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The Books of Freya Stark
BookThink's Author Profiles Series
"One life is an absurdly small allowance." Freya Stark, letter to a friend, November 18, 1929.
Making the most of her allotment (100 years of living), Freya Stark fulfilled nearly all her dreams, except perhaps her yearning to be physically beautiful. But if her looks were a bit plain, Freya's words were some of the loveliest ever written; her books are among the finest examples of travel writing ever published.
Her charm must have compensated for what she considered a shortfall in good looks, for throughout her life she had hosts of friends and followers. An astounding number of letters to and from associates, friends and family have been preserved.
Freya Stark's own letters from different regions of the world served as her journals and were the resources for most of her writing; she is considered one of the greatest letter writers of all time. These letters were privately published late in her life in 8 handsome volumes. Spanning the years 1934 to 1982, 21 of Freya's books on her life and travels were published by her loyal publisher John Murray (London) and one, Rivers of Time, a photographic collection with Alexander Maitland, was published by William Blackwood (Edinburgh, 1982).
Because of health issues, financial difficulties and family responsibilities, Freya got a bit of a late start, beginning her solo travels at age 35. No matter; despite physical frailties, she boldly traveled the remotest regions of the Middle East, mostly alone and usually by donkey, camel, or on foot well into her last decades. She was also an inveterate mountain climber, scaling the Matterhorn and the Monte Rosa from its icy Italian side. At age 89 she was filmed by a TV crew as she rode a mule into the Himalayas, although by evening she was so stiff she had to be lifted off her mule and carried to her tent.
As a young girl she suffered a disfiguring accident when her long hair became entangled in machinery at her mother's rug manufacturing plant. Part of her scalp was ripped off and she nearly died. This added to her shyness and self-consciousness about her looks, which she later partially overcame by developing a fondness for exotic hats. She was a great lover of fashion when it came to clothes, but her tastes for travel were simple and spare. Wherever she went, she traveled light and hooked up with natives, adopting their language and customs, eating and sleeping in their tents or under the stars.
"The chief thing the traveler carries about with him is himself." Freya Stark, Perseus in the Wind.
Far more than just a traveler, Freya carefully and thoroughly researched the geography, language and customs of a place before setting foot there, and once there she absorbed every detail. Through self-study, the occasional tutor, and choosing to reside among native-speaking people, Freya became a scholar, learned numerous languages and became fluent in Arabic. She also read and thoroughly studied the Koran. She learned cartography and became highly respected for her work in that field as well. During WWI she served as a nurse and later as a journalist for The Baghdad Times.
Always the adventurer, she was arrested and thrown into a military prison by the French for entering the forbidden territory of the Syrian Druze (then under French control). Her first book, The Valleys of the Assassins, was the culmination of her audacious trek across an area of Iran dominated by a murderous and heretical sect of Muslims, where no other travelers dared set foot. She also smuggled herself into the Shi'a mosque at Al Kazimiyah, after covering herself from head to foot in black veils, and took part in Shi'a Muslim religious ritual in Teheran, the Muharram, in disguise.
"There is a certain madness comes over one at the mere sight of a good map." Freya Stark, Letters from Syria.
Freya's parents had been travelers themselves, moving around Europe like restless nomads. Freya was born in Paris, educated in London, and spent much of her early life in Italy, where her mother went into partnership with an Italian man, Count Mario di Roascio. Her parents eventually split up, and her father moved to a log cabin in Creston, British Columbia, Canada where he spent the rest of his life.
Throughout her early years she was dirt poor and had to be very careful about money. Later in life she inherited a house in Asolo, Italy from her Godfather Herbert Young, a long time family friend and neighbor. This home, which she loved and returned to between her travels, enabled her to have some sense of roots among her family and friends.
She discovered the hidden routes of the great incense trade and cities that are just now being excavated - exactly where she said they would be found. In her 60s, she followed in the footsteps of Alexander the Great's journeys into Asia. Two books resulted - The Lycian Shore, Ionia: A Quest, and Alexander's Path, which document Greek civilization's impact on the Middle East.
Her books are timeless, and they are of particular interest now with so much turmoil and misunderstanding in the Middle East. Freya Stark developed a deep understanding of the culture and divisions among the people of that region, which makes her perspective enlightening today.
Although often compared to British writer and explorer Gertrude Bell, Freya differed from her in many ways. She was a much freer spirit, traveling with simple native guides and without the benefits of rank, money or an Oxford education. She roamed much further than Bell and with far fewer resources.
During WWII she served Great Britain in the Middle East both as a translator and an emissary spreading the ideals of democracy in the Western World to encourage the native people to take the side of the allies - or at least remain neutral in that conflict. Trusted and admired by most of the population, she was quite successful at this. Her work toward this cause was considered to be crucial and effective in helping turn the tide in the region. She was knighted at age 82.
Her curiosity, determination and sense of adventure set her apart as an extraordinary woman of her times. While other women fussed in their drawing rooms about equal rights, Freya was embarking on ocean and desert crossings and living a life most men wouldn't dare pursue.
There have been two recent biographies written about Freya Stark: Freya Stark: A Biography by Molly Izzard (Hodder & Stoughton, London, 1993); and the more recent Freya Stark: Passionate Nomad by Jane Fletcher Geniesse.
These books are well-written, enlightening, and a great deal of work and research has obviously gone into them. However, like most biographies written after the subject's death, they contain some speculation over the person's inner thoughts and motivations. For this reason I prefer to read Freya's own work, which is so beautifully written, and draw my own conclusions.
While reading her books, one can't help thinking how fortunate we are that she recorded so much of her grand adventure on paper for all of us to share.
Freya Stark's books are very collectible, and, because they are usually read, sometimes more than once, they can be difficult to find in fine condition.
The Valley of the Assassins, John Murray, London, 1934.
Freya Stark Letters were privately printed in eight volumes between 1974 and 1982. Another collection, Over the Rim of the World: Selected Letters, edited by Caroline Moorehead, was privately printed in 1988.
Also worth mentioning, as this was my introduction to Freya Stark, and the reading of it set me on a quest of all her books in their original form is The Freya Stark Story (a condensation in one volume of Traveller's Prelude, Beyond Euphrates, and The Coast of Incense), Coward-McCann, New York, 1953. If you can find it, it is a wonderful introduction to her work.
Questions or comments?
Contact the editor, Craig Stark
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