(Not a recent read; we’re going back 5 years, and as you can see, reading her letters kept me busy for some months – but it was worth it).

VOLUME I – THE FURNACE AND THE CUP – Freya Stark, Letters;  Edited by Lucy Moorhead.

Koeberg Library, in an excess of zeal, ordered all four volumes of FS’ letters : if I persevere I might,  with effort be finished by Christmas … maybe.  The enthusiastic Librarian has gathered in eight books from all parts of Cape Town and even further afield.  Trouble is, FS writes so charmingly that I WANT to read them all, and the first volume was 294 pages: phew!  FS wrote letters on an almost daily basis to her parents and friends.  What will future biographers do in this age of quick e-mail notes?  There will be no evidence left for them to trawl through.  And FS’s letters are  entertaining and diverting, with marvellous descriptions of her travels in Syria, Persia and Palestine.  For a woman with very little money she sure got around.

LATER (one month later) I’ve now finished Volume 2 of the Letters, and thoroughly enjoyed them. FS writes like a dream when she’s corresponding with her dreadful mother (can’t think why she wrote so often to that old tyrant!) or to her father in Canada – no wonder Mr Stark fled so far away to take up a peaceful occupation like apple growing!  Volume 2 covers  the 1930s.

At one point FS is bewailing the fact she has to get a job and earn her own living!  It sounds so strange to the modern ear …. ag shame! But a reminder that prior to WWII few women did work.

There are lyrical descriptions of the Yemen – one is almost there with her so vivid (without being Technicolor) are her descriptions.  So what a disappointment to read her slender book  The Minaret of Djam : travels in Afghanistan  by Freya Stark –  although the photos were terrific as were the delicate line drawings – but not enough info or credit given to the artist – to whom she sort of attached herself while marooned in Kabul and got a two week trip in their Land Rover to Afghanistan. It’s  unclear when this actually happened; the book was published in 1970.  But reading her account I suppose it must have taken place in the previous decade.  I hated the style of this book, it had great chunks of elevated philosophizing that were written in a high falutin’ classical style – it was awful!  I got the feeling she’d cobbled up her trip notes and padded them to produce this short book either to satisfy her publisher or because she was short of money – and she was always short of money!

I suppose few people in the 60’s had been to Afghanistan so it was virgin territory travelwise and bookwise.  I was interested to read how many roads the Russians had built in Afghanistan at this early stage – I’d always been baffled by their presence in Afghanistan during the Afghan War of the 1990s but now I’ve read the book and seen the map it makes a bit more sense.  The Minaret of Djam, as per title, a fabulous building, built circa 1190,  parked in the wilderness and virtually unknown  even to this day .


I’ve thoroughly enjoyed this volume as well.  My, but she was a prolific letter writer.  One wonders if she made carbon copies or whether her recipients carefully kept her letters and returned them afterwards.

And she was a mass of contradictions: either she was roughing  it  in Arabia, flea-bitten, cold and hungry or she was in a posh sanitorium in London or Switzerland, being cosseted.  And her illnesses (I’m never too sure what they were: ulcers? colitis?  sinusitis?) lasted for years.

Along the way she found a lizard, a desert lizard, which she adopted as a pet.  Not un-naturally the poor thing died of cold (despite hot water bottles) some months after being wrenched from its nice dry, hot, Arabian desert and taken to England.  FS was heartbroken.

She writes so beautifully about the landscapes in Aden and the Hadramaut.  In this volume she continues friendships with gay men –  apparently she never really understood the concept of homosexuality.


Phew – at last I’ve finished.  Must to admit reading some of this volume with only half an eye; the other half being fixed on the return date stamped inside the book.  I’d say that FS had a “jolly good war. Based in Cairo  – what a glittering social centre it was!  FS dining constantly with Generals and the aristocracy, or giving little sherry parties for 40 people.  Because she was  British Civil Service she could buy whiskey at £2 per bottle, which cheered her up no end.

Stewart Perowne (her husband) comes across as capricious and petulant: how on earth FS could even contemplate marriage to him is a complete mystery.  They married in 1947, and never had children.  I can only assume she missed the wartime camaraderie?  FS cooed over most of the men in her orbit –  I have an idea she could be ferociously charming and flirtatious.  I think she got what she wanted with charm offensives.  She loved the aeroplane rides she cadged off the RAF (even in a Blenheim bomber!) to the great irritation of her male colleagues.

I would have LOVED to be a lady explorer like FS but alas! Nowhere left to explore these days that National Geographic hasn’t been to beforehand.


Filed under BOOK REVIEWS

2 responses to “FREYA STARKE’S LETTERS

  1. Birds Nest

    Wow – makes me want to read them . when I “retire” one day – added to this list for now.

    Take care



  2. Great, now I know something about a person that was unkown to me.



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