PASSIONATE NOMAD by Jane Fletcher Geniesse


The Life of Freya Stark
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Former New York Times reporter Geniesse offers an excellent, psychologically astute chronicle of the adventurous life of Dame Freya Stark (1893—1993), who became a female Lawrence of Arabia. Stark’s exotic explorations in the Middle East brought her international renown. She had a miserable family life: her overbearing mother left Freya’s father for an Italian count, who would later marry Freya’s sister. Geniesse describes this suffocating domestic atmosphere in vivid detail, arguing that it helped trigger Stark’s desire for a life of picturesque adventure. At age 13, Stark was disfigured in a horrible industrial accident. She began studying Arabic in London and in her mid-30s finally moved to Lebanon. Stark immediately fell in love with the Middle East, becoming “fascinated by the ancient hatreds among” the region’s different tribes and religious sects. As an Arabist proud of her British heritage, Stark was in the difficult position of justifying British colonialism to the freedom-loving natives. During WWII, she worked for Britain’s Ministry of Information in the role of propagandist. She collaborated with native groups in Egypt and Iraq, drumming up support for the Allied powers. Her early books on Yemen and the ancient cult of the Assassins won her plaudits from the public and the Royal Geographic Society. Despite her growing fame, her personal life remained unfulfilling. She fell in love with a British colonial officer who “brusquely rejected” her. After the war, she married a minor colonial official who, after their wedding, admitted he was a homosexual. Geniesse explores Stark’s fascinating psychological makeup, her mixture of insecurity and total fearlessness. Throughout, the author skillfully details the people, places, and ideas that shaped her subject’s life. Although Stark could be amazingly kind to Iraqi Bedouins or Druze tribesmen, she took the smallest slights to her dignity as personal affronts. A worthwhile, stylish, and thoroughly researched biography of a fascinatingly complex, often exasperating woman. (b&w photos, maps, not seen)

Pub Date: Oct. 1st, 1999
ISBN: 0-394-58396-5
Page count: 400pp
Publisher: Random House
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 1st, 1999


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