It is a scandal that so few Americans seem to know of Dame Freya Stark. Hardly a day passes but one English journal or another publishes a fond reminiscence of the great travel writer who died last year at 100 years old. London friends, thank goodness, send them along to me because -- to be admitted up front -- I am writing her biography and it is unfathomable in the extreme that my bewitching obsession has been so ignored on our side of the Atlantic.
Stark, celebrated at her death as the last of the Romantic travelers, crossed the length and breadth of the Middle East, from Lebanon to Afghanistan, from Turkey to Yemen, capturing in prose the people and places she saw with a grace and freshness that inspired a whole generation of travel writers. She possessed a phenomenal will to make the most of all she had -- and what she had turned out to be considerable. It was not money; she never had much -- nor was she a great beauty. But she was loaded with charm and brains. She was also stoic, hypochondriacal, vain, incredibly disciplined -- and above all courageous.
Over the years, Stark wrote 17 travel books as well as four volumes of autobiography, while her letters -- written in whatever bit of shady peace she happened to find in whatever far place -- have been gathered into eight fascinating books spanning more than 60 years.
Reading her books and letters, I began to hanker to visit the lands Stark had known. The trouble was that none of my friends -- and least of all my husband -- were enthusiastic about coming with me to her old stamping grounds, many of which, in this cruel age, are rife with turmoil and terrorism. Instead, my husband began to extol the importance of looking into Stark's early life, which centered on Dartmoor in England's southwest as well as the sunny Italian Riviera. Now these would be nice and safe.
Thus we agreed to a dual-purpose sortie: good inns for Bob, some biographical sleuthing for me. And so we became travelers traveling after a grand old traveler. In the process, besides having a very nice time, we learned that the path to digging up the past does not always run smooth.
Freya Stark was born Jan. 31, 1893, the child of British amateur artists who shuttled back and forth from England to Italy. Her mettle was first tested at 13, when in a factory co-owned by her mother, a steel shaft caught her hair and whipped her into the air. She was wrenched free, but not before losing part of her scalp, an eyebrow and an ear. "The scars got much smaller but have always remained, and were a constant trouble, making me self-conscious and also no doubt spoiling such looks as I might have had," she later wrote.
She began studying Arabic -- just to keep her brain alive, she said -- after a blighted romance during World War I. Suffering from a number of physical ailments, unmarried and beginning to wonder if she wasn't unmarriageable, she spent much of her youth as a semi-invalid until at 34, having acquired just enough income for a prolonged stay, she set off for Beirut in 1927. By 1933, she had won a grant from the Royal Geographical Society for her solitary travels in Luristan and northern Persia. From that moment on, Stark was famous.
One documentary film shows the 86-year old Stark wafting down the Euphrates River on a raft, swathed in veils and uttering Delphic pronouncements on Art, Religion and Old Mesopotamia as the boat slowly swamped. Then there is the BBC telecast of Stark on pony-back climbing through the icy Himalayas, a jaunty crimson bonnet topping her gray head and leather culottes on her sturdy little figure. This at the age of 88. This, where the air is so thin that even the young and vigorous can scarcely breathe. This, when the gallant old dear was so stiff she had to be lifted from the saddle.
But it was her early years we were focusing on, so we started our journey in England. My husband's first goal was Gidleigh Park, a handsome Tudor pile near the town of Chagford in Devon, whose furnishings, food and wine cellar have acquired a well-deserved reputation among seekers of comfort. It coincided nicely with my own desire to visit nearby Ford Park, a house built by Stark's father, Robert. If I were lucky, I might also obtain an interview with an elderly wildlife conservationist who lived on the moor and whose family had known Freya Stark since girlhood.
Things could not have gone better. Our large balconied room was hung with rosy chintz, and the sound of the rushing Teign River below our window accompanied breakfasts of fruit and delicious coffee with fresh-baked croissants. The famous moor, an easy saunter past the hotel's croquet courts and water gardens, was hardly the dark and brooding spot that caused Stark's mother to flee to Italy with her two daughters and leave her husband to his horticultural pursuits. Dappled with sun and sheep, it was a vast sweep of parkland dotted with craggy rock formations called tors and mysterious ruins of Neolithic dwellings. We followed the river through woods that Stark had loved as a child, scattered with bluebells, pink campion and buttercups, all the while listening to country silence and working up an appetite for Devon's famous clotted cream, scones and strawberries.
