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4.6 out of 5 stars
4.6 out of 5 stars
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on 24 August 1999
During her "Scandalous Life" Jane Digby was often written about in the popular press and remained a topic for tea time gossip for more than 50 years! Victorian England was fascinated by this unconventional woman who lived her life as she followed her heart and passions across Europe and the Middle East. Her story has so many twists and turns that it needs no embellishments.Mary S Lovell's research on Jane's life relied upon the volumes of diaries and letters she discovered . This brings a validity to her work that other writers have lacked. Jane's experience with the "tabloid press" type stories about her adventures (especially Isabel Burton's exaggerated account written when she thought Jane had died) had to leave her very cynical of potential biographers...but I really believe she would have been very pleased with Mary Lovell's book. The author presented Jane's life without moralizing and judging her and focused on her unique strengths and appreciation of strong personalities without prejudice of any kind. I was fortunate to find a copy of this biography while visiting in Ashburton,Devon, this August.It is out of print here (as "The Rebel Heart") and Mary Lovell's fans hope the publisher will reconsider. I was first introduced to Jane's extraordinary life when I read a biography of her distant relative, Pamela Digby Harriman and the reference was made to the similarities between these two unconventional women. After reading Pamela's life story...I knew I had to find out more about this earlier Digby woman that Pamela felt such a connection with. Mary Lovell has a real flair for writing about strong women characters.
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on 10 October 2004
I came across this book quite by accident and had never heard of Jane Digby before. What a remarkable woman. Her life was extraordinary, considered scandalous for her day, a life which led her from society in England, through Europe and on to spend the last segment of her life, with a man who turned out to be her greatest love, in Damascas and the desert. Truly a woman before her time, talented, smart, well-educated, a gifted linguist and seemingly fearless in the face of the many struggles she endured, often alone, on her chosen path in life. Mary Lovell has written a fascinating account of this remarkable woman. The book is very well written and never dwells too long, instead moving on from childhood through the stages of Jane's life towards the last years she spent with her Bedouin husband in the desert. Jane clearly touched many lives in many ways. Hers was a memorable life and one beautifully and respectfully recorded by Ms Lovell. I can thoroughly recommend this book.
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on 11 February 2003
This is an excellent book, but I have withheld the final star, the reasons for which I shall give.
The life of Jane Digby was so varied, and so at odds with her time, sex and upbringing, that I wonder she has not been covered before more frequently. Evidently a woman who loved often but not well, you learn many interesting things as the author takes you in and out of the scrapes Jane put herself through. One interesting tidbit is the origin of the term 'cad'. This is the stuff I read biographies for!
Mary Lovell had access to an immense amount of documentation during the writing of this book, including the diaries (previously thought lost) of Jane Digby herself. This lends the book a wealth of colour and detail which many biographies cannot match. The author also tries to avoid guesswork in looking at the character and motives of her subject.
My only complaint, and it should not stop you buying the book, is that it is too short and definitely not detailed enough considering the source material. I have the strong suspicion that this is the publisher's fault. The most detailed part of the book is Jane's life from her late forties onwards. I felt that the earlier part of her life, including the eponymous scandal of her first divorce, should have been framed better in its period. There is a danger that Jane comes over as a very 'modern' woman, inexplicably time-warped back to the pre-victorian era. I am left with the feeling that the author has been forced to 'skimp', or that the potential readership has been assumed to be less bright than average. I found this frustrating.
If you liked "Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire", I am sure you will like this. But it isn't quite of the same calibre.
Well worth a read.
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on 7 August 2008
The only book I've read using two bookmarks! The extraordinarily rich biography of Lady Jane Digby whetted my hunger to know everything about her, so the notes were bookmarked as well as the pages.

An aristocratic beauty with a willful character embarks upon a life journey that would quell the courage of some of today's women let alone those 200 years ago! Disgracing her family, she scandalises others while she pursues an adventurous journey towards the arms of a man you'd expect the odds to have been against her having a relationship with then. As we follow her journey, we learn the minutiae of a woman's education, social position and the suffocating expectations she is supposed to dutifully respond to. And, while there is romance, this is more of an adventure story.

The effect on others of her singular behaviour was both to scandalise and impress. More would have been known about her had her nieces not torn up her diaries in shame.

I cried when I finished her story. I had lost a remarkable woman.
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on 19 September 2014
It took me longer to read this biography than I'd imagined it would, mainly because the writing wasn't particularly engaging, but also because so much of Jane's personal material was censored that much of the book reads like a list of events, with little exploration of her character or feelings. This is a real shame as Jane Digby was obviously a fascinating, intelligent, and kind woman, years ahead of her time, and I'd have loved to have read the more personal material to get to know her better. While I respect her family's protective stance, I believe society has, generally, moved far enough forward not to have judged her in the way at least one of them obviously feared we might.

Jane's life was anything but conventional, and I developed a lot of respect for her through reading this book. However, so many questions remain unanswered that I feel slightly cheated. I think the author could have at least expanded her own commentary to make up for the lack of depth. Whilst I enjoyed learning about Jane's adventures, I was, ultimately, slightly disappointed by this book.

