A Lady’s Cruise

I’ve bidden my time, putting up what I hope have been interesting and surprising items from the Bartholomew Archive Printing Record. But, now comes the time for one of my all time favourite maps.

This is what I call the Constance Gordon-Cumming map but which is actually, and gloriously called:

Not much to look at maybe, but a world of wonder for those of us interested in the pioneering efforts of pioneering women.

The images that the title of this map evokes for me are pretty farcical. But even when I’ve managed to get beyond my initial amusement there still remains two questions. Just what was a lady doing in a French Man-of-War and why would she be cruising around in it? These questions become irrelevant though when you realise that the lady in question is Constance Frederica Gordon-Cumming as Constance Frederica Gordon-Cumming was no ordinary lady.

Constance Gordon-Cumming was born in 1837, the year Queen Victoria acceded to the throne. Gordon-Cumming would go on to encapsulate something of the spirit of adventure and exploration that we have come to associate with the period. She was the twelfth child of an aristocratic family and as such enjoyed great wealth and great connections, necessary evils at a time when leisure travel was almost exclusively an aristocratic concern.

Constance’s legacy to us include her expressive paintings, the output of a self-taught artist, and of course, her travels and travel writings. She earned the disdain of her male contemporaries for her determination and independence; she often travelled alone for instance. Whilst we might shrug our shoulders at this fact, travel in Constance’s time was nothing like what we enjoy today. No airlines, no travel agents, little assistance and occasionally, little precedent. Yet in spite of this she was a prolific traveller notching up far flung destinations such as Australia, America, China, and Japan.

This map, printed by Bartholomew on 7 December, 1881, accompanied the book of the same title. In it, she recalls the story of her travels, most especially around the South Seas, accompanying the bishop of Samoa.

This book, as with most of her writing, was received with little praise either at the time or indeed today. Perhaps lacking a certain something, her works are unlikely to adorn any best-seller lists. But that doesn’t really matter to me. What I like about Constance is her spirit, her determination and her refusal to acquiesce in playing the role society expected of women. She did as she pleased and seemingly didn’t care. I greatly admire this attitude especially at a time when it would have been very difficult for her to avoid the harsh and unflattering criticism which was surely levelled at her.

It’s fair to say that her wealth facilitated her lifestyle but then, not all wealthy women shared Constance’s attitudes to life. It may be said that she never really produced anything of any great worth as a result of her travels but then, she did invent a system which allowed blind and illiterate Chinese Mandarin speakers to read Braille. All in all she has earned my admiration and I find it a shame that Constance has today become an overshadowed and somewhat forgotten woman.