I thought I had a fairly good knowledge of obscure Victorian women who became explorers against the odds, so I was pleasantly surprised to learn of yet another one via this beautiful picture book for children (tho I continue to be chagrined by eras and societies that deny people opportunities on the basis of sex alone.) Marianne North was a self-taught naturalist and painter whose vivid oil studies, often completed in situ while racing against light and weather, not only made waves in her own day but continue to impress in one of the longest continuing solo exhibitions by a woman, in a gallery dedicated to her works at Kew Gardens.
Ofc, it helps that she came from money and basically funded renovations to the Kew that allowed for same, but her works do stand on their own merit. Several are included in the gorgeous endpapers for this already sumptuous volume, and it’s hard not to be entranced by her artistry and especially her use of color. I can only imagine how Victorians trapped in smog and greyness must have felt when confronted with such riotous, lush beauty, tho the anecdote about witchcraft at the end gives me a fairly good idea.
Laurie Lawlor does an excellent job of telling Ms North’s story simply and without bias, acknowledging the aspects problematic to modern readers while still conveying how groundbreaking and impactful Ms North’s actions were and continue to be. Becca Stadtlander’s illustrations are for the most part perfectly suited to the text. Her depictions of tall, shy Marianne and her family are lovely, and while her depictions of wildlife pale in comparison with her subject’s, who can cast aspersions on anyone following in those illustrious footsteps? Ms Stadtlander wisely uses a different art style entirely, so it all balances out. I did, however, think it an odd misstep that the pictures of Marianne traveling through territories alien to Victorian society were entirely devoid of any local guides or bearers. I can see where she might be riding solo with only a pack horse for company, but have a hard time believing she’d pole her way through crocodile infested waters alone, much less ride a laden elephant by herself. It’s weird to see the pictures ignore the help the text acknowledges. Please don’t erase indigenous peoples. Visibility matters.
That said, this was a beautifully put-together, highly informative — though light, given its intended audience — biography of a botanical artist whose name and contributions deserve to be better known. I also enjoyed the extra material at the end that encourages readers to find out more about this remarkable woman. I got my ten year-old to buddy read this with me, and we both liked it, with him noting that the art was really good (and inspiring!) throughout.
Fearless World Traveler: Adventures Of Marianne North, Botanical Artist by Laurie Lawlor & Becca Stadtlander will be published tomorrow May 11 2021 by Holiday House and is available from all good booksellers, including