“Wanderlust: The Amazing Ida Pfeiffer, the First Female Tourist” by John van Wyhe

Ida Pfeiffer in 1856 (Wikimedia Commons) Ida Pfeiffer in 1856 (Wikimedia Commons)

What exactly is a tourist? Briefly, it means someone who travels not for a particular purpose such as exploration, pilgrimage, missionary work or archaeology, but a person who does it for fun. Tourists may have specific places in mind or specific things they want to see, but the overall “purpose” of their travels is pleasure. John van Wyhe claims that the first female tourist was the Austrian housewife Ida Pfeiffer, whose name may be known by students of travel-writing but certainly not as well-known as she should be, but this biography should set the record straight.

Of course, there were earlier women-travelers; for example Egeria, who in the 4th-century undertook a solo pilgrimage to the Holy Land and wrote an account of it, and, closer to Pfeiffer’s time, Celia Fiennes, who, between 1684 and 1702, made several journeys around various parts of England on horseback. As a pilgrim, Egeria was certainly not a tourist, but a case could be made for Fiennes, who traveled, she says, for health reasons and to get fresh air. She, however, didn’t leave England.

There were also women who traveled with male companions, as van Wyhe tells us, including Lady Hester Stanhope, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, and Countess Ida Hahn-Hahn, but Ida Pfeiffer stands out from all of these by (mostly) travelling alone, not being rich, obviously eccentric, or aristocratic.  Indeed, van Wyhe cites an anonymous biographer as calling her a person of “quiet staidness”, and feminists would have been disappointed with her views on subjects such as women’s emancipation.

Her objective was not simply to go to a few exotic places, but to travel around the world, an accomplishment she pulled off not once, but twice. Her nearest counterpart would have been Isabella Bird (1831-1904), whose extensive travels in Asia, North America, the Ottoman Empire, the Pacific region and Australia are well-known, but were undertaken more than a decade later, as were those of people like Mary Kingsley in Africa. So Ida Pfeiffer, who disingenuously said of herself that she had “too little wit and humour to write entertainingly, and … too little knowledge to judge rightly what I have experienced,” came to be regarded as one of the most remarkable women of her time. Van Wyhe is quite correct: Ida Pfeiffer was indeed the first female tourist, and her story deserves to be told. “O wandern, wandern, meine Lust,” says the miller in Wilhelm Müller’s poem, and this certainly applied to Ida Pfeiffer; travel was her pleasure, her passion.

John van Wyhe’s approach to Ida Pfeiffer’s life and travels is one of which she would have heartily approved.

Wanderlust: The Amazing Ida Pfeiffer, the First Female Tourist, John van Wyhe (NUS Press, July 2019)
Wanderlust: The Amazing Ida Pfeiffer, the First Female Tourist, John van Wyhe (NUS Press, July 2019)

This book is entertaining, informative and fast-paced as well as being well-researched, as the extensive bibliography attests. Van Wyhe has engaged sympathetically with his subject, but not sycophantically; we learn, among other things, that Pfeiffer could be sharp-tongued, acerbic, rather miserly (or thrifty, depending on how one looks at it), demanding and, to some extent, entitled. When she became famous, she got used to being treated to free hotel accommodation and tickets on steamers, and sometimes reacted angrily when these were not forthcoming, especially (as in Montreal) the clerks issuing them didn’t know who she was. She may have been too parsimonious to pay for first-class accommodation, but when it came free she was gracious enough to waive any objections she may have had to it.

None of this, however, takes away from the sheer courage, endurance and stubbornness Pfeiffer displayed on her travels, even when she was confronted by head-hunters, cannibals, thieves and horrible weather. Having narrowly escaped (with a little help from her friend Count Friedrich von Berchtold, a Czech botanist) being fatally knifed in Brazil, for example, she finally decided to carry a pistol, as Isabella Bird would a few years later. In Canton, against male advice, she cheerfully wandered the streets without an escort, was attacked by a huge snake in Singapore and went on a dangerous tiger hunt in India. In her last travels she went to Madagascar, where she survived intrigues at the court of the murderous Queen Ranavalona I, aka “the female Caligula”, whom she charmed by giving a bad recital on an out-of-tune player piano. The Queen was even gracious enough to give Pfeiffer an autograph.

The sheer gutsiness of this woman is amazing.

