Trailblazers: women travel writers and the exchange of knowledge – 12 September 2022 to 26 February 2023

Chawton House, Hampshire, August 2022. Opening to the public next month, Chawton House’s exciting new exhibition, Trailblazers: women travel writers and the exchange of knowledge, explores the fascinating stories of women who travelled the world in the 18th and early 19th centuries. Bringing together Chawton House’s collection with loans from archives and museums across the country, Trailblazers offers a unique opportunity to unravel the stories and writings of some of the most renowned women writers of the 18th and early 19th centuries.

Chawton House Curator, Emma Yandle, says: “Despite the perils of transport, women travelled in the age before railways and industrialization. They were trailblazers, directly confronting confining ideas of femininity by venturing out alone, or embedding themselves for months and years in different cultures. The motivation for their journeys varied: whether an ambassador or captain’s wife; an explorer; a war reporter; or to escape their life at home. Regardless, what unites them is their bravery in the face of very real dangers.”

Through books, documents and artworks – including original drawings and manuscripts displayed for the first time – Trailblazers will showcase the extent of women’s travel writing in this early period, when the rights of women were still heavily contested. Starting with the practical considerations for traveling as a woman with early examples of passports, visas, and luggage, the exhibition highlights the lives and writings of five trailblazing women: Lady Mary Wortley Montagu (1689-1762), Mary Wollstonecraft (1759 – 1797), Helen Maria Williams (1759-1827), Lady Hester Stanhope (1776-1839) and Maria Graham (1785-1842), the first professional female travel writer. Together they journeyed across countries as varied as Turkey, Syria, Sweden, Brazil, Chile and Revolutionary France. Their writings communicated new knowledge – on disease prevention, geology, radical politics and archaeology. They can tell us much about the way women struggled – and triumphed – in establishing themselves as respected travel writers.

“We’re showcasing some fantastic objects in the exhibition,” continues Emma. “Including a newly-commissioned map, showing the extent of women travel writers before the Victorian era and the spread of places and countries they visited. Plus, the first, unauthorized edition of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu’s Embassy Letters (1763) will be displayed alongside the manuscript copy of her letters surreptitiously acquired by publisher Thomas Becket, on loan from Camden Archives. These reveal Montagu’s observation of the practice of inoculation against smallpox by Turkish women, a topic particularly prescient in today’s climate.”

Trailblazers: women travel writers and the exchange of knowledge brings together highlights from Chawton House’s collection, with loans from the National Archives, the Geological Society of London, Wolverhampton Art Gallery, Camden Local Studies and Archives Centre, the Kent History and Library Centre and Sheffield City Archives.

The exhibition will be accompanied by a digital public programme, bringing together modern day experts with historical academics to examine various topics highlighted in the exhibition, including vaccination, war journalism and “mother of feminism” Mary Wollstonecraft’s perilous Nordic journey to track down a missing ship filled with silver treasure. Chawton House will also be working in partnership with Elizabeth Gaskell’s House, delivering a joint event on the safety and logistics women had to overcome whilst travelling at the time.

Trailblazers: women travel writers and the exchange of knowledge is open from 12 September 2022 and runs until 26 February 2023. Book tickets to visit the House here.