I spotted Maud Parrish’s name when I was looking in ‘The Virago Book of Woman Travellers’ for someone else entirely and I paused to see who she was, this woman with an unfamiliar name among many notable women travellers and writers.
I was intrigued by what I read:
“In her memoir, Maud Parrish relates her life of madcap adventure with the breathless, excitable energy of one who cannot stand still. Parrish worked as a dance-hall girl in Dawson City, Yukon, and Nome, Alaska, and operated a gambling house in Peking at the turn of the century. With her ‘Nine Pounds of Luggage’ and a banjo, she claimed to have gone around the world sixteen times, up and down continents, and around and about exotic islands. Parrish died at the age of 98. ‘Nine Pounds of Luggage’ was her only book.”
When I read the extract from her book I fell in love with her voice; it was the voice of a woman talking openly and honestly to a friend, a woman with lots and lots of great stories to tell. I so wanted to read everything that she had written, but there was not a copy of her book to be had. Until I found that I could borrow a copy from Open Library ….
Maud Parrish was born in San Francisco in 1878, the only child of good people who brought her up well, to be a lady. Their bold and spirited daughter wanted more than that. There was something inside her that made her want to go out and see the world.
She didn’t know why – though she thought it might be something to do with all of the travellers and pioneers in her family tree – she just knew that it was there.
That was why she grabbed the chance of marriage to a young man whose family had business interests in South America, thinking that he would take her there. He wouldn’t; the marriage was a catastrophic failure; and when, amid chaotic scenes, a judge refused a dissolution, Maud decided that she’d had enough.
“So I ran away. I hurried more than if lions had chased me. Without telling him. Without telling my mother or father. There wasn’t any liberty in San Francisco for ordinary women. But I found some. No jobs for girls in offices like there are now. You got married, were an old maid, or went to hell. Take your pick.”
Maud took her suitcase and her banjo and she bought a ticket to the Yukon, to gold rush country. She loved it there: she saw sights, she made friends, she supported herself by playing the banjo, and when she had earned enough money she bought another ticket to somewhere else. And that would be the pattern of her life until 1939, when she was persuaded to pause to write her story.
That meant that there was an awful lot of travelling to fit into one book, and so Maud Parrish isn’t the woman to travel with of you want lovely descriptions and insight into different cultures, but, if you want a good chat and a non-stop journey with a lively companion, then she’s definitely your girl.
There were times when she had to rough it, but she didn’t complain she just got on with it, pushing back the boundaries of where a woman might go. She didn’t always win, but she usually did. There must have been times when she had to do things no lady would, but she is always discreet. She said nothing that would embarass her family; and though Maude never wanted to stop travelling she travelled home to see her parents often. They never quite understood their wayward daughter but they always supported her, and the bond between them remained strong.
Maud had hardly a bad word to say about anyone; she accepted the world and the people in it exactly as they were.
I can well believe that she went around the world sixteen times; it was hard to keep track but the only places I can say with any certainty that she didn’t visit were in central and southern Africa. And Afghanistan – though she had a good try at getting into the country it was one of her few failures.
It wasn’t that the pace was dizzying, it was that Maude’s spirit, the way she lived for the present and always had a head full of lovely possibilities for the future infected me.
A great deal of history passed Maud by: she simply side-stepped into neutral countries during World War I, a lack of funds during the depression held her up for some time, and then …. well it was a little more difficult to keep going and, though she was loath to admit it, she was finding some things more difficult as she got older.
That might be what made her finally stop and tell her story. Or it might have been the things she saw that troubled her in 1930s Germany, at the Berlin Olympics ….
It was a pause though, not an end. She loved the journey home, paid for by the publisher who had – in his own words – chased her around the globe with letters for two years, and by the last page of the book she was planning new trips – to Labrador and then – maybe – to Afghanistan and Turkmenistan.
Whatever it was – and I suspect that her reasons were, at least in part, financial – I am very glad that she did, because I loved reading it.