I’m what people call ‘a walker.’ There is rarely a day that passes that I do not intentionally go for a walk. Any chance I can, I walk wherever I’m going instead of driving. This is a well-known fact to those who know me.

So, it’s not surprising that a good friend recently gifted me Kerri Andrews book, Wanderers: A History of Women Walking.

I discovered through Andrew’s work that my walking is a practice known as pedestrianism, a practice known to yield immense satisfaction and revelation.

I walk to propel my body, generate ideas, process information and experiences, understand the world and people, and to move in closer to myself.

A walker-writer herself, Kerri Andrews selects ten well-known women and unpacks their practice of walking, their pedestrianism. (In the Appendix, Andrews lists many more women who walked and encourages anyone interested to learn more about them.)

Walking. Might seem mundane to many. Yet, think of how monumental it was when you took your very first steps! Walking packs a punch beyond the obvious and Andrews explores this phenomenon in Wanderers.

In the Foreword, Scottish writer Kathleen Jamie says:

“As humans, walking defines us. We are the two-legged apes. We walk, and we talk. We are thinking minds – thinking in language, more often than not. The rhythms of our walking and of our thinking are one”(9).

Jamie then ponders:

“So why is it so difficult for half of the human race simply to walk? Why can’t a woman ramble around, unaccompanied and unburdened, exploring the world she was born into, while turning her own thoughts in her mind? Such a harmless occupation! It doesn’t seem too much to ask, to be able to walk outdoors, even in daylight, without fear. Of course we know why not. But of course we walk anyway, despite fear and derision, and always have”(9).

Author Kerri Andrews introduces us to ten of these women who walked “despite fear and derision.” In her introductory chapter Setting Off, she explains:

“This is a book about women who have, over the past three hundred years, found walking essential to their sense of themselves as women, writers and people. The history of walking has always been women’s history, though you would not know it from what has been published on the subject. Since Jean-Jacques Rosseau’s The Reveries of a Solitary Walker appeared in 1782, walking has been acknowledged as central to the writing of many famous male authors”(17).

In this fascinating and unique work, Andrews helps to set the record straight. The women walker-writers she examines illuminate the fact that women have been reaping the benefits of a life well-walked for centuries.

Andrews explains:

“The works of these women writer-walkers offer new insights into the role played by walking in human creativity, and demonstrate that while women walked at times for the same purposes as men, the experience of being on foot has frequently meant markedly different things for women…

“For all this richness, though, there has tended to be little discussion of women’s walking as a cultural or historical phenomenon, and less of how women’s experiences as human beings might have shaped their walking and writing, or how their walking or writing might have shaped their experiences as human beings. This is to the detriment of our understanding of what walking has meant, and what it might mean, for all of us”(32).

After devouring Wanderers, I am much more enlightened as to what walking means to me and I am ecstatic to know that I follow in the footsteps of many legendary walker-writers.

The ten women Andrews highlights span from English intellectual and writer Elizabeth Carter (1717-1806), ‘a rambling genius,’ to contemporary American writer, Cheryl Strayed, best known for her book Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Coast Trail. Each woman has her relationship with walking, as well as her terrain, from urban strolling to extreme mountain hiking and climbing.

I have chosen two walker-writers from the book to touch upon: Dorothy Wordsworth and Virginia Woolf.

Dorothy Wordsworth (1771-1855)

Dorothy Wordsworth and her brother, poet William Wordsworth, along with other siblings, were orphaned in 1783 when Dorothy was 12 and William 13, and were subsequently separated. In 1799, well into their twenties, Dorothy and William reunited and walked 70 miles “home,” to the Lake District in England where they were born. They arrived together and happy at their new home, Dove Cottage in Grasmere.

Their walking didn’t cease upon their arrival. Walking was something they continued, sometimes out of necessity, and more often because they were drawn to what the practice yielded:

“Walking was, for Dorothy, a means of experiencing both her new-found independence and her new home”(61).

Over time, Dorothy wandered far beyond her home and the Lake District, including two tours of Scotland, one walking trip on ‘the Continent’, and rigorous mountain hiking.

A sketch of Dorothy Wordsworth at middle-age.

Best known as a “diarist,” although she did write poetry too, Dorothy diligently recorded her walking experiences and discoveries:

“In the journals of these walks, Dorothy documented not only the itineraries of her party and her own walking, but the encounters with people and landscapes which proved emotionally and creatively significant…but it was the walking itself that enabled specific and important kinds of understanding about herself and the ways in which connections with other lives might be sustained”(68).

Andrews reminds us of what Rebecca Solnit, contemporary writer of walking, explains:

“There are three prerequisites to going out into the world to walk for pleasure. One must have free time, a place to go, and a body unhindered by illness or social restraints”(70).

Dorothy was cognizant that for a number of years she met these three prerequisites and many others did not possess this luxury. And although the social restraint haunted her as a woman walking, “the sort of physical vitality for which she was criticized as unfeminine,” (74) she did not let this hold her back.