3.5 Stars
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on 25 July 2009
I first heard of Jane Digby while visiting Damascus last year and was immediately intrigued by her story so, having enjoyed an earlier work by Mary S. Lovell, I eagerly ordered 'A Scandalous Life' which was recommended by a friend - and I was not disappointed. Like 'Straight on Till Morning", the author's biography of Beryl Markham, this is a thoroughly-researched, entertaining and compelling portrait of a woman who lived an extraordinary (for her time) life. The book also contains a number of interesting black and white photographs and portraits of the people and places that featured prominently in the subject's life. It made me want to travel the 'Jane Digby trail' from her childhood haunt of Holkham Hall in Norfolk to Paris, Munich, Weinheim and Athens where she followed the succession of men who in turn captured her heart; on to Beirut and at last to Damascus and Palmyra where she finally found lasting happiness with her Bedouin sheikh, Medjuel el Mezrab. In later life she exchanged adventures in the bedroom for adventures in the desert among Medjuel's people, for whom she cared and provided generously. She learned to ride and care for camels as expertly as she did horses - seeming at times possess more love for her animals than for most of the numerous children she bore (her last - beloved - child died tragically young). The author hints that after she settled in Syria, Jane Digby may have regretted abandoning her surviving offspring along the way as she did and to me, that speaks of a constant youthful yearning for 'something more' (she was married off for the first time at just 18 years of age to a man considerably older than she). We should bear in mind that 19th century gentlewomen were not nearly as involved with the day-to-day upbringing of children as are modern women. The Victorian age provided the wealthy with wonderful opportunities for adventure and exploration though it was not generally expected that these opportunities would be grabbed by women. Originally seeking lasting love rather than adventure, Jane eventually found both and must have been a remarkable woman (and a talented artist). I would like to have met her!
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on 15 March 2016
Although a well known 'personality' in her day, Jane Digby seems to have slipped into relative obscurity in the present day which is a shame when you consider the amazing life she led.

Born in to the aristocratic Digby family - a family which would later have connections with the Churchills - Jane was notorious for her passionate nature, exceptional beauty and unconventional ways. During her 74 years she married at seventeen; eloped with a prince; married a baron; had affairs with numerous influential men, including the King of Bavaria; and had numerous legitimate and illegitimate children by many of them.

At nearly fifty Jane travelled to Damascus where she met the Bedouin Sheikh Medjuel el Mezrab, eventually falling in love with and marrying him, despite his being 20 years her junior. The last 25 years of Jane's life were by far her happiest, becoming part of a Bedouin tribe which respected her as the wife of their leader and also as a person in her own right. Famed for her knowledge of horses and her riding abilities, Jane's horsemanship earned her great respect from all those who came into contact with her, and her beauty - which even in her sunset years was still remarked upon - ensured she earned her place in a society which ordinarily would never have admitted an outsider into its ranks.

Mary Lovell has written an evocative account of Jane's life, most notably the inclusion of lengthy extracts from Jane's letters and diaries, and those who wrote to her throughout her life. There are interesting snippets of information - my particular favourite being the origin of the word 'cad' - and it's hard not to feel empathy for this young woman who, despite her reputation at the time, was able to rise above it mainly because of her unerring belief and faith in 'true love' which she sought almost obsessively.

There are a few things that prevented me from scoring this higher however. The first half of the book, concentrating on Jane's life before she moved to Damascus, felt very rushed at times almost as though Lovell was desperate to get to the more 'interesting' parts involving Medjuel and Jane's life with him (which despite contemporary accounts, was far from perfect). As a reader, I would have liked to have learnt a little more about Jane's early life and perhaps the way in which those years and the events that happened during them, shaped her attitude as she got older, particularly her first divorce which took place when she was barely 20 and which must have had a deep impact on her given its high profile at the time.

Secondly, the events which take place in Damascus - particularly the feuds and wars which took place between rival Bedouin tribes - was often times very hard to follow. It was also difficult to comprehend the journeys the tribes undertook and in so doing, the distances they covered (which would have equated to thousands of miles over the years). I certainly would have found a map from that time period of great help to me especially when appreciating how arduous it must have been for Jane to begin with, having next to no experience particularly with regards to sleeping in tents, riding camels and coping with the intense heat. And at an age when most women (of that era) were considered elderly.

Overall I did enjoy this and would definitely recommend it, particularly if you're interested in reading about strong, independent women who defied the social conventions of their time; something that we perhaps take for granted these days. And on that basis I would also recommend 'Wedlock' by Wendy Moore, another true account of a strong-willed woman, who was most definitely ahead of her time.
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on 21 April 2009
Other reviews have said what an interesting read this is and I thoroughly agree. It's a gripping tale of a remarkable life led by a very interesting and paradoxical woman.

I would also add to the other positive reviews by saying that in terms of the quality of the biography I take my hat off to Mary Lovell. Jane Digby's story would be easy to sensationalise and speculate about, but Lovell handles the source material skillfully and weaves an excellent narrative that skips along without betraying the factual integrity of the story. She also regularly de-bunks unsubstantiated myths and rumours that persist about Jane.

Jane led a scandalous life by the standards of Victorian England but she never courted scandal for its own sake and wanted to escape her notoriety. I think that she would indeed be pleased with this account of her life!
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on 29 January 2002
Mary S Lovell achieves the difficult task of keeping the narrative flowing novel-style whilst filling in enough historical detail to keep the subject in the context of it's time. A magical story of a woman well ahead of her time - a heroine of the 19th century for all women of the 21st. A Scandalous Life brilliantly conjures images of the romanticism of the east, and leaves the reader yearning for desert trips to the ancient cities of Syria, and desert nights warmed by Bedouin fires.
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on 31 July 2000
What a find! I was so pulled into the decription of this facinating woman's life I could not put the book down. I felt berieved when her life ended. My overall reaction was to begin researching travel to Syria et environs...
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