THE SECRET LIVES OF ALEXANDRA DAVID-NEEL by Barbara Foster

THE SECRET LIVES OF ALEXANDRA DAVID-NEEL

A Biography of the Explorer of Tibet and Its Forbidden Practices
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KIRKUS REVIEW

The authors’ affection for their subject is warmly communicated in this biography of David-Neel (1868—1969), the French Tibetophile who was the first European woman to explore the once forbidden (to foreigners) city of Lhasa. The Fosters already have one biography of David-Neel to their credit (Forbidden Journey, 1987). In their preface to this book, they present it as an entirely revised edition of the earlier one, incorporating information gleaned from additional source materials and interviews. The authors’ characterization of their subject’s many writings—“witty and entertaining”—applies as well to their own. The biography opens as a movie might, on David-Neel’s surreptitious departure from Lhasa in May 1924, after having entered illegally following a perilous journey. Succeeding chapters flash back to her childhood, marriage, and first journeys east, culminating in the great trek by foot to Lhasa. The final chapters on the end of her life, back in France, also review her major writings, which include autobiography, novels, translations of Tibetan texts, and studies of Buddhism. The many epithets used throughout the book, in lieu of the heroine’s name—the seeker, adventurer, pilgrim, scholar, orientalist, iconoclast—give some feel for the scope of her character and work. The authors present her as a Tantric mystic who scorned mystification; an ascetic who laid carpets in her Tibetan cave-dwelling; a radical democrat who, a colonialist still, condescended to her adopted Sikkimese son: in short, as the union of opposites that many deeply religious people are. The authors’ principal concern is that David-Neel be remembered for her part in preserving Tibet’s religious legacy—especially now that it is under attack—through the texts she translated and saved for the West, including Tibetan versions of works no longer available in the original Sanskrit from the early Buddhist philosopher Nagarjuna. From the joint talents of the authors (a librarian and a novelist) comes a winsome biography that takes its subject more seriously than itself. (26 b&w photos, not seen)

Pub Date: May 1st, 1998
ISBN: 0-87951-774-3
Page count: 352pp
Publisher: Overlook
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1st, 1998




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