Monday, March 10, 2014

Mary Gaunt, Explorer, Novelist, Travel Writer

The British men who explored Africa during the nineteenth century have been well memorialized here on MIE.  But not all Britain’s intrepid adventurers were male.  One of them is a heroine of mine and is my subject today.

Mary Eliza Bakewell Gaunt was born on the 20th of February 1861 in Chiltern, Victoria, Australia.  Her father, a county court judge, was unusual for a man of his era.  He supported his daughter’s desire for an education and travel.  Ordinarily, then and perhaps even now, fathers who had no sons would encourage such a daughter, but if they had male heirs, they expected their girl children to be proper ladies.  Mary had brothers, but her father favored her.  She, therefore, did not grow up to be her era’s ideal woman.  But she is my idea of exactly that.

In 1881, Mary was only the second woman ever to enroll in the University of Melbourne.  However, after only a year there, she jettisoned academic life to pursue her ambition of becoming a writer.    She wanted to make her own money “as a means of locomotion.”  Wanderlust was the passion of her life.

Based on her memories of her childhood in the goldfields, she immediately started writing travel articles.  Her first novel was published in 1884, the same year in which she married a widower, Dr. Hubert Lindsay Miller, another modern-minded man, who supported her going on with her writing and using her maiden name—a lot to say for a Victorian gentleman.  During their brief marriage she published a book of short stories and two novels.

When Dr. Miller died in 1900, Minnie, as she was known, took her modest widow’s pension of £ 30 per year and absconded to London in pursuit of expanded publishing opportunities.  At first, she struggled to establish herself as a writer (has that EVER been easy?).  Then, as soon as her stories began to sell, she took off for parts unknown: France, Italy, and most notably as far as I am concerned, West Africa.  Her first trip there in 1908 was along the Gold Coast, now Ghana.

In 1910, her publisher commissioned another African trip to explore the old forts along that same coast.  In her words she packed “a cabin trunk of pretty dresses, rose trimmed hats, gloves, photographic equipment.”  When she landed, she set off with a retinue of bearers.  In 1911, Alone in West Africa was published in London.

If you want, you can download a free copy here:

A woman after my own heart (yours too, I think, Lisa), she next ventured to China—Peking in 1913 and then north by mule cart to the Hunting Palace of the Manchus at Jehol (now Chengde).  She wrote her A Woman Alone in China while staying in a rented temple in the hills above Peking.  But then she had to give up her goal of returning to Western Europe by the old silk road.  She went back the way she came, across Siberia to Finland.


Two more travel books and several novels and short stories later, she took a sojourn in Jamaica and then she settled down and had the good sense to do it in Bordighera on the Italian Riviera.  When she was seventy-nine, World War II drove her from her home.  She escaped to France, leaving most of her possessions behind.  Mary Gaunt died in Cannes in 1942.


Bordighera, according to Monet

Mary Gaunt was never praised as a great stylist.  Her prose is clear, concise, and energetic.   Her novels are not deep character studies, but she told her stories with verve.  In other words, her books are like her:  full of locomotion.        

Annamaria - Monday

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for this wonderful portrait, Annamaria! Yes, definitely a woman after my own heart.