A VOYAGER OUT: The Life of Mary Kingsley by Katherine Frank

A VOYAGER OUT: The Life of Mary Kingsley

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Though largely unheard of in the States, Mary Kingsley, a late Victorian spinster springing from the famous and bizarre literary Kingsleys (and bearing something of a resemblance to Isak Dinesen), is a heroine revered by English children for her fearless journeys about West Africa, her scientific work, and her early death by enteric fever while nursing in Capetown during a typhoid epidemic. Though an untraveled Cambridge recluse until 30, and dead at 37, she became briefly a celebrity and best-selling author for her books Travels in West Africa and West African Studies. She also came within four days of being a bastard, when her dashing, globe-trotting sportsman father George Kingsley--a kind of society doctor--decided to be a gentleman and marry her cockney mother, his servant. Completely neglected by him, Mary's mother retired to bed for the rest of her life. Mary became her nurse, was self-educated by secretly reading the family library, expressed some of her liveliness by raising fighting cocks, but mostly went nowhere and suffered severe self. effacement, having ""no personal individuality of my own whatsoever. I have always lived in the lives of other people. . .[and] now and then sit and warm myself at the fire of real human beings."" Then, as she was turning 30, both of her parents died, and she was reborn, almost leaping into her father's empty saddle. For her, Africa became her heart. Her first voyage out, to the Canary Islands, brought her only briefly into touch with British West Africa but gave her her first deep taste of the tropics. Her second voyage, to the Coast and following the equator to the French Congo, awakened her to human sexuality as she might never have been awakened back in England, for she died a virgin. Her third voyage found her traveling the Ogooue River and gathering material about, among other things, native African women, whom she admired and described extensively, especially the Fang people. She went into forests and swamps never before seen by Europeans, caught both recurrent malaria and an interest in fetishism. Back in England, though never a feminist, she nonetheless wrote, lectured and campaigned for greater understanding of the Africans. Beautifully written, with a certain cheeriness and sense of the brilliance and briefness of life in Africa, as it struck Kingsley and was reported by her.

Pub Date: Sept. 26th, 1986
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin