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Adventurers, and not always ladylike

Email|Print| Text size + By Christine Temin
Globe Staff / September 12, 2004

LONDON -- Travel can be a fine adventure. Of course, it also can be drudgery (if there's far too much of it for work, for example) or inconvenient (if the security lines are long or the trains don't run on time). Almost always, it can make the unfamiliar world familiar.

When the Native American princess Pocahontas arrived in England in 1616, having married the Englishman John Rolfe, some of the natives in London thought she was an apparition from another world. Today, one must assume, the English have become more worldly, thanks at least in part to travel.

As for inconvenience, consider the 20th-century adventurer Penelope Chetwode, Lady Betjeman, who grew up in India where her father, Baron Chetwode, was commander-in-chief of the army. In 1974, in her 60s and having grown quite hefty, she returned to the Himalayas. She was faced with crossing a wide river by the only available means: floating on an inflatable buffalo hide. Wearing a vivid pink blouse, she clambered onto the back of a local guide about half her weight, who used his skinny arms and legs to paddle the makeshift raft across the water.

Certainly, similar stories abound of men and their travels, but an engaging exhibit at the National Portrait Gallery through next month, ''Off the Beaten Track: Three Centuries of Women Travellers," deals with the female experience -- its inconveniences as well as its adventure and daring.

Using images of women, and drawings and watercolors by those of them who were artists, the show chronicles their adventures. Some were also collectors, sending home Egyptian antiquities or bringing home a necklace made of hair cut from the head of a victim killed by a Hawaiian chief, both of which would mean trouble with customs officials today.

You don't often hear people laughing out loud at a museum show. They do in this crowd-pleaser, except for those holding their breath while tying themselves into the Victorian corset that is available to try on. It is a reminder that, for the more proper among these women, being in the jungle was no excuse for letting sartorial standards slide.

Except for those foreigners who traveled to England, all the women are British, and many of them are ''Lady" something or other. They do very well upholding the reputation of the British aristocracy as eccentric. When she was pregnant, for instance, Lady Betjeman, who was known to prefer animals to humans, said of her still-unborn child, ''I wish it could be a little horse."

The catalog, written by travel writer and broadcaster Dea Birkett, has a particularly entertaining entry for Beryl de Zoete, a dance critic and translator, whose fascination with ethnic dance led her to such places as Bali, India, and Sri Lanka. Birkett notes that ''she and her husband, Basil de Slincourt, practiced celibacy and vegetarianism. She knew that her marriage had broken down when her husband brought home another woman and began eating beefsteak."

Some of these women traveled to escape their husbands; others left to search for missing ones. Some traveled for health reasons, in an age when medical science deemed any warm climate automatically more salubrious than the damp of England.

Some dressed as men in countries where an upper-class British female was incomprehensible to the locals. On moving to Turkey in 1806, Lady Hester Stanhope swathed herself in the local attire and became addicted to smoking a pipe. She wrote back home to a fellow traveler, Mary Rich, with advice about crossing the desert. Bringing a chamber pot was priority one. After traveling ''eight or nine hours, it will be in vain to seek a bush or tree for any little purpose, and anyway, you cannot stray from the party."

Some women traveled merely for the sake of traveling, like Phileas Fogg in ''Around the World in 80 Days" or those contemporary voyagers who pay a fortune to circle the globe in a private jet, just to say they have done it.

For Amy Johnson it was the journey that mattered more than the destination. An early aviator, she ventured to Australia, South Africa, and Japan. She joined the Air Transport Auxiliary in 1939 at the outbreak of World War II. Her last flight was in January 1941. She never returned.

In John Capstack's 1930s photo, Johnson is fitted out in pilot's gear. But her face is glamorously made up, as if she were preparing to star in a movie about herself.

Dorothy Mills, Lady Walpole, may have been the first European woman to reach Timbuktu, but not without a proper wardrobe in case she encountered other Western travelers. A 1911 photograph shows her as slim and regal, wearing a pleated gown that makes her look like a Greek caryatid. Lady Walpole also traveled to Liberia, Iraq, and other destinations where a woman on her own would be foolish to venture today.

These portraits reflect not only the sitters, but their times. In her engraving, Pocahontas is dressed as a European aristocrat, stiff lace ruff and all, and her features, too, look European.

With the advent of photography, looks could not be altered so easily. An albumen ''carte de visite" of Sarah Davies shows a beautiful black woman standing proud in a picture taken on her wedding day in 1862. Her start in life had been inauspicious. As a young slave, she was given by the king of Dahomey (now the African country Benin) to a British officer, who accepted the gift because he believed the British government would protect her. Indeed, it did. Queen Victoria became her godmother and took on financial responsibility for her; Davies eventually married a merchant from Sierra Leone.

In general, the subjects of these portraits are more important than the artists. Occasionally, though, the two are equals, as in Sir Thomas Lawrence's 1819 romanticized oil portrait of a pensive Maria Graham, her pale skin set off by dark curls escaping from her turban-like headdress. Married to a ship's captain, Graham sailed to South America with him, and after his death, she stayed on. Botany became her life. She sent Brazilian seeds back to Sir William Hooker, later the director of the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, and made watercolors of tropical plants. Because of her research, when the Royal Botanical Society was founded in 1839, women were admitted from the outset.

Intrepid females in search of the exotic found that the natives of faraway lands considered them exotic. In addition to adventures such as being sent to Antwerp to spy for Charles II, Aphra Behn, the great 17th-century playwright, went to Surinam, where she was the object of much wonder and curiosity. She was the subject of a body search more rigorous than anything in a modern airport, and as a gesture of friendship, she gave her examiners the gaiters they had especially liked.

The celebrated traveler and author Jan Morris is both a subject in the National Portrait Gallery show and the author of the catalog's foreword. Some years ago, I was in Wales with my husband and sons, then age 7 and 12, when we were invited to a dinner to meet Morris. The night before, we told the boys about the famous writer they were going to meet.

''And then he became the only journalist on the expedition to Mount Everest, when Edmund Hillary and his party finally reached the 'roof of the world,' " my husband told the boys. ''He was the one who broke the news."

This all went over the 7-year-old's head. The 12-year-old, on the other hand, was keenly interested in why my husband was calling Jan Morris ''he." There really was no alternative. He learned about sex-change operations before he got the full birds and bees lecture.

''I have had the peculiar experience of traveling both as a man and as a woman," Morris writes in her forward, ''and I have reached the conclusion that the female traveler has had it easier than the male. . . . Women are more likely to fall among friends, allies, or colleagues wherever they go -- to this day, the human sorority is stronger by far than the fraternity."

Christine Temin can be reached at c_temin@globe.com.

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