Birds of Passage
Five Englishwomen in Search of America
n the 19th century, most travel books about the United States were written by men, often producing lengthy works describing political, social, and economic aspects of American life.
There were also a small number of female travel writers, who tended to write more about the business of daily life, the precise subject that today’s readers want to know about. One president of Harvard dismissed these women as mere ‘Birds of Passage’, who flew hurriedly over the land with little understanding of what they saw.
He was wrong, however, because their works give us valuable insights into the realities of life in a county still finding itself. The lives and books of these five women offer contrasting but vivid accounts of American life, some of which still find echoes today.
• Rebecca Burlend, a Yorkshire farmer’s wife, gave a first-hand account of a farmer’s hard life on the frontier.
• Fanny Wright, a wealthy radical reformer, set out to change America by abolishing slavery. After her Utopian settlement collapsed she turned to lecturing on feminism.
• Frances Trollope, went to America as a disciple of Fanny Wright but soon fell out. When her Cincinnati shopping centre failed she wrote a devastating critique of American ‘manners’, later judged accurate by Mark Twain.
• Lady Emile Stuart-Wortley, a Duke’s daughter, was a devotee of the United States and her visit sheds favourable light on American life, including that on a large plantation.
• Catherine Hopley was a tutor who stayed in the South after 1861. She gives insights into Southern life that are healthy correctives to many currently held views.
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