Making history

Malise Ruthven

  • Gertrude Bell by Susan Goodman
    Berg, 122 pp, £8.95, November 1985, ISBN 0 907582 86 9
  • Freya Stark by Caroline Moorehead
    Viking, 144 pp, £7.95, October 1985, ISBN 0 670 80675 7

When, shortly before the Second World War, Freya Stark was asked by a publisher if she would write Gertrude Bell’s biography, she turned the idea down. Although she admired her famous predecessor as a fine traveller and considered Amurath to Amurath one of the best travel books she’d read, Freya was not ‘very fascinated by her as a woman’. At first sight, this judgment seems surprising. Throughout her active career as a traveller in the Middle East, Freya was compared with Gertrude Bell. Both women travelled in remote and dangerous regions. Both wrote about their experiences in highly praised books. As well as being talented linguists and accomplished photographers, both women showed unusual physical courage, having received their early training in the tough and demanding school of Alpine mountaineering. Both women acquired formidable reputations for mental toughness, and for getting their own way. Both were frustrated in love, through indifference, betrayal or bereavement, but enjoyed close and enduring friendships with men. Both were Imperialists who served Britain with distinction in wartime, placing the special knowledge acquired in their travels at the disposal of military intelligence. In the carefully ordered realm of public service, both women showed scant regard for the rules of masculine hierarchy, corresponding with chiefs above the heads of their superiors, inviting accusations of meddling and intrigue. Both of them at times appeared jealous of other women, not least because each was conscious of her reputation as an exceptional woman in a man’s world.

It is perhaps significant that if they ever set eyes on each other it would have been, not in Baghdad, where Freya arrived in 1928, two years after Gertrude’s death, but at meetings of the Women’s Anti-Suffragist League in London, of which Gertrude was a founder member and which Freya attended, with Mrs Humphry Ward, in 1914, for both women were unabashed élitists who felt that their positions as privileged females would be undermined if their less educated sisters were given the vote. Both also held traditional views about the role of women and would greatly have preferred – or so they thought – conventional careers as wives and mothers if the right men had appeared at the right time. Gertrude was forbidden by her parents to marry the impecunious diplomat with whom she fell in love during her first visit to Persia; never one to rebel against her parents’ wishes, she broke the engagement. (The young man, Henry Cadogan, was drowned not long after her departure.) Freya was jilted by the Italian doctor to whom she became engaged during the First World War; and, according to her own account (though this has never been confirmed by the man’s family), she was cheated of a second chance of happiness by the death of her fiancé on a secret mission to Germany shortly before the outbreak of the Second.

With so many obvious similarities, it seems likely that Freya’s apparent indifference to Gertrude was in part a matter of rivalry. Freya suspected that, had Gertrude been alive when she arrived in Baghdad, the ‘Khatun’ (‘Lady of the Court’), as she was known, might not have been kind to her, notorious as she was for putting other women down. Like Freya herself, Gertrude admired the young men who administered, single-handed, large tracts of lawless territory. ‘They are wonderful, these young Englishmen who are thrown out into the provinces and left entirely to their own resources,’ she wrote in 1921. ‘They so completely identify themselves with their surroundings that nothing else has any significance for them, but if they think you’re interested they open out like a flower and reveal, quite unconsciously, wisdom, tact and patience which you would have thought to be incompatible with their years.’ Like Freya, she worshipped the type of laconic Englishman epitomised by her boss Sir Percy Cox. (Freya’s boss and hero was General Wavell.) The women, however, she regarded as frivolous, insisting on balls and parties which exhausted their menfolk and took them away from their work. ‘It is the wives – confound them,’ she wrote. ‘They take no sort of interest in what is going on, know no Arabic and see no Arabs. They create an exclusive (it’s also a very second-rate) English society quite cut off from the life of the town. I now begin to understand why British government has come to grief in India.’

These words, written in 1923, might well have been Freya Stark’s a decade or so later. Freya, however, arrived at her view of the role of women in the destruction of Empire by a somewhat different route. Coming to Baghdad poor and with few connections, she took rooms in a shoemaker’s house whence – as Caroline Moorehead writes – ‘she made sorties by rowing boat across the Tigris, to soirées where she observed the British and local life.’ She scandalised officialdom by appearing at parties in Arab costume and accepting the hospitality of beduin sheikhs; and while she eventually managed to win over more enlightened admirers of both sexes by her wit and charm, she remained an object of suspicion for most members of the British Club until, eventually, her reputation as a writer and explorer gained her an eminence that would enable her to put the Club in its place.

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[*] Mme de Stäel by Renée Winegarten (133 pp., £8.95 and £3.95, 21 November 1985, 0 907582 87 7) and Emily Dickinson by Donna Dickenson (132 pp., £8.95 and £3.95, 21 November 1985, 0 907582 88 5). Caroline Moorehead’s biography of Freya Stark belongs to another series in the current explosion of brief lives of famous women: Jean Rhys by Carole Angier, Bessie Smith by Elaine Feinstein and Rebecca West by Fay Weldon were also published by Viking/Penguin on 10 October 1985, and Mme Sun Yat-sen by Jung Chang with Jon Halliday (141 pp., £2.95, 0 14 008455 X), Colette by Allan Massie (142 pp., £2.95, 0 14 008160 7) and Hannah Arendt by Derwent May (136 pp., £2.95, 0 14 008116 X) were published on 29 May. On 24 April Virago published the first four volumes in the ‘Pioneers’ series: Vesta Tilley by Sara Maitland (148 pp., £3.50, 0 86068 795 3), Simone de Beauvoir by Judith Okely (162 pp., £3.50, 0 86068 324 9), Julia Margaret Cameron by Amanda Hopkinson (180 pp., £3.95, 0 86068 726 0) and Emily Dickinson by Helen McNeil (200 pp., £3.50, 0 86068 619 1).