Women’s London, a travel guide written by Rachel Kolsky, is not your typical travel guide. In fact, it’s more like a historical reference than a glossy brochure for London. Within its dense text, however, you will discover how London was shaped by women throughout history.
About the Author
Kolsky is a London Blue Badge Guide. She built her company, Go London Tours, on her guided walks that specialize in exploring Jewish Heritage and women’s history. In Women’s London, she shares her prodigious knowledge of both women’s history and London’s geography.
About Women’s London
Kolsky separates London into nine areas, such as “Wonderful Women of Whitechapel” and “Warring, Worthy, Mothers and Martyrs: Women of Westminster.” She gives a turn-by-turn walking tour of each area, drawing attention to the plaques and statues that commemorate important women. She also points out the hospitals, schools, theaters and homes associated with women in London’s history.
There are dozens of highlighted sections within each area that give the history of a particular movement, or of a specific woman. For instance, in the section that covers Bloomsbury, Kolsky has a detailed history and walking tour that “follows in the footsteps” of Virginia Woolf. There’s also a wonderful section devoted to Amelia Edwards, the “Godmother of Egyptology,” who was an inspiration for the Amelia Peabody book series by Elizabeth Peters.
Each self-guided walking tour includes a starting point, where to finish, total distance, approximate duration and where to stop for refreshments. Each tour is also marked on maps that are included in each section of Women’s London.
The back of the book is filled with information about specific sites and features of London. “Where They Lived” has a collage of blue plaques that commemorate the residences of famous ladies, like Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, the first woman to qualify as a doctor. “Where They Lie,” another special section, gives directions to and the history of the “Magnificent Seven,” which are suburban cemeteries that were established between 1832 and 1841.
It’s probably no surprise that my favorite section of Women’s London is titled “Literary Ladies.” This section takes you to areas of London that are “linked to favorite authors and stories.” In particular, two pages are devoted to the various addresses associated to Dame Agatha Christie, the “Queen of Crime” and one of my all-time favorite authors. I should like very much, someday, to travel to each address listed in Women’s London and gaze at the spot where Dame Christie wrote, for instance, Murder on the Orient Express.
Using Women’s London
Women’s London is dense. I mean, dense like the hedgerows that surround London’s finest homes. Only a small percentage of the travel guide is devoted to maps, directions, restaurants and shopping. More than anything else, Women’s London is a historical reference for points throughout London. There’s a lot of information to sift through, especially if you’re only looking for a quick reference guide for a brief trip to London. Women’s London is more suited to someone staying in London for a length of time, or willing to return several times to try to see all the places in the book.
Women’s London is best for someone who already has in mind an area of London to explore, rather than someone looking for ideas. Or, it’s good for someone looking to learn more and see places associated with someone specific. The table of contents and the index are the best places to start. To just peruse the book is to get lost in Kolsky’s encyclopedic knowledge.
While I highly recommend Women’s London for feminists and anyone who wants to look beyond the typical tourist spots, it would benefit from a few minor changes.
Brighter, clearer color coding would be helpful. While breakout sections of various chapters are shaded in light blue, those sections could be about a person or a place or an event in history. Perhaps having a different color for each type of breakout would help the reader more easily recognize what kind of information was being provided.
Color coding each area of London would also be helpful. For instance, the Eyewitness travel guides assign each section of a geographical location a different color. That way you can easily pick it out from maps or the colored tabs of the pages.
And, although I understand Kolsky’s desire to pack her travel guide with every fact she’s learned, Women’s London would benefit from some deep cuts. I would much rather be guided by a knowledgeable author, which Kolsky certainly is, than have to dig through a thicket of text to figure out when, where and of whom she’s writing about. Focusing on the most important women and places, or even Kolsky’s favorites, would give me a better sense of London and the women in its history. And it would certainly take me on a clearer path. If Women’s London had some of its text, even whole sections, cut, there would be room for secondary books for anyone interested in digging even deeper into women’s history in London.
The bottom line is that Kolsky knows her stuff. Anyone wanting to learn more about women’s history in London would be hard-pressed to find a book with more information than Women’s London. Just be prepared to spend some time with it in order to craft a tour or to find what you’re looking for.