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Monday, October 21, 2013

Improbable Women: Exploring Women Explorers of the Middle East

The subjects of  Improbable Women by William Cotterman are women from wealthy families who were explorers in the 18th and 19th centuries. This was an era when ladies like these were supposed to be homebodies or charitable lady bountifuls if they engaged in any activity. This unconventionality made them seem very interesting to me.  I had heard of all of them, but had never read anything about them. So I appreciated the fact that the publisher Syracuse University Press made this available for download on Net Galley.


I saw a review on Goodreads which criticized Cotterman for including the ancient Queen Zenobia of Palmyra as an indulgence on the part of the author because there is no evidence included in the book that all of his explorer subjects were keenly interested in Queen Zenobia as he claimed.    Freya Stark did write about  Queen Zenobia in  Rome on the Euphrates, but it seemed to me that Isabel Arundell Burton only went to the ruins of Queen Zenobia's Palmyra because her husband, Sir Richard Francis Burton was going and they both wanted to prove that an El-Mesrab tribe escort was unnecessary.  So I thought the comment that Queen Zenobia wasn't quite relevant to this study was a fair one, but I was nevertheless delighted that she had been included because I wanted to know more about her.

When I was looking for European women in Syria who had been associated with Queen Zenobia and Palmyra, I found a page dealing with Middle Eastern Hotels With A History  that included a story about the Baroness d'Andurin who  purchased the Zenobia Hotel near the ruins in Palmyra, renamed it La Reine Zenobia and dressed as Queen Zenobia.  Now there was a woman who was fascinated with Zenobia.  Yet I think that if I really want to know more about this Queen who challenged the Romans, I should probably read Palmyra and its Empire: Zenobia's Revolt Against Rome by Dr. Richard Stoneman.

 Hester Stanhope, the first of these women explorers, is definitely my favorite.  Her father, the Earl of Stanhope, supported the French Revolution and wanted to give up his title. He removed the coat of arms from his gates and decided to call his home Democracy Hall.  I found his eccentricity delightful, but he was ironically a rather authoritarian parent.  (It's Jacobin irony.  As is well known, the Jacobins ended up being extremely undemocratic when they achieved power. This is why the Scarlet Pimpernel, an English hero who rescued the French aristocrats from their totalitarianly inclined government, has so much appeal to the democratically inclined even though his creator was no democrat.) Yet Hester Stanhope's  life certainly shows that she could be as eccentric as her father had been in her own way.

I was unimpressed by what Cotterman tells us about Jane Digby.  Her life seemed to be largely a catalog of her romances which often seemed to illustrate poor judgment.

The section on Isabel Arundell Burton also deals with her husband, Richard Francis Burton.  I learned about Burton marrying women in India in order to learn their languages. This was apparently a practice of the English during the Raj.  The women were called "walking dictionaries". When I searched for  "walking dictionary in India under the Raj", my top result was a historical fiction called The Sleeping Dictionary by Sujata Massey which seems to be about a woman who played that role .  I have an ARC of this novel and hope to get to it eventually.  My perception of Burton is that he always wanted to be the first Englishman to do what no other Englishman dared to do.  I find it unlikely that he was a sincere convert to Islam, but there is considerable disagreement about this issue among scholars. There is a very interesting article on this subject by John Wallen in The International Journal f Applied Linguistics and English Literature called "Sufi, Christian or Buddhist? Richard Francis Burton's Parameters of Belief " .  There are many approaches to Richard Francis Burton, so I decided to give my readers a peek behind the hood of Wikipedia. Articles have pages called "talk sections" in which inaccuracies and controversies are discussed.  Anyone can access them by clicking on the talk tab next to the article tab at the top of every Wikipedia page.   The Wikipedia Talk Section on the Richard Francis Burton Article should give readers an idea of all the controversies that surround this rather colorful historical personage.

Isabel claims to have been in contact with a gypsy named Hagar Burton who predicted her marriage to Richard Francis Burton,  but he searched for Hagar Burton whenever he ran across gypsies and never found her. Isabel also claimed to have the prediction in Romany, but a gypsy tribe named Burton probably would be Travelers of British origin rather than true Rom.  So if Hagar Burton did exist, it's very likely that she wouldn't have been able to write a prophecy in Romany.

After her marriage to Burton, Isabel traveled with him and helped to obtain diplomatic positions for him. She was in Brazil with Burton when he became the British Consul to Brazil in 1864. They lived there until 1867.  Due to my interest in the history of Brazil, I would love to know more about this period in Burton's life.  I did find an archival copy of Burton's memoir of his experiences in Brazil at .The link I provide accesses the first volume of the memoir.  There is a second volume also available at .

Yet frankly, I didn't find Isabel very admirable. She had some Lady Bountiful projects such as sheltering abused animals and giving medical care to the poor.  It's important to realize, however, that not only didn't she have medical credentials, she had no training in nursing.  Burton was afraid that she might harm someone, though that apparently never happened.  It also bothered me that Isabel claimed to be Jane Digby's friend, yet she and her husband were involved in undermining the business of the El-Mesrabs which was the family that Jane Digby joined when she married an El-Mesrab. I felt that Isabel was not being loyal to Jane Digby if indeed she was Isabel's friend.  I should also disclose that  before I read about her in Cotterman's book, the only thing I knew about Isabel is that she burned Burton's unpublished writings after his death.  I couldn't forget this as I read about her. One of the courses I'm taking this semester in library school is the Intellectual Freedom Seminar.  I have a tremendous antipathy toward book burning.

Gertrude Bell, another of Cotterman's subjects, had an aunt and uncle with a house in Teheran.  She stayed with them and learned Farsi. She was a climber, an archaeologist and did a great deal of interesting political work, but Cotterman seemed too interested in her unhappy romances.

Freya Stark was the last and most recent of the women covered in this book.  She traveled in the Middle East a great deal, but she was sent there as a propagandist for the British because she knew Arabic.  At one point, she was assigned to speak in the U.S. to convince Americans to support the British Mandate in Palestine.  She said that she'd rather be fighting Italian guerrillas.  I've been reading about how Jewish intelligence operatives played an important role in helping the British gain control of Palestine.  Readers who want to learn more should access this article on the NILI spy group. The British Mandate betrayed the expectations of both the Jews and Arabs who helped to bring it into existence. Freya Stark may have been an excellent propagandist, but this tour to gain acceptance for the British Mandate in Palestine must have been a notable failure.

After reading Cotterman's study,  I will want to read full scale biographies of both Hester Stanhope and Gertrude Bell.  I know that there are excellent books on both women.  I think that the main value of  Improbable Women is to whet the interest of readers, so that they will want to find out more.