“Passionate Nomad,” written by Jane Fletcher Geniesse was a selection of the Chautauqua Literary and Scientific Circle (CLSC) for the year 2000-2001. The CLSC is the oldest Book Club in America, founded in 1878. I was happy that the choice that year introduced me to a fascinating lady, Freya Stark, who lived to be 100 years old until she died in 1993. She was highly regarded in her day as a travel writer and explorer, an occupation not usually open to women. She was able to chronicle her travels in her four-volume autobiography as well as eight volume of letters which were published by her editor friend, Jock Murray.
Quote of Freya Stark
When Freya was 13, she had a frightful accident in a factory that was partially owned by her mother. Somehow, Freya was pulled into the machinery by her hair, which left the right side of her head severely scarred. After several operations, her disfigurement was less noticeable, but she was afflicted with low self-esteem, adding to her sadness because she always felt that she was not beautiful to begin with.
Freya had no formal education as a child because her parents moved about all the time. They were bohemian artists who felt no need to settle down. Freya spent much of her early life on the road with them, traveling between France, Italy and the United Kingdom. They were British citizens, but Freya was born in Paris. It wasn’t until she was 33 years old that Freya was able to pull herself away from the subservience that her mother demanded, including a suitable marriage. Instead, she struggled to learn Arabic, in order to allow herself to travel to the Middle East by offering her services to the British government in their Ministry of Information.
The Middle East
Freya became the first European woman to journey into Luristan in western Iran, and she rediscovered the ancient Arabian port of Cana. She was inducted into the Royal Geographical Society at a time when women were not given that honor, and received the title of Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire, which is the equivalent of knighthood for a woman.
Having resisted her mother Flora’s efforts to push her into marriage, she did enjoy being courted about by men. It wasn’t until she was in her fifties that she married an old friend, Stewart Petrowne, even though her friends warned her that Stewart was homosexual. Her naïve background did not include any knowledge of that topic. Of course, their marriage did not last, and the couple always remained friends.
Freya was viewed as charming but eccentric. She often took advantage of the generosity of her friends and stayed in their homes during her travels. She charmed others with her stories and her personality, and they were always willing to forgive her for her unconventional ways.
Jane Fletcher Geniesse, the author of “Passionate Nomad,” stated in the epilogue that she did not know until after her book was published that Freya Stark had been born illegitimately. Freya herself learned the fact when she was 59 years old that her father was her mother’s secret lover, rather than Robert Stark, whom she always believed to be her father.
Freya Stark had a remarkable life for a woman during the time when she lived. She was a complex, driven woman welcomed into powerful circles even in remote parts of the world. Many of her trips took her to remote areas in Turkey and the Middle East where few Europeans, particularly women, had traveled before. The author Geniesse claims that Freya was a woman whose ambition and lifestyle were actually born of a profound emotional insecurity.
Even in her seventies and eighties, Freya was constantly on the move, riding down the Euphrates on a raft, or crossing Afghanistan in a jeep or traveling through Nepal on horseback. She often travelled alone and in dangerous terrains, either by vehicle, camel or donkey. Her final years were spent in the town where she first lived with her parents - Asolo, in northeast Italy, a hill town near Venice.
It was a pleasure to meet Freya Stark with whom I would probably have developed a fine friendship - a kindred soul who dared to go where the rest of us are contented just to dream about going.
Amazon Price: $23.99 Buy Now
(price as of Jan 31, 2016)