Harem girl to renowned explorer to Edwardian dowager: the improbable life of “a lady of mystery.”
Barbara Maria Szasz, a Hungarian Transylvanian, was born around 1845. Whether out of financial need or some other reason, her parents placed her in a Turkish harem at the age of four. No dark fate that: as Shipman (The Man Who Found the Missing Link, 2001, etc.) writes, channeling the voice of African explorer Sam Baker, “Growing up in a harem was rather like attending a convent school.” Ten years later, now renamed Florenz, our young heroine was put up for sale in an “elite white slave auction,” where Sam Baker and his faithful Sikh companion Duleep Singh happened to be passing by when the harem-keeper Ali put her on the block. Happily, Ali accepted Baker’s bid against that of the local boss: writes Shipman, now in Ali’s voice, “I cannot send you to the pasha. . . . He is a wicked man, selfish and cruel, and you would hate him. You are going with the Englishman.” Morally opposed to slavery but apparently not opposed to romancing a 14-year-old, Baker took Florence, for so she was now called, off to exotic venues such as Bucharest and Alexandria, where “they drank and ate and laughed their way through the night.” The venues got less romantic when Sam resumed his long passion for African exploration, and then Florence’s knowledge of Arabic and her fearlessness came in handy as they combed the African Great Lakes for secondary sources of the Nile. A good story, but the narrative suffers from cuteness: Shipman’s habit of dramatizing the undramatic with invented dialogue (“Sam has brought me the only freedom, the greatest love, and the most lasting contentment of my life. . . . There is no point in living if he is gone”) makes for often tedious reading.
Of some interest to exploration buffs, though less so than Martin Dugard’s recent Into Africa (p. 202).