Ford Park, built at the turn of the century and fondly described in Stark's autobiography, is just a couple of miles from Gidleigh Park. It is now home to a pair of graphic artists, who showed us around enthusiastically, pointing out the Arts and Crafts features designed by Stark's father, a brewer's heir who had enough money to indulge his enthusiasm for architecture and exotic plants. The house was as satisfyingly eccentric as any eager biographer, anxious to see proof of her subject's creative antecedents, could hope -- varying levels, a Gothic column here, an off-center fireplace there. "There's not a straight line in the place," said our host, pouring us big tumblers of Black Velvet, a headily unfamiliar brew concocted from "Guinness stout and very cold champagne." We sat together on the terrace while ducks belonging to the pond Mr. Stark had dug waddled about our feet, and a visit from Freya years ago was recalled. She had taken them gently to task, said our hostess, for letting her father's Nepalese rhododendrons obscure the view, but otherwise showed no particular eccentricities and "was as sweet as can be."
The wildlife conservationist had been alerted to our arrival, and we found him in a rose-covered cottage by a gurgling stream. A slim 75-year-old with intensely blue eyes, he told us wonderful news: He had his mother's picture albums containing photographs of the very cast of characters we had come to learn about. In Stark's autobiography there was only one picture of the author as a young woman, and scant few of the rest of her family; I had assumed that after the accident, cameras had been banned until in later life she had acquired the art of fantastic headgear. Not so. Here was a sweet-faced girl in period dress and a full head of hair (although you could see some careful management on one side.) It was a photographic bonanza -- and he was permitting us to take them home for duplication.
We moved on to London, where my husband set about revisiting favorite restaurants (and discovering new ones), and I ran about capturing as much anecdotal material as I could from a fascinating, but sadly diminishing, band of Stark intimates. As on previous visits, I found them as impressive in their accomplishments as they were in their longevity, and inwardly doffed my cap to Stark for her taste in friends. None was so old that they had played a role in the First World War, as Stark had (she'd been a nurse), nor had any been acquainted with the doctor to whom she was engaged and who had jilted her. But a former editor of the Times discussed her disastrous marriage to a fellow Arabist; she had refused to accept the fact that he was homosexual and went ahead stubbornly ordering pink gossamer underwear from Paris, ensuring a truly ghastly wedding night. From Stark's kindly accountant, I learned she had kept a Colt .45.
Next stop: Italy. One comes to Turin for two reasons: on Fiat car business or to see great baroque buildings. While my husband led me about to admire splendid edifices, I scrutinized faces to assess whether the Piedmontese were dour. Stark had claimed they were. But then she had loathed the chapter of her life spent here and in Dronero, about 40 miles south, where her mother had become involved with a Turinese count and joined him in a carpet-making business. The accident had occurred in their factory.
Compared with the Dartmoor days, Italy had been a threadbare life with little formal education to occupy the mind of a bright child. The family was utterly dominated by the overbearing and egotistical count who, incredibly, proposed marriage to Stark when she was in her late teens. She turned him down -- and he wound up marrying her more passive younger sister, who bore him six children before dying after a miscarriage. Only one of those children survived into maturity, a daughter -- and I longed to find that daughter's son, Freya Stark's only surviving blood relative.
Dronero is a rather worn medieval town dramatically perched over the gorge of the Maira Torrent. The area is a favorite spot for hikers and alpinists, which compensated my husband for spending two nights in a characterless hotel in nearby Caraglio.
From Stark's autobiography, I felt I knew Dronero. I was deeply touched to cross the crenelated 14th-century bridge over which Freya and her sister had skipped to their convent school, to see the memorials to the Italian partisans who hid in the hills, to imagine where Stark's two nephews had been captured -- one killed by the Nazis, one dead in a Soviet prison. Perhaps most moving, in the little cemetery we found the count's family mausoleum -- and there carved in marble were the names of Stark's sister and her children, including the daughter, who had died in 1981. How sad for Freya, I mused, to have marched alone without family to love all the way to 100 years.
We peppered the tiny tourist information office with questions, but they were bewildered by inquiries about long-past events. On then to the dusty office of the mayor. A clerk asked another clerk who remembered a friend who remembered another friend until, eureka! We found ourselves guided back across the bridge to a small unobtrusive factory, the very place where my heroine had been scalped.
We talked to the owner, who had once been married to Freya Stark's niece. They had been divorced in 1953; their only child, a son, now in his thirties, had inherited Freya's house, L'Arma, on the Riviera. But he was a salesman and traveled constantly -- it would be hard to predict if he would be there.
I sipped my tea and tried to remain calm. To my husband's eternal credit, he sat patiently, surrounded by carpet samples, while my quarry's father and I conversed in mangled English, French and Italian. The father had gained this factory through the marriage association, but had long ago lost interest in the Starks -- as, we began to realize, had Freya Stark with him. Therein lay a problem.
The telephone rang. It was the owner's son -- Freya Stark's grandnephew.
