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Golden Age of Letters

There were very few first person travel narratives written by British women before the late 1700s.  By the end of the century, dozens of women's travel accounts had been published, each containing detailed observations about the places they visited.  This period is often referred to as a "Golden Age of Letters."

One reason for this sudden increase was that the sheer number of women travelers grew during this time period.  The philosophies of the Enlightenment were influential in inspiring people to seek out knowledge and new experiences, and travel was an ideal way to do this.  Many young women embarked on "Grand Tours" of the European continent and beyond in an effort to become more cultured and worldly individuals (Dolan, 2002).

In addition to increased travel, western European women were writing their experiences down more frequently in the form of letters.  The practice of and enthusiasm for letter writing flourished during the 18th century when, for the first time, women from many different social classes were taught how to read and write.  The British postal system improved their efficiency during this time, and regular correspondence habits were expected of gentlewomen of even relatively meagre means (Grundy, 1993).

Finally, Britain's developing imperialism eased the access to foreign lands and stimulated the desire to document them.  Many of the places that Britain was occupying became more established as colonial settlements, and British women began venturing out to these new towns to accompany husbands, seek marriage, or to look for business opportunities in new markets.  Travelers abroad were expected to deliver news back home that contained thoughtful observations on the places they encountered, while testing and affirming commonly held stereotypes about people living in foreign lands.  Ultimately, they were obliged to provide reassurance of the innate superiority of British society as it stood in comparison (Vivies, 2002).