Jennie Rooney’s top 10 women travellers in fiction

From eccentric spinster aunts to Alice in Wonderland, the novelist traces the steps of fiction’s most engaging female adventurers

Helena Bonham Carter Lucy Honeychurch Room with a view
 Helena Bonham Carter as Miss Lucy Honeychurch in A Room With a View.
Jennie Rooney’s new novel The Opposite of Falling, in which Ursula Bridgewater takes Thomas Cook’s famous new tour of America after her engagement is broken off, is out now. Her first novel, Inside the Whale, was shortlisted for the Costa first novel award in 2008.

“The Victorian era saw a surge in the popularity of women travellers, with adventurers such as Mary Kingsley and Gertrude Bell publishing travelogues, and inspiring others to follow in their hobnailed footsteps. Women travellers in fiction appear in many forms. First there are the more traditional travellers: the unconventional spinster, the ingénue flung into a foreign setting, the formidable chaperone – each of these provides some of the most engaging female characters in fiction. Then there are the interior journeys, where the character does not travel physically but is somehow transformed. Finally there is that unforgettable trio of young girls who cornered the market in early fantasy travel: Alice’s tumble into Wonderland, Dorothy’s trip to Oz and, of course, Wendy Darling’s night-flight across London to Neverland. Here are a few to get us started …”

1. Aunt Augusta in Travels With My Aunt by Graham Greene

So often the sidekick, the aunt is a crucial figure in the travelling fiction genre. In this wonderful novel, Graham Greene places the aunt centre stage, allowing her to drag Henry Pulling out of suburbia and on to the Orient Express to Paris, Istanbul and South America; and showing him, on the way, just how much fun aunts can have.

2. Alice in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll

The ultimate female traveller, Alice wanders away from a picnic, falls down a rabbit hole, and is whisked away to a fantasy land where things just get curiouser and curiouser. There is a white rabbit who is always late, a smile without a cat, the Mad Hatter and his tea party, and an endless array of creatures and tales.

3. Miss Lucy Honeychurch in A Room With a View by EM Forster

Armed with her Baedeker guidebook, Lucy travels to Italy with her cousin and chaperone, the rather snippy Miss Bartlett. Upon arriving at the Pensione Bertolini, they swap rooms with a father and son whose rooms both have views (“Am I to conclude,” asks Miss Bartlett upon receiving the offer, “that he is a socialist?”). Lucy’s experiences in Italy open her up to the possibility of love – even if it is with a socialist.

4. The Wife of Bath in The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer

Gap-toothed and gossipy, the Wife of Bath travels to Canterbury with Chaucer’s rabble of pilgrims. She is unreserved in her discussion of her five marriages, and is particularly gleeful in the descriptions of her sexual activity and the ways in which she liked to exploit this with her various husbands.

5. Hortense in Small Island by Andrea Levy

Hortense knows everything there is to know about England: she has read Shakespeare, uses words such as “perchance”, and makes perfect fairy cakes. But when she finally travels there in 1948, she finds that England does not know so very much about her. A fabulous, richly comic voice, exploring the realities of postwar immigration.

6. Isabel Archer in The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James

Fearing that marriage will stifle her independence, young American Isabel Archer takes up the offer of a trip to Europe with (of course) her aunt. While in Europe she inherits a fortune, bequeathed to her for the purpose of securing her freedom, but which causes her to become the object of scheming bounty-hunters. Dark and goose-bumpingly sinister.

7. The Lady of Shalott by Alfred, Lord Tennyson

Inspired by Arthurian legend, Tennyson’s poem recounts the curse of the Lady of Shalott, forced forever to weave a magic web without looking directly out at the world. However, upon glimpsing Lancelot in her mirror, she turns to the window, bringing the curse upon her, so that she dies on her subsequent boat journey to Camelot (cue Lancelot, with one of literature’s oddest consolations: “she had a lovely face”).

8. Clarissa Dalloway in Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf

An interior journey, this one. Told through a stream-of-consciousness narrative, it is the story of Mrs Dalloway’s preparations for a party that evening, and takes place over a single day in June. The action is mainly restricted to flashbacks, but by the end of the book, it is clear that this day has been a journey through Clarissa’s mind.

9. Orleanna Price and her daughters in The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver

Married to a Baptist missionary, Orleanna Price accompanies her husband from America to the Belgian Congo with their four daughters. The novel is narrated by the girls and their mother, each witnessing and responding to their father’s actions in different ways. A deeply woven study of misogyny, misplaced religion and the blight of colonial occupation.

10. Wendy Darling in Peter and Wendy by JM Barrie

After sewing Peter Pan’s shadow back on in the Kensington nursery, Wendy is recruited by Peter to be his “mother” and he asks her to come back to Neverland with him. She flies out of the window with her brothers, following Peter’s somewhat unhelpful travel directions: “Second to the right and then straight on ’til morning!”


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