Various Woman

Penelope Fitzgerald

  • A Voyager Out: The Life of Mary Kingsley by Katherine Frank
    Hamish Hamilton, 333 pp, £14.95, February 1987, ISBN 0 241 12074 8
  • Marilyn by Gloria Steinem and George Barris
    Gollancz, 182 pp, £12.95, February 1987, ISBN 0 575 03945 0
  • Joe and Marilyn: A Memory of Love by Roger Kahn
    Sidgwick, 268 pp, £10.95, March 1987, ISBN 0 283 99427 4
  • I leap over the wall by Monica Baldwin and Karen Armstrong
    Hamish Hamilton, 308 pp, £4.95, March 1987, ISBN 0 241 11974 X
  • Diary of a Zen Nun: A Moving Chronicle of Living Zen by Nan Shin (Nancy Amphoux)
    Rider, 228 pp, £5.95, January 1987, ISBN 0 7126 1432 X

Mary Kingsley, the traveller – not the explorer, she said, because there wasn’t anywhere she went in West Africa where Africans hadn’t been before her – was and is described as a splendid woman. I don’t know at what point the word ‘splendid’ acquired its present shade of meaning and became something that a woman would rather not be called. In the instructions for the first Schools Broadcast I wrote, in the days of crackling wireless sets in stuffy village schools, the producer called her ‘splendid’. Because of the crackle, we weren’t allowed sound-effects, certainly not the ‘thunder of the foaming, flying Ogowé River, and beyond it the pool of utter night’, of which she said that ‘if I ever have a heaven, that will be mine.’ But we presented Mary fishing for a crocodile with a home-made hook, Mary taking soundings from a canoe with her umbrella, Mary trading her white blouses, one by one, with the cannibal Fangs, Mary saved by her thick skirt when she fell into an elephant trap. ‘Mary Kingsley is a heroine English children have grown up with,’ we’re told in the introduction to A Voyager Out. ‘In the United States she has been largely unknown.’ This is all to the advantage of Katherine Frank, a lecturer from Iowa, who has produced this fine biography.

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