Stepping smartly on
PASSIONATE NOMAD: THE LIFE OF FREYA STARK by Jane Fletcher Geniesse Chatto, £20, pp. 400
In the early 1930s, Freya Stark joined the Baghdad Times. On her first day in the office none of the men looked up as she entered the newsroom. Stark cast an impe- rious look over her new colleagues and announced that whenever she arrived she expected them to stand up. 'Office women', she declared, 'are to be thought of as queens.' From then on, they stood. Freya Stark's friends loved her, and they particu- larly loved telling each other stories of her latest escapades, with affection and some- times criticism, for she could be both dicta- torial and single-minded. But something about her bravura, her humour, her great knowledge of the classical world and her sense of adventure, touched nearly every- one who met her.
In a new biography of Freya, Jane Fletcher Geniesse makes much of these escapades, but setting them against the backdrop of her remarkable life and basing her book on meticulous research. Brought up on the edge of Dartmoor, where her father forced her and her sister to walk through a wood in the dusk on their own to make them brave, Freya Stark spent most of the rest of her childhood in northern Italy, where her mother, a domineering but beautiful woman, had become embroiled in a romantic business venture. As a child she was stubborn, prone to sudden rages, yet endearing in her sheer determination to get her own way. The family had very little money. When the first world war broke out Stark trained as a nurse, served, with the Red Cross in Italy during the battle of Caporetto and dreamt of exploring the world on her own.
That moment arrived in the late 1920s when she finally set out for the Lebanon. The desert captivated her and set the pat- tern for her whole future. She travelled, often totally alone, she wrote, and she had an enormous need to succeed, feeling a sense of rivalry even against the dead, like Gertrude Bell, whom she dismissed as not having had 'enough adventures'. By the time she was in her mid-thirties she had learned Arabic and Persian, studied the Koran, written a book and a number of articles, broken new ground for the British Geographical Survey and become the third woman to receive the Geographical Soci- ety's Back Memorial Prize.
The timing was perfect, for the world was longing for discoveries of all kinds. She spent the second world war in the Yemen, Cairo and Baghdad where she was employed to convince the Arabs — 'per- suasion, not propaganda', as she put it — that the Allies would win the war.
Yet there was quite another side to her, brought out clearly by Jane Geniesse. She loved nothing more than a splendid hat, a high-powered dinner party, and she infinitely preferred the company of men. She longed to marry, and complained sadly to her friends about her looks: she was For the last time, I don't want to grow up big and strong like Mummy, Nanny.'
indeed short, somewhat dumpy, with small but very bright brown eyes, and part of her scalp had been torn away during an acci- dent in childhood, so that she wore hats and scarves and later bonnets to conceal the scars. All her life, her friends speculat- ed about her romantic adventures and Geniesse devotes considerable space to the various men — the Arabist Vyvyan Holt, Antonin Besse and others — who may or may not have made love to her. When she was 54 she married another Arabist, Stew- art Perowne, despite being told by friends that he was homosexual. She paid no atten- tion, but the slow break-up of their mar- riage is touchingly told, and Stewart Perowne, many of whose excellent letters Jane Geniesse quotes at length, emerges as a man of sympathy and much anguish.
After the marriage ended, Freya fled to the coast of Turkey, embarking on a new series of books on Asia Minor. She was lonely, but her courage and determination seldom let her down. She could be a very good friend, describing the way that acquaintances needed constant tending and should be carefully cultivated until they 'bloomed into friendships'. Here, too, she could be tough, and when a relationship became uninteresting she had no compunc- tion about 'stepping smartly on'. On 9 May, 1993, at the age of 100, she died in Asolo, the village in the foothills of the Dolomites that she had made her home, having been made a Dame of the British Empire some years before.
Not long after the second world war, Freya Stark wrote the first volume of her autobiography, Traveller's Prelude. It was the most enjoyable of her books and has remained in print ever since. But as Jane Geniesse rightly observes, she was also a superb letter writer. Sir Sydney Cockerell, an old friend and the recipient of many of her letters, regarded them as 'pure enchantment', and remarked that he did not see how they could be 'bettered by the greatest letter writer of our times'.
In 1938, before departing for what was a quarrelsome expedition to the Hadhramaut with the archaeologist Gertrude Caton- Thompson — which provided her friends with a wonderful fund of stories — Freya Stark wrote a list of the seven cardinal virtues that a good traveller should possess. They ranged from having an 'unpreoccu- pied, observant, and uncensorious mind in other words being unselfish' — to being 'as calmly good-tempered at the end of the day as at the beginning', neither one of which could be said to apply to her, but they say much about the way she viewed herself. Passionate Nomad is an admiring and affectionate book, but Jane Geniesse never loses sight of either Stark's weak- nesses for titles and grandeur, or her way of brushing aside any obstacle or truth unacceptable to her. It is one of its plea- sures that it both allows Freya Stark to have her full say and yet sets her in the real world to which she belonged.