Over the past few weeks, we've been excited to introduce you to some of the most compelling travel writing by women. This is the summer of Restless Women Travelers, and we hope that we have inspired you to go forth and adventure, or to at least to soak up the journeys of these fearless voyagers.
But just in case you haven't yet been hooked on the series, we got Lavinia Spalding, acclaimed travel writer and introducer of our new edition of Edith Wharton's A Motor-Flight Through France, to share with us her fascination with the book, her advice for visiting France, and her biggest inspirations as a writer and traveler.
RB: What will readers be surprised and delighted by in Edith Wharton's A Motor-Flight Through France?
I think what’s most surprising is how encyclopedic Wharton's knowledge was about French history and architecture. It would be tricky to compare A Motor-Flight Through France to any of today's travel memoirs—it isn't filled with the usual odes to meals or poignant interactions with locals; she doesn’t infuse the narrative with a lot of personal anecdotes. It’s really a long love letter to the country’s cathedrals and culture, small towns and byways. What’s most delightful are the gorgeous, evocative descriptions of place—both close-up and panoramic—and the rare view of this part of the world during a bygone era when cars were brand-new and travel wasn’t something anyone took for granted.
What should a first-time visitor to France be sure to do—and be sure not to do?
My standard advice for a first-time visitor to any place is to get lost on your very first day, when your sense of wonder is still peaking. In Paris (or any city in France for that matter), just wander. Make a sport out of seeing and smelling and touching and tasting absolutely everything. If you’re driving through the countryside, stop in every small town to sample the local olive oil and wine and cheese and bread. There’s really no limit to what you should do in France, and I think the only thing I’d tell you not to do is be afraid of speaking the language. There’s a misconception about the French, that they’re intolerant of hearing their language butchered, but I massacre that lovely language every time I open my mouth to speak it, and I’ve never experienced anything but warmth and graciousness as a result.
Who is your greatest travel-writing hero? If you could take a journey together, where would it be?
I have too many to name just one—and Edith Wharton is certainly in my pantheon of heroes—but I’d definitely want to visit France with MFK Fisher. And yes, I’d be in it mainly for the eating and drinking. But also for the stories—I’ve always admired how Fisher could tease out the kookiest stories from every character she encountered. I’ve also always loved Beryl Markham—her 1940s memoir West with the Night was one of the first travelogues I ever read, and it made a deep impression on me. Markham was the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic from east to west, and she was also one of the first bush pilots. Flying around Africa with her, admiring the animals below, would have been an extraordinary adventure. Finally, if I get to pick a contemporary, it would be Alexandra Fuller, because I know I’d never stop laughing. In addition to being a truly brilliant writer with a breathtaking talent for capturing both place and people, she’s one of the most hilarious human beings alive.
Launch event at Edith Wharton's The Mount: