Adventurers have always been around, but less common in history are the tales of women adventurers. Of course some women travellers did exist, however, generally women were denied the ability to travel so their literary works revolved around waiting for someone or something to come to them – think Jane Austin with the women waiting at home for ‘adventure’ (aka Mr Darcy). I think this makes the tales of women adventurers who were able to explore new places even more noteworthy, and I want to share with you the story of Mildred, Francesca and Eva.
Mildred Cable (1878 – 1952), Francesca French (1871 – 1960) and her sister Evangeline (Eva) crossed the Gobi desert five times between 1926 and 1941.
Mildred travelled to China alone in 1901 after her fiance decided he didn’t want to go and their planned wedding was cancelled. She met Eva there who mentored and coached her as a missionary, and later was introduced to Eva’s sister Francesca and thus the trio was born. ‘The Trio’ became a well known institution in Western China as the missionaries on a mission.
The group lived in China as single women under the protection of the Church, setting up and running a girls school in Huozhou which expanded exponentially over the years. Over the course of 20 years it is estimated that they taught over 1000 girls, of whom 150 became teachers themselves. In the 1920s they decided to expand their reach and travelled West to find new communities and it was this travel which took them through the Gobi desert. After returning briefly to the UK, it took them eight full months to travel back (over land) to China during the civil war that started in the 20s. There was huge uncertainty about the safety of missionaries, but these ladies continued with their dream and crossed the Gobi desert for a second time to return to China.
They wrote a book, The Gobi Desert, of their experiences in China. The descriptive insight into the way of life and culture is beautiful and they really create a vivid picture of life in China in the 20s and 30s. I’d suggest here that we dont judge a book by it’s cover!
“If, as those soldier-boys at Kiayukwan had so confidently declared, the Gobi is the haunt of demons, then the night should have been the time when their presence was most real, yet in fact it was more by day than by night that the word kwei (demon) was on the drivers lips and most often it was the desert dust-spout which provoked it. However breezeless the day, somewhere on the horizon a slender spiral of sand would rise, move, circle, walk across he plain, leave the earth and vanish in the sky. Sometimes the hole desert floor was alive with them. At a distance they seemed insignificant, but close at hand they were fearful in their cyclonic force.”
This insight provided by three women of rural China in the 1920s and 30s is a beautiful example of what happens when women are able to go and find that literary plot, and how down-played five journeys through the Gobi desert during civil war and strife can become.