Today’s letter in the Really Like This Book podcast series A-Z is I, and I have moved out of fiction, and to the intriguing biography by Molly Izzard, of the Middle Eastern traveller and woman of letters, Freya Stark. Stark made her name in the 1930s as the first western woman to travel in some very remote regions since the legendary Gertrude Bell, and also for being the first westerner to map and survey various parts of modern Iraq and Iran. She was awarded various prizes by the British Royal Geographical Society, and was fast becoming a legend in her own lifetime, as an intrepid woman explorer and as a writer, when the Second World War broke out. During this conflict she became even more famous for her intelligence network of propagandising pro-British supporters in Cairo and points further East, and continued to write her successful books, of travel and reminiscence.
Molly Izzard came across Freya Stark’s books when she was herself living in Egypt. She was full of admiration for Freya’s achievements, until she was rather surprised to be told by another famous British traveller and explorer, Wilfrid Thesiger, that Freya was nothing special, and had been hyped beyond anything she deserved. This disjunction, a very positive public impression contrasted with authoritative private reservations, led Molly Izzard to look into Freya’s actual achievements, in the context of history, geography, Freya’s diaries and the work of other surveyors at the time. She began to realise that the legend of Freya Stark was very carefully constructed indeed, with a large number of facts glossed over or unsaid because they did not suit Freya’s own ideas about her own history.
This biography is in many ways a debunker of the legend but not in the usual manner. Freya Stark WAS a great explorer of her day and WAS important and innovative in the intelligence work she did for the British during the war. Izzard shows that she was also ruthless, a fantasist, unscrupulous and very selfish. Freya was an important figure in feminist history for her independent achievements within a patriarchal system. She was also a user of women and monopoliser of men. This isn’t so serious, on the scale of things, but her personal behaviour, and her selective lack of scruples, are rather off-putting. Her conduct, in terms of how she manipulated the system and took advantage of people, and avoided taking responsibility herself, is increasingly irritating, as we are led through her story, and during the war it becomes simply outrageous. By halfway through this biography I was appalled at Freya’s behaviour, but also bewildered as to how I was supposed to feel about her.
This is a fascinating biography in two ways. The first is what we learn about Freya Stark, her work, her historical context, and about what happened in her life. The second is how the biography is written, and the subjectivity of the biographer. I don’t mean that Molly Izzard is too subjective, but that reading this biography forces you to think about the process of biography, and about what we choose to remember, and what we want to be told about a person.
Most biographies start at the beginning, usually with the meeting of the subject’s parents, or even their grandparents, and then go on through life until the subjects die. There might be a coda of afterlife, an assessment of the subject’s achievements and influences, and a suggestion of some kind of figurative rebirth. The biographer is very rarely present, the narrative is related anonymously and if any personal or subjective opinion appears, it often feels like an intrusion. We don’t expect a biographer to give us their personal views. A memoir is different: in a memoir a specific person is doing the remembering, and the memoir is all about their subjective opinions. In this biography of Freya Stark, Izzard moves between memoir and biography, but also writes as an investigative reporter.
She begins three-quarters of the way through Freya’s life, with a description of their meeting, and then the story moves back to when Freya had just achieved her first fame, in the mid-1930s, and thereafter carries on until the end of the war. This takes up most of the book, and Izzard finishes with a triumph of detective work that reveals the truth of Freya’s ancestry, her relations with her father, her mother, her sister, and her Italian brother-in-law. These dynamics shaped Freya into the explorer and independent spirit that she became. Izzard also suggests that Freya was a suppressed lesbian, but I am unconvinced by this. So there are a lot of facts presented in a back-to-front and inverted way, quite contrary to the usual biographical pattern. This is enough in itself to shake up one’s assumptions, and to force a rethink about how a life can be told, and how the way this particular life is being told is giving us information.
Throughout all this, we are expected to already know some of Freya’s works, to know roughly what she did, and most importantly, to accept her as being a famous and admirable person. She had, after all, been given a Damehood, the equivalent of a knighthood, by the Queen. Her connections to twentieth-century British life and letters are social rather than cultural: Freya knew the son of Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning when she was a child, she lost a friendship battle to Ivy Compton-Burnett after the First World War, and she was a friend of the British Queen Mother in her old age. But what if you don’t know any of that cultural background? What if you’ve never heard of Freya Stark, and might be interested, perhaps, in reading the book because it’s an account of the end of British imperialism in the Middle East, and describes the background to modern Iranian and Iraqi politics?
Izzard knows this area intimately, since she too worked in Intelligence in the war, and lived in the Middle East for some decades. Her account (and here we are certainly in memoir territory) is of how the British imperial machine was beginning to lose touch with politics, by failing to recognise that there were new states emerging from the dying British empire. In the context of Freya’s activities, this presents Freya not as an unreliable and unprofessional operator, in imperial administrative terms, but as an iconoclast and a rebel against the state. It’s an abrupt change of perspective, and it certainly makes you think harder about exactly what Freya was doing when she was busily organising pro-British propaganda activities: was she perhaps thinking further ahead, past the end of Empire and the need for some pro-British residual feeling in these areas, for the times to come when Britain would need the goodwill of Iraq and Iran?
Freya’s sheer audacity comes through again and again in this book. She was mischievous and anarchic, as well as being an imperious grande dame. She was an opportunist and was at times a hypochondriac and an egotistical monster. Izzard explains a lot of this by explaining Freya’s hideous childhood accident when she was nearly scalped by a factory machine, and her intensely close relationship with her mother. Freya was deliberately eccentric, and cultivated a persona of Edwardian aristocracy which was quite unconnected to where she came from, but had a lot to do with the people and lifestyle she preferred. Her personal belief systems defy comprehension, but so do the bizarre beliefs of her paternal grandfather, who founded his own Starkite sect of Protestant non-conformists in Devon in the nineteenth century. Even when she was affected by the early stages of senility Freya could still make small talk with strangers in four languages, and revelled in being the Grand Old Lady of the Italian village in which she spent much of her life when not travelling.
Izzard shows us all this, and opens up a box of complicated memories and shuttered experiences. How she tells this story is as important, and revealing, as what she tells us. Both are gripping, and the book is very rereadable, if only because the revelations at the end make you want to start it all over again. I do recommend this book highly.