on 28 March 2007
This book, first published over 50 years ago, tells the stories of four European ladies in search of adventure. The tale of Aimee Dubucq de Rivery, given as a sumptuous present to the Sultan of Turkey at the end of the 18th Century, succeeds in painting a picture of a court of exceptional extravagance & extreme barbarity, a world away from the social conformities of western Europe. Aimee's son went on to be the first reformer in the Ottoman Empire.
It was such a very foreign world to me that I went on to read five more books about Turkey, from the Ottomans to Ataturk. It's been an enthralling learning curve.
... to use that sociological term for marrying out of your immediate clan. Lesley Blanch has chosen the lives of four dynamic 19th Century women, all of whom followed "the path less traveled," three voluntarily. Another sub-set of the three left their northern climes for "adventure" and much else on the eastern and southern sides of the Mediterranean. All are worthwhile, even amazing stories. The most unfortunate aspect of the book(s) is (are) the cover(s)! My copy was published by "Abacus," a British publisher, and the edition most readily available through Amazon is available through Da Capo Press. Both feature a languid, passive, bare-breasted woman, in the finest tradition of "Orientalist" crap; just swallow hard, or ripe the cover off, because there is nothing "languid" about these women.
Other reviewers have described the four, so briefly they were Aimée Dubucq de Rivery, the one whose adventure was not voluntary. She was captured by pirates, sold into the Sultan's harem in Istanbul, and became the mother of Sultan Mahmoud II, who helped create modern Turkey. Isabel Burton, the wife, and promoter of Sir Richard Burton, the famous explorer, and linguist, who spoke 28 languages. The one who used her "charms" the most, cutting a broad swath across the rich, powerful, and famous of Europe before establishing herself as the wife of a Sheikh in Syria was Jane Digby, a/k/a Lady Ellenborough. She and George Sand, well, it's certainly not the right expression, and I'm not sure what is, "crossed swords," in sharing Honoré de Balzac. And the last, Isabelle Eberhardt, bedeviled the French colonial administration in Algeria, but was a confidant General Lyautey, and was to die at the age of 27, in a desert flood.
Not only did Blanche make an excellent selection, based on careful research, she writes well, with insight and erudition. Consider the beginning of the chapter on Jane Digby: "There are two sorts of romantics: those who love, and those who love the adventure of loving." Clearly Digby was in the latter category. When she met her husband to be, the Syrian sheikh, she was in her late forties, and Blanche's assessment is: "It is probably that by her wayward life she had acquired a hunger the more pallid Western men could not longer assuage." They were married for 25 years.
There were other women, notably Gertrude Bell and Freya Stark, who made their "mark," and left their own written accounts of their travels and adventures in the Middle East, during the late 19th Century and early 20th. I had previously read about the singular life of Isabelle Eberhardt, but the other three women's stories were completely new to me. Kudos to Ms. Blanche for bringing them to light, and telling their story so well. As other reviewers have indicated, Ms. Blanche is also a remarkable woman in her own right, vigorous to the end, at 102. A solid 5-star read.
(Note: Review first published at Amazon, USA, on March 31, 2010)
Couldnt put this down - biographies of four women who 'belonged to the West but dared to turn to the East for adventure and love.'
Thus such famous travellers as the more academic Lady Hester Stanhope are excluded, as the author focusses on more romantic tales.
Isabelle Burton's fevered love and devotion to her explorer husband.....Isabelle Eberhardt, child of a dysfunctional Russian emigre family, and her short and weird, hashish-fueled life in the Algerian desert.....and English aristocrat Lady Ellenborough, who worked her way East through a series of lovers and husbands to find true romance with her Sheihh.
Perhaps the fourth subject can hardly be said to have 'turned to the East', as she was forcibly abducted by Corsairs as she sailed home from her French convent school. Aimee Dubucq de Rivery ended up wife of the Sultan, but her westernizing influence on her son, the future Mahmoud II, was - the author contends - behind the stance Turkey adopted in numerous political events of the day.
The strict biographer might baulk at the author's use of imagination where she lacks documentary proof - "it is probable that Aimee... sometimes accompanied her son" etc. but I found this an unputdownable read.
on 4 March 2012
While the characters are interesting, the author's old-fashioned and presumptuous writing style detracts considerably from the pleasure of reading about them. You will frequently need your dictionary (and even then you might not find one or two words!), and if you don't speak French then you will also need a French dictionary. She refers to people who you will probably never have heard of but talks as if they are household names. She makes frequent asides which are irrelevant and rather uninteresting. She uses pretentious descriptions, for example, one subject is described as having "a sensuality which was vital rather than languorous, perhaps...". She also uses archaic language, for example "she was brought to bed of a daughter".
So, if it had been written in plainer English, and with more focus, it would have been worth five stars, but if archaic writing is off-putting to you then beware.