women travelers in south Italy, Emily Lowe

Early Women Travelers in South Italy

UNPROTECTED FEMALES IN SICILY, CALABRIA, AND ON THE TOP OF MOUNT AETNA

Intrepid is the word that comes to mind when characterizing women travelers in remote regions. Take Mrs. and Miss Lowe, two proper British ladies, a mother and daughter team that tramped all over the “continent” in the middle of the 19th-century to both the horror and delight of those around them. I enjoyed traveling back in time in a vicarious trip through South Italy by way of Emily Lowe’s (the daughter’s) charming book of 1859, entitled Unprotected Females in Sicily, Calabria, and on the Top of Mount Aetna

Emily Lowe, women travelers in South Italy

Emily Lowe

I imagine these ladies must have had somewhat of a following in their day, as the Southern Italian experience was a sequel to their trip to the Nordic countries, documented by Emily in 1857 as Unprotected Females in Norway, or the Pleasantest Way of Travelling There, Passing Through Denmark and Sweden. Incidentally, in the book about Sicily and Calabria, a discrepancy exists amongst modern editions as to the author’s first name, with many citing “Helen Lowe” as the author. However, the British Library attributes the work to Emily Lowe, as do sources of the Norway book. I also came across a biographical listing of “Helen Emily Lowe.”

In any case, Emily, as I’ll call her, and her mother created quite a commotion throughout their time in Sicily and Calabria. The two seemed to turn heads wherever they went and the book features a number of descriptions of the locals’ reaction to their unprotected female status. I’ll relate two from Sicily: “The whole house, and numbers of people from without, were standing in the passage to get a peep whenever our door was opened; men were asking for the passport; everybody was in a state of tittering excitement at the arrival of due donne sole” (two lone women). (p 56)

And at the thought of the women going about without a male escort: “The countenance of a native alone could express the dismay at women who ‘Girare senza esser accompagnate!!’ (Travel unaccompanied!!!) That is the sum of horror, an escort being as indispensable as money to an Italian lady unhappy enough to be obliged to travel twenty miles; and a hint at the ascent of Etna, put them into a fury of ‘Impossibile!’” (p 41)

SOME THINGS NEVER CHANGE

While times have certainly changed with regard to women traveling solo, other topics Emily broached would sound familiar to today’s travelers. Here are a few examples regarding Italian traffic, the cold indoor temperatures in the winter, and Italian romanticism:

And now, Palermo, O Palermo! You lie before us in broad daylight, but it is no easy thing to explore your streets. On putting foot outside the door, the narrow lane is instantly filled by crazy carriages, others are approaching from each end; the drivers implore us to enter them all, edge us side ways to the houses, fill the air with cracking of whips, and accompany us in a long line through the town. (p. 9)

In winter, though many invalids come for warmth, and once the Empress of Russia among them, the thermometer may be higher than at St. Petersburg; but we did not suffer so much from indoor cold in Poland. (p. 33-34)

We return home stirred by the animation, and who would say they were not in a romantic land, where Spanish blood and chivalry course together through the people’s veins, on finding a beautiful little note with the following words lying on their table? Its contents will show the character of the people better than any description: really Don Quixote must come back again! ….

The substance in plain English, shorn of compliments, of this truly Sicilian document is: — “From the first moment, Madamigella, in which I had the good fortune to see you in the Cathedral church, you inspired me with such a ‘sympathy’ (excuse me) as could certainly not be exceeded. In consequence, I would pray your innate kindness to allow me to address some words to you, or to your mamma to know if there is any chance of my affection being returned, and arrangements made to let this accidental meeting be ever lasting. I leave this at your hotel, impatiently hoping this day to receive a reply. Forgive, amiable young lady, an infatuation caused, etc. etc., and hoping to be able to express the high consideration which I feel for you.” Your humble, devoted servant, …whose noble and honourable name I must not tell. (p. 18-19)

And an idyllic scene in Calabria:

Pliant baskets at our feet were filled with luscious Mandarine oranges plucked by attendant peasants who remained to play on their rustic pipes, the small reeds of which they held two, or even three, to their lips at once; one, most agile, placed a ladder against the long trunk of the African palm, and brought down a branch, golden as the dates it bore. The balm of the south was soft as ever the imagination had breathed it; light and life danced on the ground; the young envoys, romantic as their country, had each prepared an ode, and recited it with an animation inspired by the novelty of the subject, “Ladies visiting their Calabria.” (p. 209)

THE CHURCH AND THE GOVERNMENT

women travelers in south Italy

Paola on the Coast of Calabria, Emily Lowe

Emily sympathizes with the plight of common people and honest laborers. She observes priests and the government hindering, not helping, exploiting their power and taking advantage of the masses. For example, after pointing out how much of Sicily the church already owns, she laments of greedy monks waiting on shore as fishermen land, demanding the best catch without rendering payment. Next, a hardworking gardener, heading home with a basket of grapes and melons:

