book. Dawson has located a number of very interesting illustrations, including the marvellous cover picture of Constance Barnicoat in her “real boy’s dress” (proper boys’ boots, white wool sweater, knickers and knee-length puttees) about to cross the Copland Pass in 1903. Penguin’s image reproduction, while not as lavish as Lady Painters – which made the most of glorious flower paintings – is nevertheless generous. It includes a number of colour plates: charming water colours by the Richardson sisters and Countess Ranfurly, oil portraits, and a wonderful Nicholas Chevalier, “The Performance played on board HMS Galatea”, 1866 – of a ballroom decorated with billowing banners and chandeliers and a cabbage tree in a pot. Unfortunately, though, the text in no way matches up to the visuals.

Dawson’s method is pre-eminently biographical. She outlines the principal events of her subjects’ lives and their achievements, and paraphrases from their writing or the writing of other people about them. It is hard to know what these achievements are exactly in the case of Betsey Broughton, whose principal distinction was to survive the attack on the Boyd and who didn’t do much travelling once she made it back to Australia. One of the problems of Lady Travellers is what that phrase means. “Lady travellers” was coined, I think, as early as the second half of the 19th century, and referred to a very particular breed of indomitable women travelling alone across the steppes or in the remoter parts of the world, who wrote books about their experiences. Dawson’s subtitle glosses lady travellers as “tourists”, specifically the tourists of early New Zealand, but her subjects range from mountaineers to viceregal consorts, and none of them set out to make a career as a lady traveller, as for example Mary Kingsley, Constance Gordon Cumming or Isabella Bird did.

Caroline Chevalier, Sarah Mathew, and the Countess of Ranfurly travelled with their husbands; the travels of Mary Dobie, Constance Astley, and the Richardsons occurred as part of their wider family and social networks; and Kinsey, du Faur and Barnicoat were mountaineers. Dawson’s chapters on the Richardsons and May Kinsey are extraordinarily brief, and don’t really focus on travel at all. The Richardsons are jolly hockeysticks girls  who can paint and have an escapade to the Chathams, and Kinsey’s circumstances are described, but there’s no account of any of her mountaineering trips at all, only a rather lame note that no primary documents exist.

Adding to a lack of focus is Dawson’s oddly banal style, as if she forgets what the point of her sentence is. A single example will give the flavour. She writes about May Kinsey’s family: “The Kinseys lived a comfortable life that they happily shared with others.” Dawson doesn’t seem able to separate the interesting from the trivial and is preoccupied with dress (Countess Ranfurly “dressed with elegance and graciously gathered bouquets”), romances and melodrama. Nor can I for the life of me think what Mary Dobie is doing in a book about travellers – as most of the accounts of the voyage to New Zealand are written by her sister – except that, like Betsey Broughton, she got involved in a bloody event that in her case was fatal. Constance Astley’s passion for Dolla Richmond and Freda du Faur’s for Muriel Cadogan give an interesting gloss to the more usual heterosexual destinies of Dawson’s travellers, but confirm that the real interest of the material for her is biographical.

A better title for the book would be Twelve Women I Thought Were Interesting. And there are some interesting things about them, especially Constance Barnicoat and Caroline Chevalier – but as a historical text, or a book about travellers, or even in its indifference to the weight of the word “lady”, Lady Travellers is full of holes.


Lydia Wevers is the editor of Travelling to New Zealand. An Oxford Anthology, reviewed in our March 2001 issue. 


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Posted in Gender, History, Non-fiction, Review
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