Pfeiffer, Ida (1797–1858)

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Pfeiffer, Ida (1797–1858)

Austrian world traveller and bestselling author whose two round-the-world trips were extraordinary achievements for the day. Born Ida Laura Reyer in Vienna, Austria, on October 14, 1797; died in Vienna in the night of October 27–28, 1858, of an illness she had contracted during her last adventure in Madagascar; daughter of Aloys Reyer (a merchant) and Anna Rosina Reyer; had six brothers and one sister; married Mark Anton Pfeiffer (a lawyer of Lemberg), in 1820; children: two sons, and one daughter who died soon after birth.

Ida Pfeiffer was one of the most intrepid travelers of the 19th century. From 1842 until her death, she journeyed to far-off continents and dangerous regions, providing entertainment and knowledge to countless readers through her books. She was beloved by the public and respected by scientists and geographers, and became the first woman to be admitted as an honorary member to the geographical societies of Berlin and Paris.

She was born Ida Laura Reyer into a bourgeois Viennese household in 1797. With six brothers and one sister, her early years were lively. Her father Aloys Reyer, a manufacturer, believed that she could only benefit by competing with her brothers, playing their games and being toughened up in roughneck fashion. But her father's death in 1806 brought drastic change, and most middle-class comforts, including sumptuous meals, became a memory. Although the new Spartan lifestyle would one day be of value to Ida in her travels, for the time being she had to endure her mother's plan for her to become heiratsfähig (marriageable). She was forced into becoming acceptably feminine by wearing dresses, taking piano lessons, and learning to knit. Her hatred of the piano and knitting was so great that she cut into her fingertips with a knife. For several years, she fiercely resisted the various efforts at "feminization." Her proper education was to be the work of her tutor Joseph Franz Emil Trimmel. While he did impart conventional knowledge to the 13-year-old, Trimmel also made available to her travel books which revealed a world of exotic locales and Romantic adventure. Ida fell deeply in love with her tutor, who was not suitable because of his poverty. Aware of the situation, Ida's mother fired Trimmel, but Ida would never forget her first love, or the world he had brought to her attention through reading.

In May 1820, Ida entered into an arranged marriage with Mark Anton Pfeiffer, a Lemberg (modern-day Lviv, Ukraine) attorney, 24 years her senior, who was considered to be a suitable partner. After their Vienna nuptials, the couple moved to Lemberg where Pfeiffer gave birth to two sons and to a daughter who died 18 hours after birth. Her husband was an honest but unlucky lawyer. After he discovered a serious case of official corruption, his law practice was boycotted and economically throttled. By secretly giving music and drawing lessons to more affluent members of the bourgeoisie, Ida added to the family's income and kept food on the table. By the late 1820s, the couple was unofficially separated. The death of Ida's mother in 1831 brought her a modest inheritance, which she invested prudently in order to provide tuition for her two sons. Two years later, she left her husband, a man who "only lived in illusions," and returned to her native city of Vienna with her boys. Despite her financial circumstances, she began planning trips. An excursion to the port city of Trieste, then an Austrian-ruled harbor on the Adriatic Sea, excited her imagination as she saw salt water and ships for the first time in her life.

By the early 1840s, Pfeiffer's sons were grown, and she felt free to do things long imagined. Told by a priest that a trip to the Holy Land would require about 600 Austrian gulden, she began a disciplined savings campaign. With the required sum in hand, on March 22, 1842, she left Vienna via the Danube to make the trip—the first of what would turn out to be five major journeys, including two around the world. In her diaries, which became the basis of her many travel books, Pfeiffer displayed unusual frankness, describing herself as being poor, unattractive, and old, without pretensions to either literary talent or learning. She noted, however, that to her advantage were her maturity, courage, and a sense of independence derived from a life that had been filled with difficulties.

In her travels, Pfeiffer took full advantage of the considerable freedom that advanced age gave to a woman in the mid-19th century. In societies based on traditional gender-specific roles, older women were often defined as being of less importance than younger ones and thus were subject to considerably less male control. She did not have to concern herself with her physical appearance, and, now allowing herself more latitude in both behavior and opinions, found it relatively easy to be direct in discussing any number of matters, including sexuality. Although an alert observer during her ten-month trip to the Middle East, Pfeiffer reflected some traditional European stereotypes when she described local women as being ignorant and lazy. She also indicated, however, that they were often friendly and trusting, and suggested that they might be happier on balance than their European counterparts. After she returned to Vienna, Pfeiffer's friends were so impressed with her tales of adventure that they urged her to find a publisher for her extensive diaries. Released in 1844 as Die Reise einer Wienerin in das Heilige Land (Travels of a Viennese Lady in the Holy Land), her book became a bestseller, and Pfeiffer was convinced that she had finally found her niche. In 1845, she made a journey to Scandinavia and Iceland, which quickly resulted in the publication of another popular volume.

On May 1, 1846, Pfeiffer embarked on her most ambitious voyage to date—a trip around the world. By June, she was under sail to Brazil on a modest Danish cargo vessel. Always concerned with her budget, she found this an economical and interesting way to travel. With her usual acute observation, she noted the luminescent marine creatures her ship encountered in South Atlantic waters. In Rio de Janeiro, the evils of slavery left their mark on her sense of social justice, but she also compared the situation of slaves favorably to the situation of many European peasants and Egyptian "fellahs." For the rest of her trip, Pfeiffer would often comment on the miserable lives of those individuals—particularly women and children—who suffered at the very bottom of the social pyramid. Her outrage at injustice runs like a thread throughout all of her travelogues, as does her sympathy for women of the lower classes. She believed that in her own part of the world most of the benefits of women's liberation were likely to accrue to women who were already privileged. This viewpoint would only be strengthened during her absences from Europe.

