Annabel Abbs is the author of the new book Windswept: Walking the Paths of Trailblazing Women. Her other books include the novel Miss Eliza's English Kitchen. She lives in London and in Sussex, UK.
Q: What inspired you to write Windswept, and what impact did writing the book have on you?
A: I was inspired to write about hiking women, having grown tired of reading books about walking that failed to mention a single woman.
Even [Rebecca] Solnit’s classic, Wanderlust, was woefully short of women, with Solnit confessing that the history of walking is really the history of men walking.
I began researching and found hundreds of historical women who walked – for work, for pleasure, for adventure, but often for emotional catharsis. For several years, I collected accounts of walking women – many of them gleaned from letters and diaries.
Writing about them, and walking in their paths, was profoundly liberating. They walked without cell phones, waterproof clothing, bras, lightweight backpacks, GPS, mountain rescue services or boil-in-the-bag meals. Their courage was contagious, enabling me to conquer many of my own fears.
Q: How did you choose the women you write about in the book, and how did you research their stories?
A: I ended up with almost 50 women but my editor advised me to focus on a handful, and so I selected seven primary walkers and explored their reasons for walking and the effect of landscape on their life and work.
The first part of my research involved reading their diaries, letters, and memoirs, often in libraries and archives.
For the artists I included – Gwen John and Georgia O’Keeffe – I pored over their paintings, trying to understand how their art had been shaped by their experiences of wild walking.
For the writers and novelists – Nan Shepherd, Simone de Beauvoir, Clara Vyvyan and Daphne du Maurier – I read their novels, travel books and other works, again looking for the influence of hiking and landscape.
The next “chapter” of research meant tracking down some of their pivotal or favourite routes and walking in their footsteps.
This sounds easy but was more complicated than I’d expected. I had to research the history of the landscapes through which they walked. The routes they loved, and I hiked, were often very different from the original routes. I learned huge amounts about how landscapes change. What each woman saw as she walked wasn’t what I saw, 100 years later.
Q: You write, “If walking in wildness is such a powerfully restorative and rejuvenating experience...why has it been denied to women? Or has it? And if it hasn't, where are they? And why don't we know about them?” Why do you think the idea of women walkers has been overlooked?
A: Women have always been kept out of wild landscapes. These were traditionally places for men to hunt, shoot, fish, climb, or simply to walk alone – in the manner of Muir or Thoreau or Wordsworth.
Even the ubiquitous Marlboro man adverts make it clear that wild empty spaces are for men to wrestle with their masculinity – places where men become “real” men.
But this isn’t actually the case. Women have always walked in the countryside – as shepherdesses, foragers, geese girls, or to carry water and firewood.
More recently women have walked for the same reasons as men, for adventure, for their art, in search of freedom. But they’ve been excluded from all the anthologies. Perhaps by writers and publishers who felt, often misguidedly, that women weren’t safe in the wilds.
Q: What do you hope readers take away from the book?
A: I hope readers feel impelled to walk more adventurously, with less fear. I hope women feel inspired to walk further, either alone or with friends and family, perhaps even at night, and in new – or unfamiliar - landscapes.
I hope they also think about how they walk. Some of these women walked quite differently from their male counterparts.
Nan Shepherd, for example, shows us how to walk with all our senses and how to take pleasure in the tiniest of things. This manner of walking is very different from the all-conquering style of the male hunter, for instance. Shepherd shows us how to walk with our ears, our nose, our bare feet. She’s an inspiration!
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I’m writing a book about the women who reclaimed the night – from astronomers to insomniac poets and painters. I see night and darkness as another world appropriated by men but compellingly female in so many ways. After all, two thirds of poor sleepers are women!
I’ve also got a biopic novel on Europe’s first domestic goddess, Miss Eliza’s English Kitchen, which has been optioned by CBS Studios.
I’ve had a busy lockdown – it’s amazing how much you can get done when all things social are stripped away! My writing was also my COVID therapy. I’m very grateful for my little study which enabled me to escape the demands of my family and some of the tragedy of the last 18 months.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Annabel Abbs.