Wednesday, 1 February 2017

Jane Fletcher Geniesse's Passionate nomad: The life of Freya Stark

Bravely departing from past practice, we started this year with a biography rather than a chunky novel - and it was a success, perhaps because being women of a certain age we were ready for a story about an intrepid woman traveller! The book was Jane Fletcher Geniesse's biography, Passionate nomad: The life of Freya Stark. Stark (1893-1993) was a British-Italian travel writer, explorer/adventurer and historian, specialising in Arabic studies. She was one of the first non-Arabians to travel through the southern Arabian deserts.

Several members were reminded of their early love of Lawrence of Arabia, and one was inspired to go on to read a history of the Middle East, James Barr's A line in the sand: Britain, France and the struggle that shaped the Middle East. There was one nay-sayer though, who wasn't "loving" it, partly because biography is not her thing, but she said she was enjoying it because she was fascinated by Stark.

Who was Freya Stark?

Active in the Middle East from the late 1920s to the mid 1940s, and moving among her era's movers and shakers, Stark was a strong, spirited woman - one who worked very hard and took significant risks to achieve some remarkable things, particularly in those very gendered times when women had to fight for independence and recognition. She was "amazingly resourceful" said one member. We all enjoyed this story from the book:
She reentered Luristan on a donkey, draped in native clothing, three Lurs at her side as guides. She bluffed her way past the border guards. (“The great and almost only comfort about being a woman,” she said, “is that one can always pretend to be more stupid than one is and no one is surprised”). (Ch. 8)
And so, on she went, navigating truly dangerous places and handling tricky wartime projects. She was fearless said one member pointing out that this means she wasn't afraid, versus being "courageous" which means taking action even though you are afraid.

Stark was, though, paradoxical. She made long-standing friends, and yet would also use people (and her health) to get what she wanted. She would drop friends if they offended her or were no longer useful. She was "a bit of a princess" we agreed and was surprisingly anti-feminist, like some other strong women before her, including (her predecessor and self-imposed rival) Gertrude Bell. Stark preferred male company, and was keen to have male bosses (in preference even to being the boss herself, though she still fought for, and won, equal pay for herself from the British government). She was competitive and could be venomous, something that her publisher, in particular, tried to tone down (and sometimes succeeded in doing so), when she wrote up her experiences.

Geniesse argues that much of her paradoxical behaviour came from growing up within an unhappy marriage that broke up by the time she was 10 years old. She adored her self-centred mother, and yearned for her approval. She finally got it with her successes as an adult but that was long after the die was cast.

She felt insecure about her appearance, and wished always that she was beautiful. She was also apparently naive about some things, being unaware for example, of the gay men in her midst and, disastrously, accepting, later in life, a marriage proposal from one of them.

We were surprised to discover that some editions of the book had an epilog which explained that Freya was probably not her father's daughter but the result of an affair. It is possible that Freya never knew this, however.

Other issues that interested us

Stark was of course the main focus of our interest, but there were other aspects of the book that we enjoyed. Our GP member was interested in the medical aspects. Geniesse provides quite a bit of detail about the many illnesses Freya suffered and the medications she took. It's amazing, we thought, that she survived until she was 100 years old, given the maladies that befell her through her life. Early on Geniesse tells us that both her parents "placed a strong emphasis on stoicism". She clearly learnt that lesson well.

Stark's main claim to fame was being her time's "most respected experts on the Arab world". We all enjoyed the descriptions of her travels there - but, given the Middle East's subsequent history, we were particularly interested in her theory about how the region should be "handled", a theory she developed over time and promulgated to the British and, in 1944 on a lecture tour, to the mostly pro-Zionist Americans. Respecting people's sovereignty, she believed that any decisions must be made with the Arabs’ consent. "We musn’t impose solutions,” was her mantra. As we all know now, her view didn't prevail.

The biographer's craft

While a biographer's task is half done if the subject is interesting, it still needs to be written skilfully - and this, we thought, was. We particularly liked that it wasn't hagiographic: the Freya we saw could be charming and petulant, wise and imperious, intelligent and petty. Geniesse managed to present all that with an even hand, recognising what Stark achieved but also seeing her failings and sorrowing for their impact on her.

The book is cleverly structured. Geniesse captures our attention in Chapter 1, showing us who Stark was to become by describing her first arrival in Baghdad. Chapter 2 then takes us back to her birth and her story is then told chronologically.

One member also pointed out the lovely quotes which start every chapter, most if not all from Stark's writings. We felt that, although we'd decided to read a biography of Stark rather than a work by her, Geniesse  had included enough excerpts of Stark's writing to give us a good feel for her style and tone. Here, for example, is Stark commenting in The valleys of the Assassins on Elders refusing to show interest in her, a strange white woman who appeared out of nowhere:
It is a remarkable thing, when one comes to consider it, that indifference should be so generally considered a sign of superiority the world over; dignity or age, it is implied, so fill the mind with matter that other people’s indiscriminate affairs glide unperceived off that profound abstraction: that at any rate is the impression given not only by village mullahs, but by ministers, bishops, dowagers and well-bred people all over the world, and the village of Shahristan was no exception, except that the assembled dignitaries found it more difficult to conceal the strain which a total absence of curiosity entails.
We discussed much more - such as the Yemen expedition fiasco with archaeologist Gertrude Caton Thompson - but I've written enough, I reckon. In the end, we loved that she was one of those larger-than-life grand dames that we all love to read or hear about. A great read to start off our year.