Tartar Steppes

A recovered lost classic of women's travel writing: Atkinson travelled more than 40,000 miles through the unknown wastes of Siberia and Central Asia

Recollections of Tartar Steppes and Their Inhabitants

Lucy Atkinson

Introduction by Nick Fielding & Marianne Simpson

Recollections of Tartar Steppes, first published in 1863, is a lost classic of women’s travel writing that remains one of the earliest and best examples of the genre. In February 1848 the erstwhile English governess Lucy Atkinson set off from Moscow with her new husband Thomas Witlam Atkinson on a journey that would eventually last almost six years and cover more than 40,000 miles through the unknown wastes of Siberia and Central Asia. To add to the challenge, Lucy found soon after setting off out that she was pregnant. Having barely ever ridden in her life, she spent her entire pregnancy on horseback, before giving birth to a son in a yurt in a remote corner of Central Asia. Remarkably, her child survived and for the next five years accompanied his parents wherever they travelled – through the Djungar Alatau Mountains on the borders with China, the Altai Mountains in southern Siberia and then thousands of miles east to Irkutsk, Lake Baikal and the Sayan Mountains. 

Lucy Atkinson was not simply a passive witness on this remarkable journey, but an active participant, handling horses and camels, organizing Cossack and local guides and learning to shoot for the pot. On several occasions she levelled a rifle to protect her husband when he was threatened by brigands. Throughout this book, based on diaries she kept, she brings to life her remarkable experiences, whether sharing a meal with a Kazakh chieftain, negotiating the hire of reindeer to carry her baby son, or setting off for two weeks in an open rowing boat onto the unpredictable waters of Lake Baikal. During the bitter winters, when the Atkinsons hunkered down in one of the scattered towns of Siberia to avoid the worst of the sub-zero temperatures, she was a sensation at the soirées and parties that punctuated the long, dark evenings. Through her connections to her former employer in St Petersburg she also met with many of the exiled Decembrists and their wives, including Princess Maria Volkonsky and Princess Katherine Troubetskoy.

Out of print for many years, this new edition includes a detailed introduction by Nick Fielding and Marianne Simpson – a direct descendant of Lucy Atkinson’s brother Matthew – which explains the background to Lucy’s travels and the fascinating events that followed her return to London and her husband’s death in 1861.

Lucy Atkinson was born in 1817 in Sunderland, Co Durham, but was brought up in East London. In her early 20s she sailed to St Petersburg in Russia to work as a governess for a noble Russian family. In 1846 in the same city she met architect-turned-artist Thomas Witlam Atkinson and not long after married him and set off on horseback into Siberia and Central Asia. For the next six years Thomas, Lucy and their newly-born son Alatau travelled thousands of miles through some of the most desolate, remote and inhospitable regions of the Russian Empire, only returning to England in 1858. Thomas died in 1861 and Lucy, at the insistence of publisher John Murray, decided to write down her experiences which were published in 1863 as Recollections of Tartar Steppes and their Inhabitants. She died in London in November 1893.

£12.99 paperback

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322 pp
6 engravings
September 2021
ISBN: 9781909930971