Ida Pfeiffer was an extraordinary woman – in a time when women were supposed to be devoted to Kinder, Kuche, Kirche – or children, kitchen, church.
Instead, Frau Pfeiffer, having outlived her husband, and having sent her strapping young lads out into the world on their own, decided to travel – and then write about it, for profit – to fund even more travels.
You see why I describe her as one of the first travel-bloggers – she travelled for the sheer joy of it, and yet found a way to make it pay … something I’m still struggling to do 🙂
Ida Pfeiffer has been called the first woman to make travelling her life’s work. She became a celebrity, famous to the new mass audiences that the media of the industrial revolution, and especially mass printing had made possible.
Her books became international best sellers, translated into European and non-European languages.
And she inspired woman worldwide even if they didn’t match her globetrotting themselves.
She took to exotic places.. in dresses with bustles, and high button shoes and by her very travel broke stereotypes and forged a path that people today can follow.
What is striking however, and what sets her apart from other early woman travellers who were rich or prominent or socially well connected, is that Ida Pfeiffer was not wealthy.
In the book ‘The story of Ida Pfeiffer’, the anonymous author praises Frau Pfeiffer’s careful allocation of resources toward her travels ..” she had learned by experience how little is required, if the traveller will but practise the strictest economy and resolutely forego many comforts and all superfluities” he says.
So Ida Pfeiffer was significant as a woman explorer but also as an example of how world travel was becoming increasingly possible for ordinary people.
So what drove Frau Pfeiffer?
Essentially, it was wanderlust.
She had been born into the Germanic equivalent of the Victorian era – and in many ways, the Biedermeier was like the Victorian age on steroids.
A key concept of the Victorian and Biedermeier world views was the notion called separate spheres – the idea that men and women had entirely distinct areas where they were to be active, and that these areas were to be dictated to them by biology and divine will.
Ida Pfeiffer would break out of all of these restrictions, but only after living them for a great part of her adult life. After a loveless marriage, she was widowed at a relatively early age, and was free to travel.
Her first trip was to the Middle East to visit the holy lands – because the religious motivation suggested the respectability required of women at the time and so this journey might be easier to explain to others later in those terms.
Frau Pfeiffer was astonished by the scenes of the orient and she eagerly took in the places of traditional pilgrimage – in fact, she at one point pretended that she was able to ride horse back in order to be able to make a side trip to see the sights. The truth is she had never ridden before, so she considered it a triumph that she had finally gotten to her destination without injury.
After seeing the holy places and shrines, she decided to keep going and took a trip to Egypt and Rome lasting nine months before returned to Vienna.
Once at home she sat down and in a creative frenzy she compiled all of the notes she’d scribbled in fourteen note books.
This became a two volume work that was published in 1843 – and it became a best-seller.
She had discovered the formula that she would use from now on. Writing of her travels sold well and she could use the proceeds from her books to fund further travel.
Her books were praised for their simple matter-of-fact- reporting, especially on things that famous male authors had neglected – such as the life of woman and families in other countries…the domestic realm of these far-away places.
She had a keen eye for detail. The books could essentially be read as tour guides for trips, real or vicarious, to these exotic destinations. In fact, the book I mentioned before (The Story of Ida Pfeiffer) contains extracts from her writing, translated into English – and it is available for free at the Project Gutenberg website, so you might like to check some of her writings for yourself.
She went to Iceland in 1845 and again claimed that her motive was religious – to see God’s nature in this wild and untamed place. What she got instead, to begin with at least, was epic sea-sickness.
From Iceland she travelled next to Scandinavia and then headed home where, according to her formula, she again published her travel notes as a book.
After being at home only for seven months Ida set off again in May 1846 on a much longer trip, this time to circle the world.
She boarded a Danish ship bound for Brazil. When that ship hit terrible storms off the east coast of South America, Ida did not cower below – instead, she had herself tied to the mast so that she could experience the full measure and force of the tempest. That’s dedication to her craft!
Once in Brazil she was awestruck by the nature and culture – but not all of her travel impressions were positive. Once, when taking an excursion through a rain forest Ida Pfeiffer was suddenly confronted by a bandit who threatened her with a knife.
How did she react? She did what any Victorian lady traveller might have done. She pulled out her own knife and stabbed him. After this Ida Pfeiffer carried pistols in her travels.
Also notable is that always dressed in woman’s clothes on her travels. She even developed a feminine explorer outfit of her own design with a shorter skirt that usual, mosquito net and broad brimmed hat.
The conversations Ida Pfeiffer had with women in kitchens or in homes or at camp fires gave her writings a perspective that no one before had encountered.
For example, she made her way to Bagdad where she visited a harem…something that no male European would have been allowed to do – a sensation for her reading public!
Ida Pfeiffer then trekked to Mosel by camel caravan and then on to Persia – but before leaving, she had all of her notes shipped home, as they were vital for the book she planned to write.
She then continued through the southern Russian empire, through Armenia and Georgia and then across the Black sea, and returned to Vienna having covered more than 60,000 km in the course of 19 months.
And then, like many an air traveller today, her luggage went missing – you know, the notes she had shipped home for safekeeping? They weren’t there. So she had to wait. And wait…… for 18 months! Arrgh! Every time I think of that story, I am tempted to go do an extra backup of my data, just to make sure 🙂
But they DID eventually arrive, and she reworked them into her famous book Eine Frauenfarhrt um die Welt, or A Woman’s Journey Round the World.
After the East Indies, Frau Pfeiffer sailed to San Francisco, toured Mexico and visited Niagara Falls and New York city and then returned across the Atlantic, finally reaching home in 1855.
Then came one last journey – to Madagascar, off the coast of Africa.
There, she unwittingly got involved in a coup against the Queen of Madagascar – and became deathly ill – possibly with the malaria that had troubled her for years, or possibly with cancer. In either case – she died soon after, and was all but forgotten to history.
Now, she wasn’t without her flaws: she was, after all, a product of her age and could be quite casually racist (reading her report of the harem visit was quite confronting for example).
But Ida Pfeiffer did help usher in an age when even ordinary people could travel and explore, and those who read her books saw a world of possibilities opening up before them – a world that was not the unique preserve only of extraordinary explorers.
This was a world they could – WE could – venture into.
And that’s why she is a heroine to me.
Note: This blog post is based, in part, on a lecture I give as a ‘cruise ship enrichment speaker’ (contact me if you’d like info on how to cruise for next-to-nothing, in return for delivering a few one-hour lectures).
My thanks go to to Professor Vejas Liulevicius, who introduced me to Frau Pfeiffer, in his Great Lecture series “History’s Greatest Voyages of Exploration”
In fact, that series of lectures alone are worth my subscription to Audible.com
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