Georgia O’Keeffe found inspiration for her paintings as she walked through the New Mexico desert. Simone de Beauvoir reveled in both urban strolls and rugged hikes—undertaken in espadrilles.
In his “Confessions,” Jean-Jacques Rousseau wrote that walking fueled his thoughts, and that when he stopped walking, he stopped thinking: “My mind only works with my legs.” Friedrich Nietzsche believed that “only thoughts which come from walking have any value.” Other men who have extolled the cerebral, emotional and physical benefits of walking—in what the English nature writer Robert Macfarlane calls “the literature of the leg”—include Immanuel Kant, Henry David Thoreau, Bruce Chatwin and Patrick Leigh Fermor.
But what about the women, the Welsh-born historical novelist Annabel Abbs wondered. Surely women, too, have traversed the natural landscape on foot for “catharsis, adventure, or pleasure” and not just necessity, she thought.
In “Windswept: Walking the Paths of Trailblazing Women,” Ms. Abbs considers—and attempts to follow the footsteps of—eight notable women who, mostly in the 20th century, enhanced their lives by forging their own trails and outwalking their constraints. “They walked for emotional restitution. They walked to understand the capabilities of their own bodies. They walked to assert their independence,” she writes in this invigorating paean to the liberating power of rural rambles.
Ms. Abbs has selected a good mix of familiar names, like Simone de Beauvoir and Georgia O’Keeffe, and lesser-known figures, like the Scottish writer and poet Nan Shepherd and the Australian-born travel writer Clara Vyvyan, who followed the Rhône River from source to mouth, partly accompanied by her friend Daphne du Maurier. Shepherd’s story is particularly inspiring. One of millions of marriageable young women rendered “surplus” by the loss of young men in World War I, she escaped from a dreary life of caregiving for her bedridden mother by writing novels and hiking in her beloved Scottish Highlands. The belated success of her final book, “The Living Mountain” (1977), a celebration of hill-walking in the Cairngorms, landed her picture posthumously on a Scottish five-pound note, the first female besides the queen to be thus honored.
Frieda von Richthofen, the subject of Ms. Abbs’s novel “Frieda” (2018), is less inspiring though no less fascinating. In 1912 the German-born aristocrat ditched her dull etymologist husband and their three children in Nottingham, England, to join her lover, the novelist D.H. Lawrence, on a six-week hike through the Alps, for which they were woefully ill-prepared. “This adventure turned out to be a reckless abandoning of her old self, a dramatic desertion of all that she was,” Ms. Abbs writes with a mixture of admiration for Richthofen’s determination to recast herself as Lawrence’s muse and horror at the fact that she relinquished her children to do so.
Like Shepherd, the Welsh-born painter Gwen John has seen her reputation grow in recent years. Ms. Abbs points out, in an august series of coincidences, that John was the older sister of the painter Augustus John, the lover of the sculptor Auguste Rodin and the daughter of the amateur watercolorist Augusta John, who died when Gwen was 8. In 1903, with her friend (and sometime lover) Dorelia McNeil—the subject of some of her most beautiful paintings—John set out for France in search of the solitude and self-scrutiny that fueled her work. What she left behind—permanently—was the world of her dismal childhood under her widowed father’s rigid Victorian grip. This is one of several chapters in “Windswept” in which readers may rue the book’s lack of illustrations. John’s penetratingly interior portraits of women, including herself, many of which hang in the Tate Britain, are every bit as riveting as Ms. Abbs claims.
In her account of various excursions, Ms. Abbs highlights the pull of different landscapes on each woman. John was drawn to water—including Bordeaux’s River Garonne and the Breton coast. Richthofen felt exalted by mountains, while Shepherd had everything she wanted in the Scottish Highlands. Beauvoir, who loved trees and woodland, reveled in both urban strolls and 10-hour rugged hikes planned “with military precision” but undertaken in espadrilles. O’Keeffe found inspiration as well as escape from the New York art world and her philandering husband, Alfred Stieglitz, in the sere, wide-open landscapes of New Mexico.
Like Lauren Elkin’s “Flâneuse” (2016)—which explores female urban strollers like Virginia Woolf, George Sand and Jean Rhys—“Windswept” is an investigative memoir, blending personal narrative with deeply researched cultural history to shed light on both. Unfortunately, while Ms. Abbs’s brief biographies are unfailingly interesting and even revelatory, the personal side of her book is less compelling.
On the cusp of empty-nesthood and preparing for “a new path in life” after raising four children, Ms. Abbs scrambles in the wake of her subjects and strains to find common ground with them. Her pilgrimages are often fraught, fueled not just by her book project but by her resolve to overcome various hindrances, including a fear of heights, ledges and solitude, and a pervasive sense of vulnerability—none of which hold a candle to the societal constraints, disappointments and unhappy relationships that her gutsy explorers faced. Too often, Ms. Abbs creeps into self-help territory. “From outer strength comes inner freedom,” she writes.
The landscape, too, frequently disappoints. Majestic riverbanks and rugged mountainsides have devolved into ugly industrialized wastelands and asphalt highways by the time Ms. Abbs gets there. “Never go back” becomes her frequent refrain.
She piles on arguments for the countless benefits of walking—whether escaping the deleterious effects of noise or trauma, overcoming the hormonal onslaught of pregnancy and lactation, or responding to the emotional boost of birdsong—and attempts to give them weight with risibly frequent (but vague) references to one esoteric study after another. Bloated by several forewords and afterwords, “Windswept” comes to feel like an overstuffed backpack.
Clearly, though, Ms. Abbs is passionate about her subject, which got her going and helped her escape what she calls “the prison of myself.” Her determination to never take her mobility for granted grew in part from two accidents that hobbled her for months. The irony doesn’t escape me that I, more an urban flâneuse and beach walker than hiker, read “Windswept” while laid low by a foot fracture. Reading about the unfettered freedom to roam enjoyed by these trailblazing women induced considerable vicarious pleasure—and envy.
Ms. McAlpin reviews books regularly for the Journal, the Christian Science Monitor, the Los Angeles Times and NPR.org.