My husband and I listened to a torrent of Italian exchanged for some minutes. The old man looked anxious. His secretary cast her eyes to the ceiling. My husband followed suit. Unabashed, I asked for the phone: "Per un secondo, per piacere Signore."
The voice at the other end was cool. He was so sorry. He was very busy. He doubted very much if he would get down to the coast this weekend. Besides, he had had no contact with his great-aunt for the past 25 years.
I was awash in tea and disappointment. So many questions awaiting answers. There was nothing else to do but take our leave, with voluble thanks for the old man's time. Still, earlier he had given me his son's telephone number in La Mortola, the village where L'Arma was located, so there was still a glimmer of hope.
On the glorious drive down through mountain passes, following the road as it slips in and out of France, I thought how important was the information that this young man held. Surely his mother would have told him details of the Stark family's roots. Surely he could shed light on Freya Stark's relationship with his mother, her niece. Freya had left her the house -- but something, it seemed, had come between them afterward.
Suddenly I was excited. This adventure might not be Damascus, it might not be Baghdad, but the trail was heating up. Soon we would be near L'Arma, the villa where young Freya had struggled to earn a living as a flower farmer, developed ulcers and studied Arabic so as not to go mad with despair. My husband drove silently, with a preoccupied air.
Shortly, we came out of the cool air into the indolent heat of the Mediterranean, where Ventimiglia tumbles down to the water in a riot of pink stucco. We turned west, toward the Italian-French border, and settled in an ambrosial spot: an inn surrounded by hibiscus and purple bougainvillea, with a covered patio gently lapped by aquamarine waters. Our crisp white room was not very big, but just right for life lived outside on the spacious veranda furnished with wicker and huge bouquets of flowers. Over a glass of wine, my husband began to lose his preoccupied air. I seized the chance to tiptoe to the bedroom and try the telephone number for L'Arma. No answer.
The next several days were one long, leisurely feast, interrupted by short exploratory ventures: ancient towns clinging impossibly to precipitous bluffs, a stroll along the remains of the old Via Aurelia where Roman armies and Napoleon had passed long ago. In the meantime, I kept trying to spot the house, located on a two-acre plot between a railroad and a highway. I knew it was supposed to be tucked just below the Hanbury Gardens, an arboretum of tropical exotica. We bought tickets to the gardens and while my husband investigated cacti, I hoisted myself onto a wall and teetered high on a wood pile to gain a view. Still, I could not be satisfied that my telescopic camera had found the right house. This was all valuable residential property now, and there were many villas on the hill that had once been only hers. My frustration was acute. Inquiries were unavailing.
On the morning of our departure, with our suitcases and my husband impatient in the car, I tried the number one last time. Again, no answer. There was nothing to do but resign myself to defeat. As we drove through the tunnel and came out into the blazing sunshine on the road just over where the house simply had to be, I shouted: "Stop! Wait!" Suppressing a groan, my husband turned on the emergency flashers and noted that we had just enough time to get to the airport in Turin.
I leapt from the car and, as traffic roared past within inches, leaned over the parapet -- and there was the house. Unmistakable. Cozy and serene, L'Arma was tucked between the road and the railroad. Spotting a workman at the gate, I ran madly, calling in terrible Italian. Would he let us in? No problem, Signora, please follow.
I dashed back to our car, crying, "We must! Just for a second! I have to see it!"
"We'll miss the plane!"
"But we must, we must!"
Wearing an expression of martyrdom, my husband plunged the car down a tortuous driveway (I remembered Stark writing of backbreaking hours lugging scarce water down this cliff) and soon were we standing in my heroine's own little garden. Whereupon, like an avenging phantom, a large gray station wagon bore down upon us.
Out from the car jumped a young man, his dark eyes blazing with indignation as he loosed a broadside in not-at-all-bad English about people with no manners or respect climbing uninvited around other peoples' houses. We stammered and mumbled and smiled inanely. I kept proffering my hand. My husband tugged me backward, whispering urgently: "It's no use. Let's go. The plane." I regarded the handsome young man before us (surely Stark would have been proud of him) through a mist of evaporating hope -- but clearly, the situation was unsalvageable. This was beyond smiles, attempted handshakes or apologies. He wanted us out, out, out.
We made the plane to Turin -- just. And all the while, as the mountain glens and charming villages receded on the drive north, I moaned softly: "But his father did tell us we could look around. He did, you know. You were there. Why should his son have been so angry?"
"But darling, it isn't Freya's house any more. Obviously, there was a falling out. And now you'll probably never know the answer. Especially," my husband turned to look at me severely, "if you persist and write a story about it ..."
Jane Geniesse is a Washington journalist. Her biography of Freya Stark will be published by Random House.