Pfeiffer was a voluminous writer; she wrote a great number of books, many of which were multiple volume sets. Her wanderings in Scandinavia and Iceland came in two volumes, as did her book on Madagascar, and her account of the second trip around the world appeared in four volumes. There were English translations of most of her books made during her lifetime, although there are no modern editions of them, which is a great pity.

Pfeiffer was lively with a sense of humor that extended to laughing at herself (a similarity here with Mary Kingsley), and she had a knack of being able to put a positive spin on almost anything. “I had suffered many hardships,” she wrote, “but my love of travelling would not have been abated, nor would my courage have failed me, had they been ten times greater.” Van Wyhe’s book proves that she wasn’t exaggerating; the sheer gutsiness of this woman is amazing, given that she was doing what she was doing because she loved it, not for the huge amount of publicity she got (although she didn’t mind that) or notoriety, but because, like Isabella Bird and others, she was smitten with Wanderlust and she knew it. “Ich bin mit dieser Reise—und Wanderlust geboren worden,” she proclaimed in 1856. She was indeed born to do what she did. She made no excuses, apologized to no-one, and proceeded to live the way she wanted to live. Pfeiffer didn’t care whether people made fun of her, which they frequently did; van Wyhe cites the poet Menella Bute Smedley (who was known for some translations from German) describing


Ida Pfeiffer, that wonder, who can
With umbrella and tooth-brush, reach far Yucatan.


There were, in spite of all this, other reasons for Pfeiffer’s travels. Although she had little formal education, she was a keen amateur naturalist and collector who knew some of the foremost scientists of her time and even marketed some of the specimens she had collected. A number of species of insects were named for her, and it was Alfred Russel Wallace, the co-discoverer of natural selection, apparently advised her to go to Madagascar not to hobnob with the Queen, but to gather interesting specimens. Van Wyhe, who has written extensively on Wallace, even asks “had my protagonist inadvertently killed off Ida Pfeiffer? There was no way to tell,” as it was in Madagascar that she caught the fatal illness which eventually sealed her fate. Pfeiffer was admired by such scientific luminaries as Alexander von Humboldt and Louis Agassiz, to name two, and they took her seriously as a collector and naturalist.

Pfeiffer was also a keen observer of the various peoples she met, and displayed a curious ambivalence towards some of them; she cordially disliked American tourists (some of whom even rummaged through her specimens) and considered the Chinese “dirty”, for example, but admired the Dyaks of Borneo in spite of the fact that some of them were head-hunters and that she found them rather ugly. In spite of that, Pfeiffer noted, “nowhere have I been so little taunted by impertinent curiosity as among these people,” the exact opposite behavior to that of the Americans. Pfeiffer deplored the institution of slavery in a country which prided itself on it vaunted “freedom”, and she mocked American puritanism, writing of Sunday observance which “denies to those chained all the week to their work the privilege of cheerful and innocent recreation.”


John van Wyhe’s approach to Ida Pfeiffer’s life and travels is one of which she would have heartily approved. When it’s serious, it’s serious, but van Wyhe captures the wonderful spirit and humor of his subject, giving readers a believable and memorable portrait of a very remarkable woman. He might possibly have gone into more depth about Pfeiffer’s inner workings and motivations, but given what Pfeiffer says about herself, this may not have been possible.

She writes of her Wanderlust and desire to see the world, but there are still mysteries; what happened, for example, to Herr Pfeiffer, her husband, and how much impact did her unresolved love for her tutor Franz Trimmel have? Did Pfeiffer travel to obliterate this or some other past psychological damage, or did she really just follow her childhood dreams? We can, at this distance in time, perhaps never know the answers to these questions, and perhaps, in view of her accomplishments, we don’t need to.

In the end, it was difficult to put this book down; John van Wyhe has done a marvelous job in presenting readers with a marvelous woman whose story needed to be told, and who is lucky to have such a sympathetic yet objective biographer.

John Butler recently retired as Associate Professor of Humanities at the University College of the North in The Pas, Manitoba, Canada, and has taught at universities in Canada, Nigeria and Japan. He specializes in early modern travel-literature (especially Asian travel) and seventeenth-century intellectual history. His books include an edition of Sir Thomas Herbert’s Travels in Africa, Persia and Asia the Great (2012) and most recently an edition of Sir Paul Rycaut's Present State of the Ottoman Empire (1667) and a book of essays, Off the Beaten Track: Essays on Unknown Travel Writers.