Saturday, February 13, 2010

Devon Women: Travelling and Writing

If you want to sit back in an arm-chair and learn about a variety of other places – in the UK and beyond –  just look through an assortment of books and manuscripts penned by women who had some connection with Devon. Conversely, if you want to know about the county – its history, geography, culture, flora and fauna, people, customs, archaelogy, church-history, music and so on – all you need is to get hold of some of the texts written over several centuries by a variety of women writers, both those who lived here and  some who came to visit Devon from outside the county.

Just recently I have been researching some Devonian female travellers  who ventured abroad, some to far away places, (or in other cases returned to it as a retirement refuge later on).Writing first-hand narratives (as letters, journals or travel-guides), these writer-adventurers elaborated and extended an Ariadnian web over seas and continents. Projecting elements of themselves on to other-landscapes, their documents reveal much about topographical relationships between the written-place the home-base and the scripting of the self.

Just a couple of examples to whet anyone's appetite; one of them was and is quite renowned for her travel journals in Canada with her husband, but the first is not a familiar name.

Thomazene Williams, (Tamzin), was daughter of a shipping-family in Appledore. She kept log-journals of her sea-journeys; on one such passage from Newport to Quebec in 1850, which seems to have had a stormy beginning, she wrote blissfully of the

most delightful weather almost a Calm wind … I feel almost perfectly well, and quite enjoy the delightfull scene on the broad Atlantic, I was also pleasured at seeing a very great number of Porpoises, and sun fish, the harpoon was prepared to catch them but they kept too far off to strike them the Mate caught one small fish which gave us a delicious treat I have quite recovered my Appetite, am able to eat a couple of eggs for my tea, and also for the first time sat on deck sewing.

Elizabeth’s Simcoe’s insightful diaries of her stay in Upper Canada, a hundred years before Thomazene made her boat-trip, classics of their genre, provide the arm-chair traveller and historian with graphic and spirited documents detailing the rich diversity of the country during the late C18. Stylistically Simcoe’s writing has been compared to her contemporary Jane Austen’s, and her journals are awash with a palette of colour as they show her delight in sampling what was then the upper classes outpost of the empire – its flora, fauna, scenery and weather; its dinner-parties, social customs, balls, food, games of chess and other social shenanigans; its possibilities for canoe trips, horse rides, tobogganing and walking. Such is this little snippet from the time of the Simcoe’s stay in Quebec, in wintertime:

Mrs. Simcoe's Diary (Voyageur Classics)

I walked this evening at nine oclock to Fort Louis Gate. The moon shone bright and however intense the cold is here, it is so extremely still at night that it is less felt than it is in England where a less degree of cold is attended with wind. There is little wind here except with a snowstorm. The French call it Poudre and to travel with that blowing in the face is very disagreeable. The Canadians wear scanty thick woollen coats … with hoods to them … their coats are tied round with a coloured worsted sash. The french women wear long thin linnen coats, sometimes hoods lined with eiderdown but often walk in the street with only a Muslin cap.

Simcoe went to Canada in 1792, as wife of John Graves Simcoe, who had been appointed the first Lieutenant of Canada. As well as the journals, she sent hundreds of letters to friends and family about her experiences in this ‘new land’. As well as proving to be a dedicated adventuress, Simcoe also underwent several significant events in Canada, including the birth of her seventh child, Katherine. Her links with Devon are deep and complex, and there is much in the way of archival material yet to be studied. For anyone who wants to follow this up the first place to visit it Wolford Chapel, where the Simcoes are buried and where the historic connections between the heritages of Devon and Canada are exemplified.
Information on Thomasina Williams came from Two Sailors’ Wives of Appledore, Basil Green Hill & Ann Giffard,  in Women Under Sail.  

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