Book reviews / Non fiction

Book review: Wanderers – a history of women walking

There was a point reading Mary Beard’s SPQR when she deconstructs how Roman history has been fashioned, that I really got a sense of how those who come after continue to shape what we think about what happened then, but also what happens now. It helped me bring shape to some of my PhD and double down on the desire to include women in my retelling of a particular historical period, one that continued to exclude women’s efforts, despite mounting evidence to the contrary.

This book had a similar effect on me, by demonstrating (yet again) how absolutely fucking lazy it is of historians and casual commentators to continue to repeat the lazy stereotyping about women and the way the lived. While the book annoyed me occasionally (usually the post-modern trips over words and language), it did me the utmost service of bringing my attention to these wonderful women.

Yes, many of them were of a class or wealth that allowed them the privilege of being solo women, walking in the Lake District or Scotland in the 19th or 20th century, but not all of them. But what really annoyed me was that some of them were in so close proximity of men of some literary repute. And yet, it took until now for me to know them. Especially Sarah Hazlitt, with her scumbag of a husband, the essayist William Hazlitt.

What also annoyed me (retrospectively) was having to read about the concept of the flaneur in grad school, and it being intensely male-coded because of perceived danger to women walkers (either through violence or reputation). And then in this book up pops Anaïs Nin, who is definitely a gauntlet thrown down to the male-coded flaneur. So many of the women were, walking in the city or the country, observant of both themselves and their surroundings.

ANYWAY. What I mean to say, is that any time there is something that is male coded and representative of whatever ‘male’ dominated thing, it’s probably absolutely bullshit. The people flogging it are lazy and should do better research, as there’s always women doing that particular ‘male’ coded thing, even if that thing is as simple as walking.

I now need to read about some 19th century women cyclists and their long distance cycling adventures, since I relate to cycling much more. Some of the descriptions of the epiphanies or feeling of euphoria that these women had walking definitely resonated with me. Some of the best rides I have done were on the Isle of Skye, with intense wind all the time, but absolutely beautiful scenery. I had wonderful roads but very rarely interrupted by cars. It was exhilarating to even do 10 miles because of the wind and I enjoyed every ride. Man, I really want to do more biking again but I’ve been so BLAH because of Covid-19. Maybe this book will help me get back out there and regain my fitness.

Anyway, it’s a lovely read, and you can gloss all the post-modern word salad (there isn’t a lot of it). I really want to find some biographies of some of these women as they just sound absolutely wonderful.

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