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Skilled in the Ways of the Desert

Improbable Women: Five Who Explored the Middle East

By William Woods Cotterman
Syracuse University Press, 2013

“I never imagined that my first sight of the desert would come with such a shock of beauty and enslave me right away.”

1Freya Stark’s words on leaving Damascus for the Syrian desert resonate throughout the narratives of the five improbable women whose stories fill William Woods Cotterman’s 2013 book by that name: Lady Hester Lucy Stanhope (1776-1839), Lady Jane Elizabeth Digby El Mesrab (1807-1881), Isabel Arundell Burton (1831-1896), Gertrude Margaret Lowthian Bell (1868-1926), and Freya Madeline Stark (1893-1993). Cotterman draws together these women’s stories to chart their evolving responses and reactions to a largely unknown landscape, each, like Stark, finding themselves “enslaved” by the overwhelming experience of entering a region much mythologised, typically romanticised, and very rarely trodden by women travellers.

Connecting these women is an especial attraction to the ancient city of Palmyra in Syria and the city’s own historic story of an “improbable woman”: Zenobia, the legendary warrior queen who led a revolt against the Roman Empire in the third century AD. Following the assassination of her husband King Odeathus, when Marcus Aurelius Claudius was named emperor in 268 AD Zenobia’s son was denied his rightful inheritance to the throne. Zenobia responded by assembling her troops and led an army out of Damascus in a bid to reclaim power and expand her territory into the Roman Empire. She successfully conquered large swathes of land and won a decisive victory over Egypt; but with the death of Claudius and instatement of Aurelian as emperor, Zenobia’s power came under attack and she was defeated in several battles, finally overcome in a decisive defeat at Palmyra which left the city in ruins and saw Zenobia removed to Rome where, it is presumed, she died. This story, Cotterman asserts, is central to the journeys of the five women in this book: “these forceful ladies were fascinated by Zenobia of Palmyra”, he writes, and “each of the five had made a pilgrimage to Palmyra and the ruins of her city-state in homage to Zenobia, perhaps in recognition of the mystery of their own spirits, so much like hers.”


In what follows, the book takes the narrative of each woman traveller in turn, moving between the social contexts in which the women journeyed and their own individual histories to make sense of how and why these “improbable women” came to travel to the Middle East. The story that unfolds effectively interweaves the developing situation in the Middle East, Britain’s changing social context, and the processes of technological and social modernisation that engendered new opportunities for travel across this one hundred and fifty years.

In the early 1800s when Lady Hester Stanhope travelled to the Middle East, the very beginnings of the transport revolution were just coming into effect, and travel beyond the Continent was relatively rare, requiring a great deal of time and preparation. Her entrance into Palmyra is illustrative of the sheer scale of such a journey: she enters the city like a regal figure, sitting

astride her powerful mare; dressed as a bedouin chief in an ankle-length belted shirt, high yellow boots, and a white cloak clasped with a golden brooch

while on her head she wears “the traditional Arab scarf, or keffiya”; behind her are “a phalanx of bedouin sheikhs” serving as bodyguards, followed by a train of forty camels and twenty horses laden with provisions, and a host of servants to cook, pitch tents and tend to the animals. The spectacle was watched by “cheering throngs” of hundreds of people gathered alongside the road bearing flowers, dancing, and beating drums. By the late 1920s, conditions were such that Freya Stark and her friend Venetia Buddicom could travel around Syria with just a guide and three donkeys, staying in the houses of villagers and visiting bedouin camps, while risking arrest in a Middle Eastern landscape increasingly fraught with political instability as World War II drew near.

3The stories that lie between these two eras tell of the various possibilities and opportunities that travel afforded women. There is Lady Jane Digby, who travelled across Europe and the Middle East throughout the mid-nineteenth century, her journey punctuated by several marriages and affairs, before she married a Syrian bedouin man and settled with him in the country, becoming “skilled in the ways of the desert,” performing all the duties of a bedouin wife and even riding into battles with her husband. For Isabel Burton it was the work of her husband Richard as a British consul that brought about her travel to Damascus in the late 1860s, but the journey represented the realisation of a lifelong fascination with the Middle East inspired by reading Benjamin Disraeli’s Tancred at a young age: Isabel wrote,

I was enthusiastic about gypsies, Bedawin Arabs, and everything Eastern and mystic and especially about a wild and lawless life.

Later, Gertrude Bell’s appetite for travel was first sparked by a journey with her aunt and cousin to Constantinople and Tehran in 1892, and she would go on to travel alone through Jerusalem, Jordan and Syria in the early years of the twentieth century. In doing so, she built up a detailed knowledge of the region that enabled her to become a key figure in Britain’s activity in the Middle East during World War I, so instrumental in the building of the modern Middle East that, Cotterman states “she has been described as the most powerful woman in the world during these years.”

