Sara Wheeler has gone where few women – and even men – have dared to go. One of Britain’s foremost travel writers, she’s documented her adventures in 11 bestselling books.
Covering seven continents, she’s brought a fresh perspective to what has historically been a male-dominated genre.
Whether riding a sled in Lapland with her infant son strapped to her chest, or spending a freezing night in Robert Scott’s hut at the South Pole, Wheeler has established herself as “the queen of intrepid travel.” Her books include accounts of her journeys as well as biographies, such as Terra Incognita: Travels in Antarctica, The Magnetic North: Notes from the Arctic Circle, and Mud and Stars: Travels in Russia with Pushkin, Tolstoy, and Other Geniuses of the Golden Age.
Wheeler’s latest title, Glowing Still: A Woman’s Life on the Road, is her most personal to date, reflecting on her own experience and the changing world of travel.
Sara Wheeler spoke to Eleanor Wachtel from Edinburgh.
From the other side
“The working title for the book in my mind was Nubility to Invisibility. Nubility being when I was out there in my 20s and invisibility being out there in my 60s, as I am now.
“I was surprised at how much I’d forgotten, and I was surprised at how much I’d left out of the published accounts. And I asked myself, ‘Why did you leave this out?’
Of course, as an old writer now all I want is people not to take me seriously. But perhaps that arc is just the arc of age.– Sara Wheeler
“A story would occur and I would take it a bit further, wondering on the meaning of it and what could be extrapolated from it, whether it meant this or that — the more profound things. I think I didn’t have the confidence to carry on with things then.
“The other things I left out much more frequently were the funny stories which had arisen largely as a result of my own stupidities. And that was easier for me to see why I’d left it out. It’s because I was so keen starting out as a writer for people to take me seriously, and I thought that would prevent them taking me seriously. Of course, as an old writer now all I want is people not to take me seriously. But perhaps that arc is just the arc of age.”
The changing world of travel
“Things have really changed when it comes to travel. One — the big one — is hydrocarbons. It’s terrible to go anywhere unless you’re going on a bike or walking because you’re poisoning the planet. We all know that it’s morally wrong. Secondly, coronavirus — that’s not going to go away anytime soon. These mutating viruses and sitting in a metal tube for hours on end, it’s just about the worst thing one could possibly do. And the third thing is, of course, voice appropriation.The idea is, and it’s a good idea and I endorse it wholly and embrace it, that you can’t just go around telling other people’s stories because those stories belong to them.
The idea is, and it’s a good idea and I endorse it wholly and embrace it, that you can’t just go around telling other people’s stories because those stories belong to them.– Sara Wheeler
“There’s a fourth point also, of course, when it comes to travel writing, which is that we’ve been everywhere, so there’s no new places to discover, which there was even when I started out, there were places people didn’t know about. So I thought of it as really as the Four Horsemen of the apocalypse. And I tried in Glowing Still, to trace the trajectory of those things throughout the course of my careers, as I’d come to to understand them.”
Fighting for space
“As the only woman, I dealt with a lot of humiliations early on [in Antarctica] and looking back, I wonder how I dealt with it, but I think that’s perhaps the fortitude of youth. Also, of course, one had no choices. I certainly couldn’t leave, couldn’t go anywhere. That was out of the question. I certainly couldn’t ring anybody. There was no phone, and I certainly couldn’t send any emails because there was no internet. I just had to escape into my private world, which is often through reading and by engaging with the landscape.
I just had to escape into my private world, which is often through reading and by engaging with the landscape.– Sara Wheeler
“I think that actually I turned it to my advantage. I was aware that I had to do that, not to let them win. And of course, in any group of 25 people, there’s going to be some decent ones. And there were three or four, notably ones that were a bit older, a bit more mature and weren’t taking the lead from the others.
“And whilst they couldn’t speak up for me, they were able to befriend me. And I think it’s kind of given me an insight in all the decades that have passed since then into what it’s like for women in the world.”
Looking to the stars
“How are we supposed to live? The best writers all know that there aren’t any answers, there are only questions. Someone like Dostoevsky, the answer changed for him, as his thinking progressed and you get all sorts of different messages from Dostoevsky’s novels, including a lot that he didn’t want you to get — about doubt for example.
How are we supposed to live? The best writers all know that there aren’t any answers, there are only questions.– Sara Wheeler
“The title of my book on Russia, which I called Mud and Stars comes from an Ivan Turgenev quote, “We sit in the mud, my friend, and reach for the stars.” Like all the best people, Turgenev knew human beings are tragically and irrevocably flawed and are never going to hope to do anything more than look at the stars. The stars being the eternal truths that are twinkling away out of our grasp. But we can at least look at them. I think that’s what great writers do, is that they enable you to look at the stars.
Reimagining the genre
“I think moving forward there’ll be other motifs that young women follow and I think that they will probably do much more travel under their own steam — bikes and on foot, ferries across the English Channel to make a start and get onto the continent and from there you can get pretty much anywhere. So I think there will be a great cutting down on hydrocarbons and I think there will be an incorporation of the natural world in a way that we might look back and say, ‘Well, it had some artifice back in the day because we thought that the natural world would go on forever.’
I think there’ll be an attenuated awareness of just what’s at stake for young people, and I think that it’s important for us to encourage young women setting out on their own paths to see the positives of that and to grasp the fact that their stewardship of the natural world, of the planet, is more informed than ours was.– Sara Wheeler
“To those young women setting out now, it’s very, very real that we are imperilling the planet and it might not be there for their grandchildren. So I think that they have fresh eyes and a great opportunity to respond to the landscape.
“I think there’ll be an attenuated awareness of just what’s at stake for young people, and I think that it’s important for us to encourage young women setting out on their own paths to see the positives of that and to grasp the fact that their stewardship of the natural world, of the planet, is more informed than ours was.
Sara Wheeler’s comments have been edited for length and clarity.