Jane Fletcher Geniesse, Passionate nomad: The life of Freya Stark (Review)

Jane Fletcher Geniesse, Passionate nomad, book coverMy reading group came to read Jane Fletcher Geniesse’s biography, Passionate nomad: The life of Freya Stark, by a somewhat circuitous route – and it started with my blog. One of our members had read my Monday Musings post on 19th century travellers, and suggested that we read a 19th century travel writer. Somehow, as the discussion developed, this morphed into reading a biography of a twentieth century travel writer. As young people say today, whatever!

Some of you probably know of Stark, but to clarify, she was a British-Italian travel writer, explorer/adventurer and historian, who was one of her time’s “most respected experts on the Arab world”. She lived and travelled in the Arabic states from the late 1920s to the mid 1940s, in particular, and was one of the first non-Arabians to travel through the southern Arabian deserts. Amazingly – well, it seems amazing when you’ve read the book and see what she experienced and endured – she lived until she was 100 years old, dying in 1993. Geniesse tells us that her parents both “placed a strong emphasis on stoicism”. She clearly learnt that lesson well!

Stark, Geniesse also tells us, moved among her era’s movers and shakers, including politicians, diplomats and a wide range of intellectuals. Geniesse shows her to be a strong, spirited, canny, resourceful and hard-working woman who took significant risks in order to achieve some remarkable, if not astonishing, feats. This is particularly impressive, given those highly gendered times when women had to fight for independence and recognition. She was, for example, one of very women to be accepted and recognised by the august Royal Geographical Society.

Geniesse traces in excellent, and well-documented detail Stark’s exploration of the Middle East, including, for example, her journeys into remote regions of Yemen which had seen few Europeans before. Unfortunately, the maps in my e-version are impossible to read and I didn’t have time to research every place she visited, so my comprehension of the detail is a little superficial. This excerpt, though, will give you a sense of Stark’s style and approach:

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)

She spoke multiple languages, and was prepared to eat and drink what the locals did, sleep where they slept, and respect their beliefs, all of which facilitated her travel into remote, rarely visited lands.

Given the Middle East’s subsequent history, I was more interested in her theory about how the region should be “handled”. It was a theory she started developing when she was quite young, but further expanded over time. She promulgated it to the British and, in 1944 on a bruising British-government-suported lecture tour of the mostly pro-Zionist America. Stark wrote during this trip:

I have been thinking with more and more certitude on the wrongness of all our ways on becoming utilitarian at the expense of human relationships … the human relationship is what counts: and now that I have had time to think it all over, this has come to me so clearly that I feel I can lay hold on it as a definite philosophy and guide.

Respecting people’s sovereignty was a critical point for her, and she believed that any decisions had to be made with the Arabs’ consent. “We musn’t impose solutions,” was her mantra. That view, as we all know now, didn’t prevail.

Concluding the biography, Geniesse argues that while Stark

had not been able to affect British policy in a direct way, she had kept the flag aloft for decency, civility, and compassionate understanding.

Yet, Stark, like most people really, was a complicated person. She achieved a lot, but she also had her moments. One of the strengths of this biography is its even-handed portrayal of its subject. Geniesse shows Stark in all her glory – charming and petulant, wise and imperious, intelligent and petty – and does it with warmth, recognising Stark’s achievement and attraction for others, but also seeing her failings and sorrowing for their impact on her.

Geniesse argues that much of Stark’s paradoxical behaviour stemmed from growing up within an unhappy marriage that had broken up by the time she was 10 years old. She adored her self-centred mother, Flora, and yearned for her approval, but by the time she got it, with her successes in adulthood, the die was cast. She felt insecure about her appearance, and yearned throughout her life to be beautiful. She was also naive about some things, seemingly unaware for example, of the gay men in her midst and, disastrously accepting, later in life, a marriage proposal from one of them.

Stark made long-standing friends, and yet would also use people (and her health) to get what she wanted. She was surprisingly anti-feminist, like some other high achieving women before her, including (predecessor and self-imposed rival) Gertrude Bell. She 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, which her long-suffering but supportive publisher, in particular, tried to tone down.

Geniesse uses primary evidence – Stark’s letters, the writings of others, and interviews with people who knew her – to create her own psychological portrait of the sort of person she thinks Stark was, and why. As readers, we need to be aware that there could be other interpretations, but we can be comfortable, because the end-noting is there, that Geniesse’s picture is thoroughly researched and well-considered.

Geniesse also takes care in structuring her narrative. She starts with a Prologue summarising Stark’s significance, and then in Chapter 1 takes us to 1927/28 Lebanon when Stark was in her mid 30s and on her first trip to the Middle East. Having captured our attention by introducing Stark on the cusp of the grand adventure that became her life, Geniesse returns to her birth and childhood in Chapter 2 and thence tells the story chronologically. She uses foreshadowing, but not over-done, to make links between times and events “(“If Freya could only have known how close she now was to a fascinating life she might have been less depressed by the family responsibilities that again crashed down upon her”) or to focus the narrative (“but this was still a few years off”). Geniesse also finishes some “stories” even though Stark had left the picture, such as what happened post-war to the “ikwan” Stark had established in war-time Egypt to encourage local support for the British, and what happened to her husband after they separated.

In her philosophical book, Perseus in the wind, Stark wrote that:

the art of learning fundamental common values is perhaps the greatest gain of travel to those who wish to live at ease among their fellows.

I’ve really only touched on Stark’s life, and on Geniesse’s biography, but that’s all I can – or should – do. I’d certainly recommend it if you are interested in Freya Stark in particular, or in the Middle East, or in pioneer women travellers.

Jane Fletcher Geniesse
Passionate nomad: The life of Freya Stark
Random House, 1999
ISBN: 9781407053394 (eBook)

10 thoughts on “Jane Fletcher Geniesse, Passionate nomad: The life of Freya Stark (Review)

  1. I”ve read Feats on the Fjords and some time i mean to read others… in addition to Gertrude Bell, i’ve also dabbled in Isabelle Bird an Lady Hester Stanhope, both intrepid invaders of the middle east and other places… amazing and courageous people, they were,,, it’s a shame modern politicians can’t read…

    • Haha, it sure is mudpuddle. Sounds like you are interested in these explorers/invaders (like that) too. I have Bird’s Unbeaten tracks (I think that’s the title) in Japan on my iPad, and have read a bit of it. It’s something I often pick up in spare times.

  2. I’ve read a few late 19th and early 20th century books about the middle east and I think what a strong, vibrant web if cultures we’ve lost by our (the west’s) constant meddling and empire building. Yes the cultures still exist, but for the most part only within armed camps and not in shared spaces.

    • This sounds like an interesting and important book with Stark’s complexity (she seems both a pioneer of travel -writing empathy and a prototypical Orientalist with all the baggage that implies).

      • It is Ian – and yes she was a pioneer on several fronts. She was also a skilled cartographer and was the first woman (or one of them) to climb a number of peaks). A really fascinating person.

  3. Starks sounds like an amazing women. I can’t help think given some of the quotes you shared by her, that if women were in charge of more things the world would be a very different place. Interesting though how she was anti-feminist.

    • Yes it is interesting Stefanie… I can never understand high achieving, thunking women being anti-feminist. And yes re women in power though there are some doozies who have lost the side down a bit!

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