The Stolen Woman by Pat Shipman

Escape from the harem: Marianne Brace enjoys the tale of two headstrong lovers who titillated the Victorians
Click to follow

It's the stuff of romantic novels. In 1859 a Transylvanian girl is auctioned by Turkish slave traders. A British man cannot match the winning bid and abducts her. They embark for Africa, meet celebrated explorers Speke and Grant and discover Lake Albert. He is knighted and they're off again, this time suppressing the slave trade. They retire, domestic and doting, in Devon.

The Victorians lionised the crazily brave Sam Baker and deemed his beautiful, devoted spouse a paragon. In Africa Florence endured every discomfort. She starved, her hair fell out, she lay unconscious for days, was shot at and almost died of sunstroke. Yet she remained loyally by her husband's side.

The Victorian public, however, only knew half the story. While there were whispers that the Bakers were "intimate" before marriage, Florence's upbringing in an Ottoman harem was kept secret. There was also the question of her age. When the "barrel-chested" widower rescued Florence, he was 38 and she was 14. Despite having four young daughters himself, he took Florence as his mistress. On returning home they married, lying about her age to avoid a scandal.

In The Stolen Woman, Pat Shipman traces the life of this remarkable survivor. She was a woman of many names: christened Barbara Maria Szasz she was renamed Florenz in the harem. This became anglicised to Florence. Sam nicknamed her Flooey. She was also known as Myadue or Morning Star by an African tribe enchanted with her long golden hair. A Dutch woman encountering Florence in Khartoum in 1862 wrote in her diary: "I hear she has shot an elephant!! She wears trousers and gaiters and a belt and a blouse. She goes everywhere he goes."

Few hard facts are known about Florence's childhood. She was probably born in 1845 to aristocrats from Nagy-Enyed. Caught up in the uprisings of 1848, Barbara Maria and her nanny managed to flee with defeated Transylvanian troops to the Ottoman Empire. Florence's father disappeared, and then her nanny. The four-year-old orphan was raised by the Finjanjian family. Shipman speculates that Florenz was educated with Finjanjian Effendi's daughters in the haremlik (she spoke Hungarian, German and Arabic) and was looked after by her lala (a black eunuch) until puberty.

Sam Baker's flight with Florence to Bucharest, where the fleas were "as big as bantam cocks", proved a taste of the adventures to come. They were living in Constanza when Baker hit on the idea of exploring the White Nile and its tributaries. A friend warned Sam against taking his chère amie. What would become of Florence should he die? But then, what would have become of the lovely 16-year-old, had he abandoned her in some Bulgarian hotel?

During their four years in Africa, carrying Flooey piggyback and knocking mutinous ringleaders to the ground were all in a day's work to Baker. The couple seem delightfully domestic. When Sam isn't hunting hippos he's making shoes, while Florence runs up coats for donkeys. Their parting gifts to one native bigwig include bracelets, sun goggles, a china teacup and a mirror.

The Bakers' dismay at native untrustworthiness, the cruelty of the slavers and the lack of hygiene didn't stop them returning to Africa four years later. The Khedive of Egypt offered Sam £10,000 a year for four years to eradicate the slave trade and open up other trade on the White Nile.

Although better equipped, this second trip seems gloomier. Sam has acquired a reputation for harshness and Florence has morphed into a Victorian memsahib. In letters to her stepdaughters she refers to Sam as "dear papa". She calls the men under his command "horrid brutes" and ends her travels by desiring "never to see a black face again".

Perhaps the issue of slavery resonates too personally. On seeing enslaved women with their master Florence notes in her journal, "I really hate the sight of them... it reminds me of olden times." Accounts of what happens in the traders' zareebas sicken her: "The brutality and cruelty in every way is disgusting. I am sure nobody... would imagine what goes on in some parts of the world."

Ridding Africa of slavery proved an impossible brief. The Bakers had to flee, marching for seven days in pouring rain as their companions were slaughtered around them. Florence carried two bottles of brandy, two umbrellas and her pistol, ready to shoot herself should Sam be killed. She knew what happened to the wives of defeated chieftains.

Shipman's research is rigorous, yet the lack of facts about Florence's early story makes the opening chapters in The Stolen Women rather flimsy. She has to invent. The Bakers endlessly "grin" at one another; their dialogue sounds winsomely American. I baulked at Sir Samuel announcing, "We have gotten so far", or Florence simpering "I guess I wanted to know too much."

Shipman argues, like Bernard Malamud, that all biography is ultimately fiction and that she portrays a deeper truth than can be conveyed by "mere facts". When Florence attends a girl's circumcision, for example, Shipman writes that Florence "felt like screaming and vomiting, wanted to burn down the village with everyone in it". Mere facts might be better.

Shipman does not need to make Florence one of us. Although we recoil at the Bakers' prejudices, we can identify with their emotions. When Sam died, Florence declared, "How can I live, now that my all is taken from me?" Sam took her as his underage paramour but stuck by her. After she was snubbed by Queen Victoria, he wrote a touching letter about his Flooey: "For her I would sacrifice position, wealth, life - everything." How romantic is that!