He meets a friar, who makes the sign of the cross over it and puts the ripest in his paunch. The man makes the sacrifice unmurmuringly; but the sight of honest labour so hardly taxed diminished the feeling of romance with which we contemplated the distribution of charity at convent-doors, as it was merely the people’s right returned to them for begging, instead of circulating naturally, while it increased the power and influence of the restorers, whose church is the only institution which flourishes. (p. 45-46)

The lottery? “In this country, the Government kindly provides excitement instead of employment for the poor.” (p. 23)

The post office? “This is one specimen in a thousand, of the ways in which this paternal Government forces its children to cheat it.” (p. 87)

Getting ahead? “… the government, faithful to its principles of allowing no person of superior talent, unless a devoted servant, to follow that profession…” (p. 154)

THE PEOPLE OF SICILY AND CALABRIA

Syracuse, women travelers in South Italy

Tomb of Archimedes – Syracuse, Emily Lowe

These women travelers in South Italy found many good things to say about the local people. Emily compliments the Sicilians and gives advice as how to carry oneself.

Yet we northerners say the ardent Sicilians fail in constancy. When their hearts are touched, no people are capable of more enduring sacrifice…. We can unhesitatingly echo their character to be “more sincere than the French, more courteous than the English, more refined than the Germans.”! But remember, traveller, you must be pleasing to them; a cold, distant mien, as if one were something superior, is felt twenty yards off, like electricity; a shade of suspicion wounds that “sensibilità” of which they have so large a share. The whole pleasure of your journey within the island depends upon whether you prove simpatico (attractive) or antipatico (repellent) to them: if prepared to be the latter, you had better not go; if the former, you will have everything your own way. (p. 14)

The ladies also had good experiences with the Calabrian people. Emily praises both their looks and their generous spirit.

There is so much countenance in a Calabrian face, you may read all it means, and cannot feel distrustful; they were by far the handsomest set we had seen, the coldness of their winters giving them an English freshness. (p. 237)

He had brought various specimens of local wines from our friend, whose generosity seemed to increase with our stay — true specimen of the national character! all in extremes, like their rivers, which either rush in impetuous torrents, or dry up and leave a harsh, arid bed, but never flow calmly enough to reflect. (p. 246)

WONDERS OF SICILY AND CALABRIA

Lowe, women travelers

Temple of Juno at Agrigentium, Emily Lowe

From the magnificent mosaics in the Cathedral of Monreale to the temples of Agrigento, the panoramas on Mt. Etna, the Strait of Messina, the vistas of the Aeolian Islands and the forests of Calabria, the ladies appreciated both the natural and manmade beauties of the regions.

The beauty of the views appeared to increase every instant; Stromboli rose as a pyramid with the point cut off; isle after isle of the Liparis hove in sight; the Faro point of Sicily with its two lakes seemed striving to touch the coast beneath us, so narrow were the straits; spreading mulberry-trees producing two kinds of fruit, one black, the other white, alternately shaded the road with vines fixed on lofty colonnades of stone, and bearing such massive grapes, they rested in panniers suspended beneath for their support, whilst others were drying into raisins. (p. 216)

The country continued beautiful, undulating, and thickly wooded. Those who fancy forest-trees will not grow in Italy, should have seen how thick were the stems of the oak and elm, and would long to return in spring to rest beneath their leaves. (p. 222)

ADVICE FOR WOMEN TRAVELERS IN SOUTH ITALY

The Lowe women were exceptional travelers for their time. The hardships of the undeveloped roads and conveyances aside, they forged new territory in that they did it on their own. I must say that I was quite curious to read of their experiences, and not just that Emily had written from a woman’s perspective, but by virtue of being female, their adventure was different than that of their male counterparts.

Unprotected Females in Sicily, Calabria, and on the Top of Mount Aetna documents their journey as well as gives out practical advice. Reading it brought to mind the many websites, travel guides and tours specifically geared for women today. Most of the information, such as with regard to the local prices, negotiating for services, the roads and types of conveyances available for traveling between locations would have applied to everyone. However, their encounters with Sicilian and Calabrian gentlemen and recommendations for short petticoats to climb through Mt. Etna’s deep snow, for example, would fall strictly in the womanly category. I wonder how many Victorian ladies they inspired to climb Mt. Etna or to transform themselves into unprotected women travelers in South Italy.


Emily Lowe’s images are in the public domain with scans courtesy of the British Library. Cover picture is entitled “Mount Aetna from the Straits of Messina.”

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Read the entire text of these early women travelers in South Italy here.

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Comments 4

  1. These 2 women must have been very confident in their own abilities, to ‘strike out’ on their own, visiting foreign countries in the 19th century!
    BRAVA, to these 2 intrepid ladies!!!

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  2. Fascinating! Looking forward to hunting out this book. Though they were unusual there were a few unaccompanied ladies exploring Europe, Asia, and Africa back then. Gertrude Bell’s accounts are especially intriguing. Were the sketches in Ms. Lowe’s book done by her and her mother?

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