After returning to Vienna from her round-the-world adventure in November 1848, Pfeiffer organized her diaries and in 1850 published a three-volume account of her travels entitled Eine Frauenfahrt um die Welt (A Lady's Journey around the World). Her work again proved to be a resounding success with the reading public. By May 1851, the always restless Pfeiffer was traveling once more, now on her second trip circling the globe, going around the Cape of Good Hope through the Indian Ocean. Her venture would result in valuable acquisitions for the Museum of Natural History, Vienna. Among her many adventures was an encounter with the Dyak cannibals of Borneo, whom she was able to persuade that her flesh, being that of a dried-out old white European lady, would really not be palatable. Wherever she went, Pfeiffer often pointed out issues beneath the surface. In India, when describing the Taj Mahal, she reminded her readers of the human cost in labor and wealth of the exquisite edifice. She also made perceptive comments on reasons for Asian hostility and indifference toward Western missionary efforts, which she believed had little hope of success because most missionaries made no attempts to adapt their mode of dress or style of living to local conditions. Most of all, she noted, they avoided contact with the poor masses, preferring instead to live in a segregated fashion among other missionaries in the wealthiest parts of towns.

Pfeiffer would later take issue with her fellow Europeans' horror at the custom of head-hunting, citing an alarming similarity between this custom and the bloody realities of European battles. Later, on a visit to Versailles, she would be appalled by paintings displayed there glorifying battles; she saw these as comparable to the Dyaks' custom of displaying shrunken heads. Pfeiffer, in fact, praised the Dyaks: "I should like to have passed a longer time among the free Dyaks, as I found them, without exception, honest, good-natured, and modest in their behavior. I should be inclined to place them, in these respects, above any of the races I have ever known." While she was in China, it is quite likely that the only reason Pfeiffer was not physically attacked as a hated Inglesi was because she was a seemingly frail and elderly white woman. As such, on her travels she was able to deny complicity in European imperialism's lust for conquest and exploitation. Likely because of her status as an older woman, the indigenous peoples Pfeiffer came in contact with did not see her as an aggressor or spy, making it possible for her to survive in situations that might easily have been fatal for a European male.

In 1853, Pfeiffer was visiting a California which was still crazed with gold fever. While there, she made a number of observations on the tragic consequences of that state's racial prejudice against its Native American peoples. After observing the rapidly dwindling Indian population of California, she wrote bitterly: "to this desert men voluntarily banish themselves for the chance of finding a lump of gold! What must a place be, if it had but this attraction, to keep off the avaricious whites?" She wrote admiringly of the American Indians: "They understand no work but basket plaiting. In this art, however, they have attained to great perfection; they know how to make their baskets perfectly watertight, and manage even to boil their fish in them." Pfeiffer further asserted:

These Indians are represented as treacherous, cowardly, and revengeful, and only attacking the whites when they find one alone. But, after all, what other means of attack have they against well-armed whites—the domineering race from which they have had so much to suffer. Revenge is really natural to man; and if the whites had suffered as many wrongs from them as they from the whites, I rather think they too would have felt the desire of revenge.

Pfeiffer returned to Vienna in May 1855 and published her account of the trip the next year. With adventures on every page, the four-volume set, simply entitled Meine zweite Weltreise (My Second Voyage around the World), was snapped up by her loyal reading public.

By 1857, Pfeiffer was again off on an adventure. On what would turn out to be her last trip, she chose to visit the then little-known island of Madagascar, off the coast of southeastern Africa. There, she unwittingly became involved in the struggle between Madagascar's fiercely proud ruler Queen Ranavalona I and French adventurers who were plotting to turn the island into a colonial possession of France. Ranavalona, enraged by these attacks on her nation's sovereignty, took drastic measures to expel the hostile foreigners. Through no fault of her own, Pfeiffer was perceived to be part of these plots and imprisoned. Left with no choice, she escaped from danger by traveling through a disease-ridden jungle, which severely affected her health. Having found refuge on the Indian Ocean island of Mauritius, Pfeiffer briefly considered traveling on to Australia. But she was now seriously ill from a tropical fever that was beginning to destroy her liver, and had to abandon these plans.

She returned home, where she hoped medical science might still cure her. Despite her rapidly declining health, Pfeiffer was to enjoy one more triumph. Just before she died, the two undisputed contemporary giants of scientific geography, Alexander von Humboldt and Carl Ritter, honored the frail but tenacious Pfeiffer by spending several hours with her. Earlier, she had been elected an honorary member of the geographical societies of Berlin and Paris. (The British Royal Geographical Society would not admit her because its statutes refused membership to women.) Ida Pfeiffer died in Vienna on the night of October 27–28, 1858. After her death, her son Oscar edited and published her last book, about her ill-fated trip to Madagascar.

Underneath her conventional Biedermeier exterior, Pfeiffer was in many ways an Austrian steel magnolia. Wrote Helga Schutte Watt :

[Pfeiffer] preached the gospel of simplicity and modesty, [but] she [also] demonstrated courage and achievement. Although she supported traditional concepts, she also undermined them. She upheld the narrowly circumscribed image of the selfless mother and devoted housewife, at the same time living and describing the realization of a woman's dream to roam the world. Without threatening the patriarchal order based on gender, she attacked class privilege, social injustice, and the morality of European wars and conquests.


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related media:

Schramm, Cornelia. "Mit Ida Pfeiffer nach Jerusalem" (audiocassette), Berlin: Aufbau Verlag, 1999.

John Haag , Associate Professor of History, University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia

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Pfeiffer, Ida (1797–1858)

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