Dame Freya Stark was a prolific British travel writer dubbed the ‘poet of travel’ and the last of the Romantic travellers. Publishing 30 volumes of travel writing, memoirs and essays during her life, Stark’s writing was noted for having an empathetic approach to the indigenous peoples and cultures she encountered on her travels.
Born in 1893 in Paris to bohemian parents, Stark spent her childhood travelling between Italy and England with her parents and sister, Vera. When she was 13, Stark suffered a traumatic injury when her hair got caught in a machine, causing severe damage to her scalp and ear, which left Stark with permanent scars on her face for the rest of her life. Perhaps due to an insecurity about the scars, throughout her life, Stark was famed for her fabulous hats.
Although Stark had little formal education and didn’t come from money, she learned multiple languages in her youth, including German and Italian, and would become fluent in Arabic, Persian, Turkish and Russian as an adult. Stark went to London in 1912 to study for a degree at Bedford College in London, but her education was interrupted by the outbreak of World War I. Stark went on to become a Red Cross nurse in Europe to help with the war effort.
After the war finished, Stark returned to Italy and began to teach herself Arabic. Following the death of her sister after a miscarriage and desperate to escape her life in Italy, in 1927, at age 34, Stark set off for Beirut to travel around the Middle East.
Gertrude Bell had already forged the way for women to travel in the Middle East with an entourage, but Stark favoured a simpler approach, travelling unaccompanied, and speaking with the people who lived in the country, in their own language, to learn about the authentic experience of each place she visited.
Soon Stark also found that she could exploit the preconceptions about her gender to her advantage: she pretended to be less intelligent than she was in order to get what she wanted, and her gender allowed her to discover undocumented parts of society in the Middle East. For example, when travelling through Iraq, Stark gained access to women living a harem, getting insight into the women’s lives.
It’s important at this point to acknowledge the colonial context Stark was travelling in. As much research as Stark did, her knowledge was still rooted in orientalist knowledge of the time; Stark believed in the superiority of the British Empire and was hostile towards nationalistic movements. But this didn’t discount her empathetic writing. In an evaluation of Stark’s output, Cynthia Young finds that despite Stark’s political beliefs, a ‘non-critical acceptance and respect of cultures’ prevails in her writing.
In 1934, Stark’s first book The Valley of the Assassins was published, documenting her travels through the wilderness of Iran, where very few Westerners had visited before. The book followed Stark on an adventure to find the Valley of the Assasins, the fabled base of the cult of Assassins, and locate an ancient fortress.
Stark’s flair for turning her travels and observations about the modern Middle East into a thrilling quest was replicated in 1936’s The Southern Gates of Arabia and 1940’s A Winter Arabia. Stark was also noted for the high standard of her prose: she took a novelistic approach to describing the landscape and replicating her dialogue with the people she came into contact with.
Stark put her travels on hold at the outbreak of the Second World War and went to work for the Propaganda Section of the British Ministry of Information as an Assistant Information Officer. Stark organised the Brotherhood of Freedom in Cairo, which was a group of Allied sympathisers who lobbied the Egyptians to side with the British during the conflict.
In Egypt, Stark met Stewart Perowne, a British civil servant. Despite Perowne being widely known to be gay, he and Stark married in 1947, but they divorced five years later. Stark did not remarry.
Impressed with her wartime performance in Egypt, Stark was dispatched to the United States of America in 1942 to lobby for the UK government’s position against the creation of a Jewish state in Palestine. These views were not popular in America. Stark didn’t believe that she was anti-Jewish but campaigned for consent from the people of Palestine before a mass migration happened.
After the Second World War ended, Stark turned her attention to travelling through Turkey, Central Asia and China, publishing work including Alexander’s Path (1958) and The Minaret of Djam (1970). In her post-war career, Stark’s books became more concerned with exploring classical civilization, rather than documenting her adventures. In Alexander’s Path, for example, Stark followed Alexander the Great’s journey through Turkey.
In addition to her writing skill, Stark’s contributions to cartography – through marking unknown villages and other landmarks while exploring Asia – earned her a Royal Geographical Society award.
At age 75, Stark undertook her last adventure: travelling to Afghanistan to see a recently discovered minaret from the Middle Ages. Stark died in 1993 in Italy, a few months after turning 100.
©The Heroine Collective 2020 – Present, All Rights Reserved. Every effort is made to ensure our articles are as accurate as they can possibly can be, but if you notice a factual error, please do be in touch. We only use images we believe are either in the public domain or images we believe we are able to use for illustrative, editorial and non-commercial purposes. If you believe one of our images is being used incorrectly, please be in touch. References include Respect, Postcolonialism and the Travel Writing of Freya Stark’ by Cynthia Young // Stalking Freya Stark by Jane Geniesse // The Inspiring Legacy of Freya Stark by Salma Abdelnour Gilman.