When her brother William married and fathered five children, Dorothy, who lived with them, was forced to take on more domestic duties and childcare, but still tried her best to walk, even with her nieces and nephews in tow. But for a woman “capable of walking alone 40 miles a day, this must have felt inhibiting indeed, but the biggest trial was the curtailment of her walks with William”(78).

Rydal Mount, the Wordsworth’s home from 1813-1859, located in the Lake District in England. A beautiful setting for walking.

Dorothy cherished her walks with William, the way this joint practice restored their relationship and developed into a strong creative partnership.

Of course, William did not have to curtail his walks. He was free from domestic duties, including childcare.

Kathleen Jamie states in the Foreword of the book, “to walk is to notice,”(9) and Dorothy’s noticing and recording what she observed and experienced was material for brother William’s poetry as well as his A Guide Through the District of Lakes in the North of England, and later Harriet Martineau’s edition of such a guide too. (Martineau is also included in Wanderers.)

Dorothy’s early and tragic slip into senility cut short her ramblings, and although she didn’t receive due credit for her literary contributions, what she harvested from walking while she could provided the true essence of her life.

Virginia Woolf (1882-1941)

Considered “one of the most innovative writers of the 20th century,” English writer Virginia Woolf was a walker-writer extraordinaire. This is one of my favorite chapters in the book because Andrews does such a thorough job describing how the practice of walking contributed to Woolf’s creative process, as well as the fragile balance of her life. Here are a few snippets from this intriguing chapter.

Andrews explains:

“Walking features in every type of Woolf’s writing, and in many of the most important of her experiences. At various points in her life, it served as a health-giver, friendship-maker, memory and muse, and was key to the composition of a number of her most celebrated novels. It was both habitual and remarkable, an act of defiance and an act of submission. Nor did Woolf discriminate between the walks of wide-open spaces and remoteness, and the strolling of city pavements, but explored in her work the role played by all kinds of pedestrianism”(158).

Virginia Woolf with walking-stick. Cornwall, England 1916.

Walking and losing herself in the pulse of life provided not only material for Woolf’s stories, but the placing of one foot in front of the other established a forward trajectory, fueling the timely unfolding of her stories and revelatory musings of specific characters:

“Pacing – the timing of key moments throughout a text – matters to all novels but in Woolf’s case, the pacing was literal and physical: the plots of her fiction were frequently paced out by the author as she walked. The plots too were, on occasion, driven by pedestrianism, so that Mrs Dalloway’s internal life, for instance, unfolds as she strolls through London”(159).

Check out our many posts on Virginia Woolf, including this one about a bronze sculpture of Woolf sitting on a bench along what was one of her walking routes: Virginia Woolf: A Bench of Her Own, With Room for You.

Most women, myself included, do not walk alone after dark if we can avoid it. No matter how unfair this is and how angry it makes many of us, we calculate it’s not worth the risk. But Woolf didn’t always heed these warnings, as she recorded that she “rambled down to Charing Cross in the dark, making up phrases & incidents to write about. Which is, I expect, the way one gets killed”(162).

Actually, the overall risk factor of city walking seemed to be something Woolf appreciated, but the more rural walking suited her too.

“For most of her married life, Virginia Woolf divided her time between Sussex and London. Her writing makes clear that the very different environments provide by the two locations were equally necessary: too much London risked the kind of ‘over-stimulation’ that could threaten her mental equilibrium, while too much Sussex could lead to feelings of isolation”(171).

Often when I step outside and set off on a walk, I feel I can slough off the cares of the day, the constraints of my current situation; I become someone else on the move. Andrews shares Woolf’s description of this phenomenon:

“The true power of walking for Woolf, though, was in its ability to utterly transform the self…

“’The shell-like covering which our souls have excreted to house themselves, to make for themselves a shape distinct from others, is broken, and there is left of all these wrinkles and roughness a central oyster of perceptiveness, an enormous eye’”(174).

The liberated universal ‘enormous eye’: free to notice and create beyond oneself.

Again, the ten women Andrews explores in Wanderers have their own brand of pedestrianism, and all benefit in significant ways from their practice of walking.

Andrews concludes:

“…the omission of women from the literature of walking, can no longer be justified. For women walkers, their literary creativity is bound to walking just as tightly, and just as profoundly as men’s. But women move differently, see differently, and write differently about their experiences. To deny the existence of their accounts is to deny ourselves our own history”(263).

Andrews does much with Wanderers to reveal and restore this herstory.

Kathleen Jamie wraps her Foreword with:

“Thanks to this book, we know that even in solitude we never walk alone. A fine female tradition is at our backs, encouraging us along”(10).

I feel this more than ever and I have Kerri Andrews to thank.

Kerri Andrews is a #Nasty Woman Writer.

© Maria Dintino 2021, 2024

Works Cited

Andrews, Kerri. Wanderers: A History of Women Walking. London: Reaktion Books, 2020.