Obituary: Dame Freya Stark

Malise Ruthven
Tuesday 11 May 1993 00:02 BST

Freya Madeline Stark, writer and traveller: born Paris 31 January 1893; CBE 1953; DBE 1972; books include The Southern Gates of Arabia 1936, Seen in the Hadhramaut 1938, Letters from Syria 1942, East is West 1945, Traveller's Prelude 1950, Beyond Euphrates 1951, The Coast of Incense 1953, Riding to the Tigris 1959, Dust in the Lion's Paw 1961, The Journey's Echo 1963, The Zodiac Arch 1968, The Minaret of Djam 1970, A Peak in Darien 1976, Rivers of Time 1982; married 1947 Stewart Perowne (died 1989; marriage dissolved 1952); died Asolo, Italy 9 May 1993.

IT IS as the writer of beautifully measured prose, rather than as a traveller or as an exotic 'character' who wore Dior in the wilder reaches of Asia and Arabian dresses in London, that Freya Stark will ultimately be remembered, writes Malise Ruthven.

Her natural talents were evident in the letters she wrote to family and friends, nine volumes of which were published between 1974 and 1988. Composed on the spot, during the siesta hour in the shade of a tree or a Roman arch, they are the sketches which would later be worked into finished canvases. At least two of her pre-war books - The Valleys of the Assassins (1934) and The Southern Gates of Arabia (1936) - are acknowledged classics. They are not so much chronicles of exploration as highly readable and engaging accounts of encounters with people and places. She travelled with Jane Austen, as well as Virgil, in her bag. The characters in her narratives come alive as individuals, illuminated with pleasing shafts of irony or malice. She took full advantage of her sex. 'The great and almost only comfort about being a woman', she observed after one of many crass encounters with male officialdom, 'is that one can always pretend to be more stupid than one is and no one is surprised.'

She had an artist's eye for details of manners and dress, a novelist's ability to recreate dialogue. Her explorations were less significant and her excursions into archaeology less professional than those of Gertrude Bell, her distinguished female predecessor in Arabia and Iraq. But as an ethnographer she was brilliant. She was able to experience and communicate the real life of the people - the poverty, the disease, the chronic insecurity engendered by feuding clans - in a way that escaped the somewhat arrogant, upper-class Bell, who ate alone in her tent. Her disdain for scientific accuracy was more than compensated for by her imaginative strengths, particularly in her capacity for empathising with peoples of different cultural and social backgrounds. She had an instinctive trust in human goodness - an attitude considerably at variance with her professed belief in the superiority of the British Empire and her hostility to nationalist movements. It flowed from a nature that was fundamentally generous, although she was also capable of being vindictive and manipulative.

It was her faith in humankind, more than anything else, that made her an effective propagandist during the Second World War, when she founded the Brotherhood of Freedom in Cairo, a network of Allied sympathisers aimed at convincing the Egyptian people that they were better off with the British devil they knew than with the Axis monster they did not. Her basic premiss was that the people would prefer to be actively engaged in the Allied cause than to be passive recipients of official information, much of it inaccurate. Historians may debate how effective the Brotherhood was in countering Axis influence during the crucial months before El Alamein, when nationalist sentiments, fuelled by resentment at 60 years of the British military occupation, were at their height. Wavell, who encouraged her, thought the brotherhood played an essential part in guaranteeing internal security. Sir Miles Lampson, the British High Commissioner, was less supportive, fearing its commitment to democracy could backfire against British interests. The movement was most successful in Egypt, where it grew to a membership of 75,000 before being suppressed in 1952, shortly before the Free Officers deposed the monarchy. In Iraq, a more intractable society further removed from Axis danger, it never really got off the ground. The British government, however, considered Stark's efforts sufficiently impressive to send her towards the end of the war to the United States to counter Zionist propaganda against the British government in Palestine. In the light of the revelations emerging from Eastern Europe her task was a hopeless one, though she performed it with characteristic panache and good humour.

Freya Stark's post-war travels were mainly in Turkey, though she would visit Afghanistan, Central Asia, China and the Himalayas before, well into her eighties, she finally put her feet up in Asolo, the charming Renaissance hill-town above the Venetian plain that had been her home for most of her life. Increasingly the focus of her interest came to lie away from the concerns of the present and in the past of classical antiquity. Ionia: a quest (1954) and The Lycian Shore (1956) are pleasant forays into Western Turkey before the tourists arrived, where the vigour of ancient Hellenic cities, with their triumphs and quarrels, is contrasted with the neglected but romantic state of their ruins. In Alexander's Path (1958) she traced the great conqueror's route through Southern Turkey, following the same rugged mule tracks taken by the great conqueror and his men in the blistering summer of 632 BC. Her later books - notably Rome on the Euphrates (1966) - became somewhat overloaded with history. She had now become more insulated, by age and affluence, from her human surroundings and they are not so much travel books as meditations on history revealed through landscape.

Despite frequent illnesses, Freya Stark lived to a very great age. Her final years were clouded by loss of memory, and it was a mercy that she was unable to read the first full-length biography by Molly Izzard, published to coincide with her 100th birthday four months ago. Through her research Mrs Izzard uncovered a story that differs significantly from that presented by Dame Freya in her own four volumes of autobiography. Far from exploding a myth, however, Mrs Izzard's version tends to increase one's admiration for a woman whose writings transcend the limitations of mere, mundane fact as heroically as her life defied those imposed by gender, age and time.

(Photographs omitted)

Join our commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in