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Passionate nomad : Freya Stark by Jane Fletcher Geniesse


Cover of Jane Fletcher Geniesse's biography of...

Cover of Jane Fletcher Geniesse’s biography of Freya Stark (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

(A not very recent read – read about 5 years ago)

What a woman – what a life – what a story – what a book!  I was captivated right through this lively, well-researched book about the eccentric lady explorer. She was a Traveller and  a writer  – in her heyday in the late 1920s,  until just after WWII.  A dazzling combo of brains – she learnt Arabic plus dialects, Persian, Italian, French and German; became a cartographer, an ethnographer, and a world authority on the Middle East . She exerted charm, virtually a one-woman international charm offensive.  She seems to have accomplished more by charm than anything else, despite her scientific achievements as an explorer.

Freya was small but formidable, and still very feminine,  with a liking for hats and make-up.  Such a contrast to the two Oxfod blue stockings who joined her expedition to the Hadramaut  – it was a disaster.  Frey Stark flitted, flirted and charmed her way through life and the world. She was terribly well-connected and knew (and cheerfully used) everybody.  Her friends needed to be indulgent and long suffering,  particularly her life-long publisher Jock Murray of John Murray Publishers. She produced 22 books, mostly travel, with one book of essays, and then eight volumes of letters privately published.  Mygoodness, but she wrote letters on an epic scale  – in this age of the cellphone/text messages/e-mail one forgets how, in previous years, the letter was a prime means of communication.

Freya Stark had a blind spot concerning gay men: she seemed unable to comprehend the basics of male gayness, and kept befriending, falling in love with and even marrying  one: she was self-willed to an extraordinary degree.  Had she not been so, doubtless her life would have been humdrum.

I learnt about the Africa and Middle East campaigns and politics of WWII, about which I knew zero. Prior to this book I could  just about  recall the names of the famous generals and the great military defeats and victories.  And good old Freya Stark was part of it all.  I’m adding her to my list of the people I wish I’d met. The other person on my list is Aleister Crowley, at one point labelled by the Press as The Wickedest Man in the World.   Thinking it over, how I admire Frey Stark for her grasp of languages (as a child I longed to be a polyglot) her varied travels (I also longed to see distant and exotic places) and I also wanted to become a writer so there’s a strong commonality between us.

The more I think of Freya Stark the more charmed and intrigued I become:  her strategic withdrawals to bed with illnesses when she couldn’t cope;  the longing to be loved and cosseted – haven’t we all been there? and how like her demanding and domineering mother she became, seemingly unconscious of this repeated character trait.  She simply ignored what didn’t suit her or accord with her ideas, and sailed blithely on. How marvellous to be so much one’s own person and be admired (although not universally) for it.  She had her critics and detractors, periods of poverty and depression: but – what a woman, what a life !

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