The Life of Freya Stark

By Jane Fletcher Geniesse

Random House. 402 pp. $27.95

Reviewed by Dennis Drabelle

Sometimes it's just as well not to know too much about an admired figure. Dame Freya Stark had long been a favorite of mine: by all appearances a brave and dogged explorer who resorted to disguise when necessary to gain access to restricted parts of the Muslim world, a scarred woman who compensated for her lack of beauty by wielding a formidable charm, a sharp-eyed observer of cultural differences, a hardy soul who lived to be 100 (dying in 1993), a writer of exuberant, witty travelogues that are the literary equivalents of top-notch champagne.

Some of these attributes have withstood Jane Fletcher Geniesse's fine biography, but not all. Geniesse shows that at times Freya Stark committed follies that obliged the British government to step in and save her. Such was her appeal and luck, however, that the public put a glamorous spin on these incidents -- a dramatic rescue was thought to prove the mettle of the party who had flung herself in harm's way.

As with other 20th-century British adventurers and explorers of the Mideast -- Bertram Thomas, St. John Philby and Wilfred Thesiger come to mind -- it was the fall of the Ottoman Empire and the consequent opening of previously closed regions to outsiders that allowed Stark to set her course. She prepared for a lifetime's travels by studying Arabic, on her own and with a tutor, for seven years. She was late in shoving off, however, because of her attachment to her overbearing mother, Flora, who had separated from Freya's father and gone into business with Mario di Roascio, an Italian nobleman and the husband of Freya's sister. Mario and Flora schemed idealistically and endlessly to boost the economy of Dronero, the provincial seat of his family, by employing local workers in a rug- and basket-making venture. It was on an inspection tour of their factory that Freya, then 13, had been disfigured. Her long hair got caught in a piece of machinery, and, as Geniesse tells it, "she was yanked violently toward the ceiling. Mario extricated her by grabbing her legs, but the cost was high: Half her scalp was ripped off, including her right ear; the right eyelid was pulled away; and all the tissue around her temple exposed." Long afterward, until she could take advantage of progress in plastic surgery, Stark was rarely seen in public without a hat.

By the time she broke free of her mother and that everlasting factory, Stark was well into her thirties, unmarried, ravenous for the life of adventure she had been working up to for so long. She went to Beirut, then Damascus, on her own. In both cities she found she could roam more or less at will because, "contrary to rumor, she had learned that Islamic tradition treats women with exquisite respect." But she came down with colds, dysentery and other maladies, foreshadowing a long history of intermittent convalescence. She traveled among the Druze, a heretical Muslim people who, she discovered, were distantly related to one of the world's fabled sects: the original Assassins, hashish-consuming (hence their name) terrorists in 11th- and 12th-century Persia. In one of those leaps of will that can make a career, she decided that her destiny was to visit Persia (now Iran) and uncover traces of the Assassin culture.

The result, published in 1934, was her first book and perhaps her masterpiece, The Valley of the Assassins and Other Persian Travels. The emphasis should probably be on the Other Persian Travels, for the trip to Assassin country takes up only a fraction of the book (and yet she scored one of her greatest coups there: finding the ruins of an Assassin stronghold whose whereabouts had been unknown to Westerners). It's an adventure story -- if Stark and her guides hadn't returned from a trip to Persian Luristan by a different route from the one they took on the way in, they would have been ambushed and killed -- as well as a vehicle for wise and fresh observations that flow naturally from her experiences, such as this paean to a common but seldom-noticed aspect of moving through high country: "A little narrow valley, coming down from the north-west, opened up into ours at the end of the defile, and showed at its head behind us a bit of the cliff table-top of Barazard, to which we had looked across all day yesterday as we came down from our pass. This meeting and meeting again, from different points and in other lights, of the same landmarks, is the charm of hilly travel. The mountain shape, first seen as a dream in the distance, alarming as you approach, lost perhaps altogether as you become involved in its outworks and ramifying valleys, appears again suddenly, unexpected as some swift light on a face beloved to which custom has blunted our eyes. Like a human being, the mountain is a composite creature, only to be known after many a view from many a different point. . . ."

In 1935 Stark embarked on another search for a lost (to Western eyes, anyway) site of ancient fame: Shabwa, in what is now Yemen, the city of the Queen of Sheba, who is mentioned in both the Old Testament and the Koran as having bedazzled King Solomon and his court. On this trip, miles from nowhere, Stark contracted dysentery. Unfortunately, Geniesse writes, "Freya had acquired a habit from previous travels of medicating herself with great gusto but utter innocence." She combined a prescription for dysentery with medicine for the malaria she thought she might also be suffering from, and her heart began racing furiously. The pharmacist who had given her the pills was sent for and arrived in time to administer a shot that saved her life. Ten days later, the Royal Air Force swooped down to lift her out. Paradoxically, the evacuation only enhanced Stark's image: From that day forward Freya was firmly established in the public mind as an intrepid traveler, braving alone what few others would dare. Never mind that she had failed to reach Shabwa, while a rival explorer, a German photographer, had got there and back without mishap. Two years later another bout of dysentery ended with a second rescue by plane, this one borrowed from oil surveyors in Arabia. The episode inspired a bit of doggerel that circulated in British diplomatic circles: "Evacuate! Evacuate! A maiden most immaculate!"

During World War II Stark acted as an impromptu intelligence agent and was an effective spokesperson for British interests among the Mideast intelligentsia. But her hope to parlay these services into a diplomatic career came to naught -- her knack for getting what she wanted by circumventing channels and heaping on the charm did not sit well with bureaucrats, who, Geniesse notes, "had lost patience with Miss Stark's famous prodigalities and ingenious machinations at government expense."

There were other journeys, other books, including The Gates of Southern Arabia and four volumes of autobiography. Stark's longstanding desire to be married was finally fulfilled when she was 54, but her husband was homosexual, and the union lasted only a few years. Against her editors' wishes, she departed from the travel-book format that had made them a great deal of money to write a series of prose-poems called Perseus in the Wind (1948). She was right, and they were wrong: The book became a critical and commercial success.

Showered with honors, including a designation as dame commander of the British Empire, Stark spent the last phase of her life in Asolo, Italy. Unaccountably, Geniesse skimps on this period, squeezing three decades into five pages. Otherwise, her book is shrewd, gracefully written and thoroughly researched. Reading it has sent me back to the small collection of Stark's lively books in my library and whetted my appetite to get and read more, and for that I am grateful. But is this benefit enough to overcome the pang of my broken illusions? I'm not sure.

Dennis Drabelle is a Washington writer and editor.