by Catherine Petruccione

#101, 13 August 2007

Sharing an Adventurous Life

The Books of Freya Stark

BookThink's Author Profiles

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"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.

Questions or comments?
Contact the editor, Craig Stark

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