I was inspired to read this book after seeing it mentioned in a magazine article a while ago. The article mentioned the book in connection with Georgia O’Keefe, an artist who I have loved after seeing an exhibition of her work at Tate Modern a few years ago and as I also love walking, it seemed like the perfect choice for my next non-fiction read.
The book is a combination of memoir and biography as the author retraces the steps taken by a collection of notable women on their walks. The subjects include Gwen John, Nan Shepherd, Simone de Beauvoir and of course Georgia O’Keefe and all of the women broke with convention to go on solitary hikes into the wilderness. As Annabel Abbs walks in the steps of those women, she reflects on her own feelings and experiences and how they compare to those who have gone before her.
The book wasn’t quite what I expected as I didn’t realise that there would be so much of the author’s own experiences. At first, I found this a bit irritating as I wanted to learn more about the women she had researched. However, as I read on, I became just as interested in the author’s experiences as in her subjects.
Some of the chapters appealed more than others. I loved the chapters on Gwen John, Nan Shepherd and Georgia O’Keefe especially and was inspired to find out more about the life and work of Gwen John who I had heard of but knew very little about. All of the women found that they needed to escape and walk on their own to cope with their lives and find who they really were when not constrained by the roles expected of them. Each of them broke the normal rules of female behaviour by doing this. Walking, especially serious walking of 10 miles a day and more, for many years was the preserve of men. Women were expected to stay at home and by breaking these rules, all of the women exposed themselves to unwanted attentions. Walking alone exposed them to curiosity at best and sometimes outright danger. Sadly, one of the things that hasn’t changed in all this time is that women are still at risk when out walking as the recent murder of a primary school teacher on a canal path has shown.
Frieda von Richthofen in particular gave up everything in 1912, a home, husband and three children to go on an walking adventure with her lover, the author DH Lawrence. This is the first of the walks that the author covers as she retraces Frieda’s steps through Germany and over the Alps into Italy. We get more details about the author’s own experiences than Frieda’s as Frieda doesn’t give much information in her own memoirs but Annabel Abbs tries to recreate the routes taken and find some of the places where not only Frieda and Lawrence but each of her subjects stayed.
As well as details about the historical walks and her own thoughts, we also get a fair amount of the Science behind walking and the benefits that walking in the countryside, along rivers or up in the mountains can bring to you. There are many mentions of the mental health benefits of walking in areas such as this compared to urban areas and all of the women in this book certainly found that the act of walking for miles and miles had a beneficial effect on them. There were one or two places where I felt that the heavy emphasis on finding yourself and inner harmony was a bit overwhelming but I’m sure that other people will find that more interesting.
The landscapes that the women chose to walk in are very varied. We travel from the great European rivers, over the alps and Scottish Munros to the Texan desert and each one of these presents its own challenges and has its own rewards. I loved the Georgia O’Keefe chapter most, partly because of how the desert inspired the artwork that I love but also because this was a landscape that is totally alien to me. I loved being transported to the empty expanse of the desert and trying to imagine what that emptiness would feel like.
I really enjoyed reading this book and finding out about these different women and where they walked. It has certainly inspired me to take my walking a bit more seriously and venture further afield than I presently do.
The Non Fiction Reader Challenge is hosted by ShelleyRae at Bookdout and details can be found here This is the fifth non fiction book that I have read in 2022 so I have definitely achieved my aim of reading more non fiction this year 😃