Husband Stewart Perowne
Villa Freya, Via Guglielmo Marconi, 138, 31011 Asolo TV
Asolo Cemetery, 31011 Asolo TV
Dame Freya Madeline Stark DBE (31 January 1893 – 9 May 1993), was an Anglo-Italian explorer and travel writer. Her father was British. She wrote more than two dozen books on her travels in the Middle East and Afghanistan as well as several autobiographical works and essays. She was one of the first non-Arabs to travel through the southern Arabian Desert.
Stark was born on 31 January 1893 in Paris, where her parents were studying art. Her mother, Flora, was of English, French, German, and Polish descent; her father, Robert, an English painter from Devon. Stark spent much of her childhood in northern Italy, helped by the fact that Pen Browning, a friend of her father, had bought three houses in Asolo. Her maternal grandmother lived in Genoa.
Her parents' marriage was unhappy from the outset, and they separated early in Stark's childhood. Stark's biographer, Jane Fletcher Geniesse—quoting Stark's cousin, Nora Stanton Blatch Barney—claimed that Stark's biological father was Obediah Dyer, "a well-to-do young man from a prominent family in New Orleans". No corroboration of this account, even from Stark herself, is known; she did not make any reference to it in any of her writings, including her autobiography.
For her ninth birthday, Stark received a copy of One Thousand and One Nights and became fascinated with the Orient. She was often ill while young and confined to the house, so she found an outlet in reading. She delighted in reading French, in particular Dumas, and taught herself Latin. When she was thirteen, in an accident in a factory in Italy, her hair was caught in a machine, tearing her scalp and ripping her right ear off. She had to spend four months getting skin grafts in hospital, which left her face disfigured. For the rest of her life, she would wear hats or bonnets, which were often flamboyant, to cover her scars.
When she was thirty years old, Stark chose to study languages in university. She hoped to escape her difficult life as a flower farmer in northern Italy. Her professor suggested Icelandic, but she chose to study Arabic and later Persian. She studied at Bedford College, London and the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), both part of the University of London.
During World War I, Stark trained as a VAD and served initially with G. M. Trevelyan's British Red Cross ambulance unit, based at the Villa Trento near Udine. Her mother had remained in Italy and taken a share in a business; her sister Vera married the co-owner. In 1926, Vera died after a miscarriage. In her writings, Stark explained that Vera was not able to live life on her own terms, and she would not do the same. Shortly afterward, she began her travels.
In November 1927, she visited Asolo for the first time in years. Later that month she boarded a ship for Beirut, where her travels in the East began. She stayed first at the home of James Elroy Flecker in Lebanon, then in Baghdad, Iraq (then a British protectorate), where she met the British high commissioner. During that trip, she secretly travelled by donkey with a Druze guide and an English woman. She kept the journey secret as Syria and Lebanon were under French control, also known as Mandate for Syria and the Lebanon. This was a repressive government system that did not allow travel within the region. The group travelled by night and took remote, countryside routes. However, French Army officers still caught them, thought the women to be spies, but released them three days later. After her trip, Stark wrote about the repressive French regime and the abuse inflicted on the Syrian people in an English magazine.
By 1931, she had completed three dangerous treks into the wilderness of western Iran, parts of which no Westerner had ever visited, and had located the long-fabled Valleys of the Assassins (Hashshashins). She described these explorations in The Valleys of the Assassins (1934). She received the Royal Geographical Society's Back Award in 1933.
In 1934, Stark sailed down the Red Sea to Aden to begin a new adventure. She hoped to trace the frankincense route of the Hadhramaut, the hinterland of southern Arabia. Only a handful of Western explorers had ventured into the region but never as far or as widely as she. Her goal was to reach the ancient city of Shabwa, which was rumoured to have been the capital of the Queen of Sheba. However, she fell seriously ill on the trip. After contracting measles from a child in a harem, as well as dysentery, she had to be airlifted to a British hospital in Aden. Though she never reached Shabwa, she was able to travel extensively and recount many experiences. Stark also returned to the region for additional trips. During these journeys, she encountered slavery, which caused a "moral predicament", according to a New Yorker profile. Stark reasoned that slavery seemed to decline in societies that were less religious, and thus she felt that slavery would decline in Arabia as it evolved. She published her account of the region in three books, The Southern Gates of Arabia: A Journey in the Hadhramaut (1936), Seen In The Hadhramaut (1938) and A Winter in Arabia (1940). For her travels and accounts, she received the Founder's Gold Medal of the Royal Geographical Society.