The narratives that unfold throughout this book are compelling and there is much to interest the reader in these five diverse accounts, but the book’s form – a series of five mini-biographies – somewhat stifles its potential. Cotterman’s aim, he says, is to explore the lives of these women “in hopes of understanding them on a more personal level” but this comes at the expense of their engagement with the Middle East. So much attention is given to the women’s lives before their journeys begin that limited space is left to detail their travels: this is especially noticeable in the shortest chapters on Isabel Burton and Lady Jane Digby, where only around ten of thirty to forty pages are dedicated to their journeys, and in the book’s longest chapter on Lady Hester Stanhope, just two of sixty pages focus on her stay in Palmyra.

4This means that throughout the book there is a lot of summary on Cotterman’s part, describing sources to us where it would be far more revealing to pepper the narrative with first-hand quotations from the women’s accounts. In turn this often results in superficial handling of the women’s narratives, not really exploring in any depth how they engaged with the places they visited: we are told, for example, of Hester Stanhope that she “was now immersing herself in a radically different culture. The way people thought, behaved, and lived in Egypt, Palestine and Syria was totally different from anything she had experienced to this point in her life.” While this might be the case, such reductive statements leave the reader none the wiser as to how Hester experienced this new culture: what differences did she encounter, how did she immerse herself, and what was her response?

Cotterman also leaves much unsaid about the cultural contexts and attitudes surrounding these journeys. In the background of these narratives is an evolving history of Imperialism, and the material presented is rife with opportunity for examining imperial attitudes, particularly for the interesting play of perspectives resulting from the gender and class of these travellers. While Cotterman’s aim may be simply to uncover the personal stories of these women, it is a stark omission that he fails to even acknowledge the imperialist attitudes which these accounts present.

5Cotterman sets out to explore “a romantic mystique associated with the Middle East in the minds of Westerners during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries when little was known about those lands” – Orientalism, by any other name – yet he leaves that mystique intact. Jane Digby and Isabel Burton, for example, both describe how the Middle East presents them with an entirely different mode of life, Burton writing “as soon as you cross the Lebanon Range you quit an old life for a new life … you relapse into a purely oriental and primitive phase of existence,” yet such assertions and the implicit assumptions about the “purely oriental” and “primitive phase of existence” are left to stand without comment. It is unclear whether Cotterman simply feels this is too obvious a point to draw out, or does not himself recognise the inherent problems of such views, but it results in a persistent neglect of the cultural politics inherent in these women’s writing.

This is a missed opportunity for exploring the complexity of these women’s responses towards the imperial worlds in which they moved. As is often the case in the writing of British women travellers at this time, the women presented here both challenge and comply with dominant attitudes. The theme of clothing offers a pertinent illustration of this. Hester Stanhope audaciously rides through the streets of Istanbul unveiled and mounted side-saddle on her horse, in contrast to Muslim women who “rode astride but veiled”, causing many to believe that she was a man; following a shipwreck that leaves her without any belongings, she finds herself choosing to adopt the dress of a Turkish man, a practice she continued for the rest of her life.

6Isabel Burton similarly rode through Syria dressed as a man, passing as her husband’s son, but her dress shows an interesting cultural negotiation: she wears “an English riding-habit with the long ends of the skirt tucked in to look like their Eastern baggy trousers, an Eastern belt with a revolver” and a “Bedawin veil to the waist, only showing a bit of face.” And Gertrude Bell rides a “masculine saddle” which has people mistake her for a man: she writes further that she wears

a most elegant and decent divided skirt, however, but as all men wear skirts of sorts too, that doesn’t serve to distinguish men.

In instances like these, Cotterman would better serve his readers by offering a pertinent line or two of discussion setting these accounts within a bigger picture of travel writing at this time, to reveal much more about how and why these women’s experiences are so illuminating.

As the book progresses into its final stages these issues smooth out, and in the final chapter on Freya Stark Cotterman finds his ground, achieving a much more fluid engagement with the material. Instances from Stark’s letters and diary entries enliven the narrative with vivid insights into her engagement with the places she travelled. We see, for example, not only how she fashioned her own sense of culture through her dress but also her awareness of the response she elicited from others through doing so:

I have never been anywhere where it is more fun to have clothes: everyone is so interested in them, and if I put on a fresh hat on Sunday mornings, it is with the agreeable certainty that it is going to give pleasure to the whole congregation.

7While Stark’s command of herself as an independent traveller continues themes that are present in earlier women’s journeys, what becomes clear in this final chapter is the sense of manufacturing oneself as a travel writer: “the world had discovered an explorer, and an explorer she would be.” This in turn came to serve as important in wider political events and, like Gertrude Bell in World War I, Stark’s knowledge of the Middle East became effective in serving the British government in World War II and she worked on assignments in Yemen, Egypt and Iraq.

On leaving the Middle East at the end of the war, Stark described her years there as “happy in their private brightness against the stormy background.” It is a fitting end to these five women’s stories, each of whom experienced the challenges of a “stormy background” to their travels yet crafted a personal narrative that, if not always full of “private brightness,” saw them fashion a place for themselves as independent, and at times “improbable,” women in the Middle East.

Charlotte Mathieson is a researcher in Victorian literature at the University of Warwick. She writes about Victorian literature and culture at charlottemathieson.wordpress.com and is on Twitter @cemathieson .

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