Freya Stark: the last of the great Victorian travelers
She has plunged into the darkest reaches of Persia and Afghanista long before many could have pointed them out on a map. She has crisscrossed the bleak Hadramut of Saudi Arabia and retraced the footsteps of Alexander the Great. She has traveled -- mostly alone -- through Greece and Turkey, Iraq and Syria and knows most of these countries better than her native England. She is, according to writer Lawrence Durrell, "one of the most remarkable women of our age."Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
Now 88, Dame Freya Stark has become a legend in her time. She is the last of the great Victorian travelers. And fortunately for the world about her, she has combined her skills as traveler, writer, and commentator to produce over 20 travel books considered by many to be masterpieces of travel literature.
Dame Freya still harbors the youthful zest for travel that has taken her across dozens of remote lands. Two years ago, she achieved a lifelong dream of sailing down the Euphrates on a raft.
And in February this year, the intrepid Dame Freya joined a small expedition to climb the treacherous trail up the Himalayas from Katmandu. In typical modesty, she remarks that her venture was not really true mountain climbing. "I just sat on my little pony and went up and up," she says, beaming.
Dame Freya now lives in Italy but returns to England twice a year "to keep up with my friends." On her last trip, we met at London's Overseas League. A tiny figure greeted me -- a complete stranger -- with a hug and a kiss on both cheeks. In a nearby tearoom, she talked about her full and varied life.
"My two greatest riches are the enjoyment of landscape and the knowledge of the peoples of the world," she says with a warm smile. "And my favorite landscape is the desert. For one thing, the quality of light is so exceptional. And for another, the desert makes me feel wonderful."
But above everything, she believes the most important thing is contact with people. This is only possible when you know the language. "Before I visited any new country, I tried very hard to learn the language," she states. "Without language, you lose half the pleasure of traveling." Over the years she has mastered Arabic, Persian, Turkish, and Russian, adding these to four other languages -- English, German, Italian, and Polish -- she learned as a child.
Freya Stark's books tell much about her travels and as much about the woman. Vivid descriptions of sights and sounds are interlaced with snippets of Starkian wisdom.
"Absence is one of the most useful ingredients of family life, and to dose it rightly is an art like any other," she writes in "The Coast of Incense." Later, in "The Lycian Shore," she notes that "there can be no happiness if the things we believe in are different from the things we do."
Every detail of her many journeys is written down in her books. Between the first, "Valleys of the Assassins," written from Persia in 1934, and her most recent collection of letters, she has also turned out two volumes of essays and four of autobiography. The last of these, "Dust in the Lion's Paw," describes her propaganda work with the Ministry of Information during the last war. It was then that Freya Stark launched her most ambitious venture, one she refers to as "my little brotherhood."
"Our job in Egypt was to convince the Egyptian people that we meant to win the war," she points out. "We had to reach as many people as possible, so 12 of us formed a group, called the 'Brotherhood of Freedom,' and organized committees to spread out around the country. In one year, we had the support of over 100, 000 people who wanted to help, and they did in so many ways. It was very touching."