During World War II, Stark joined the British Ministry of Information, and contributed to the creation of the propaganda network Ikhwan al Hurriya (Brotherhood of Freedom) aimed at persuading Arabs to support the Allies or at least remain neutral. The Brotherhood included all strata of society, and by the middle of the war, it had tens of thousands of members. These wartime experiences were described in her Letters from Syria (1942) and East is West (1945).
In 1943, Stark went on an official tour of British Mandate of Palestine. She gave speeches that called for quotas on Jewish migration to Palestine, which angered the global Jewish community. However, Stark felt that she was not at all anti-Jewish; she simply felt that Arab consent should be considered before mass migration took place. These speeches are thought to be her most controversial work during WWII.
How hard it was to admit feelings of frustration emerges in Freya Stark’s memoir of her early life, Traveller’s Prelude (1950); she struggled with her single state until eventually – in desperation perhaps at her sense of failure – marrying the homosexual diplomat Stewart Perowne in her mid-fifties. But already in her mid-twenties Freya – who had been disfigured by an accident in early childhood – was suffering acutely from feelings of humiliation and physical deprivation, made worse by her mother’s all too obvious attempts to get her married off. Freya squirmed at Flora Stark’s indiscriminate promotion of entirely ineligible suitors, yet she wanted what marriage could bring: "My mother longed to see me engaged… and felt it her own failure if I failed to become so… However this may be, my failure to find a husband made me frustrated and unhappy, for I felt it must be due to some invincible inferiority in myself. And what is worse, I thought my natural desires in this direction so extremely indelicate as to be hardly admissible, even to myself." And this – in the public domain at least – is about the nearest we get to a spinster’s confession of unrequited lust.
In 1947, at the age of 54, she married Stewart Perowne, a British administrator, Arabist, and historian. Perowne was homosexual, which Stark did not know when they first married, although most of his friends did. Their marriage had many troubles, and Stark did not adjust well to being the wife of a civil servant. The couple had no children, separated in 1952, but did not divorce. During these years she wrote nothing on travel and exploration, but published a volume of miscellaneous essays, Perseus in the Wind (1948) and three volumes of autobiography, Traveller's Prelude (1950), Beyond Euphrates. Autobiography 1928–1933 (1951) and The Coast of Incense. Autobiography 1933–1939 (1953). Perowne died in 1989.
Stark's first extensive travels after the war were in Turkey, which were the basis of her books Ionia a Quest (1954), The Lycian Shore (1956), Alexander's Path (1958) and Riding to the Tigris (1959). After this she continued her memoirs with Dust in the Lion's Paw. Autobiography 1939–1946 (1961), and published a history of Rome on the Euphrates: The Story of a Frontier (1966) and another collection of essays, The Zodiac Arch (1968).
The last expedition was to Afghanistan in 1968, when she was 75 years old. She travelled to visit the 12th century Minaret of Jam. In 1970, she published The Minaret of Djam: An Excursion into Afghanistan. In her retirement at Asolo, apart from a short survey, Turkey: A Sketch of Turkish History (1971), she busied herself by putting together a new collection of essays, A Peak in Darien (1976), and preparing selections of her Letters (8 volumes, 1974–82; one volume, Over the rim of the world: selected letters, 1982) and of her travel writings, The Journey's Echo (1988).
She was appointed a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire (DBE) in the 1972 New Year's Honours. She died at Asolo on 9 May 1993, a few months after her hundredth birthday.
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