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And She Was
Lately I have found I am unable to predict how I will feel upon waking: will I be flooded with optimism and energy for the day? Will it be a wash of terror as I realise I have forgotten how to be in the world, what is expected of me? This is when I cling to practical matters: brush teeth, make breakfast, the lunches, walk the dog. Just put one foot after the other.
Then there are those disorientatingly grey days of the soul where vision and spirit are lost in some kind of rolling fog. These are the days when I turn to my Inspirational Women. I use them as markers, as trail lines on a map. I throw out my cosmic grappling hook and attach myself to their independence, their daring, their bravery and their vision. I bleed them and make their qualities my own for the day. And I find I can get by.
When I decided I wanted to write this piece, I struggled with the choice – so many possible glorious females to include. Ultimately, I chose the women whom I turn to most often in my mind, whose books I re-read, whose work I revisit, whose biographies I peruse like a predator hungry for their secrets. I would like to share them with you because they are wonderful, because they are the antidote to the insipid polished shell of celebrity that substitutes for proper character these days.
Isak Dinesen, Getty Images
Isak Dinesen was the pen name of the Baroness Karen von Blixen-Finecke and most famously the author of Out of Africa. Married to her second cousin, the Baron Bror von Blixen-Fineke, she moved with him from Denmark to Kenya and started a coffee plantation. Her husband was serially unfaithful and transmitted to the Baroness a case of syphilis that left her own health shaky for the rest of her life. They ultimately divorced and Blixen had a passionate relationship with Denys Finch Hatton (Read the book! Watch the film!).
When her lover was killed and her plantation failed, Blixen returned to Denmark, and it is in her beautiful house by the lake, among the cold snowy fields, that she finally began to write in earnest. I was lucky enough to visit her home, Rungstedlund, outside Copenhagen last year. I moved through the rooms the Baroness had inhabited, trying to absorb the ghosts. The house was perfect, and perfectly her. I could see a writer being very happy there in her gentle solitude, surrounded by lace curtains that wept into pools on the bare floorboards, the old photographs, the tribal artefacts from Africa.
She is buried on the property under a large tree; a simple headstone has only her name: KAREN BLIXEN. Here was a strong and elegant woman who had lived bravely and broadly in the face of adversity, and who had returned home to write what she knew in beautiful English (which she would then translate into Danish). “Through all the world there goes one long cry from the heart of the artist: Give me leave to do my utmost!” (from her short story, Babette’s Feast).
Marie Colvin, Rex Features
This is whom I turn to when I need balls. This woman’s bravery in the war zones of the world makes my head spin. I have always wished I could be this brave and always known I could not. Marie Colvin was a foreign correspondent who made it her mission to tell the stories of the innocent victims of war. She would smuggle herself into Libya, Kosovo, Chechnya, Iran, Iraq, Sri Lanka, Syria – places no one else would or could go, determined to cover the stories of suffering civilians.
Determined not to lose her femininity among the dirt and blood and terror, she wore La Perla underwear under her flak jacket, and favoured scarlet fingernails and a double strand of pearls. The black eye patch, however, was not fashion: it covered the eye she lost in a grenade attack in Sri Lanka in 2001, when she was left for dead.
It seems Marie Colvin could not stay away from the war zones of the world; her work illuminated the plight of so many, but ultimately it killed her: a shell in Homs, Syria, in 2012. I keep a picture of her drinking orange soda with an army commander in some godforsaken jungle, her one good eye staring up at the camera and her black eye patch adding a dash of the piratical. It reminds me to be braver and not to take ‘no’ for an answer. “Bravery is not being afraid to be afraid.” Well, she would know.
Gertrude Bell, Getty Images
My grandfather was an explorer – the old-fashioned kind that makes contact with previously unknown peoples and discovers mountains, rivers, the secrets of the earth. I grew up marinating in his tales – family lore – and in the mystifyingly beautiful artefacts he stored in his cabinets of curiosity: fragments of moon rock, poison darts from the Amazon, tiny Roman bronzes, unpolished emeralds from South America ... Since then I have sought out – in writing and in life – those who map the unexplored and unexpected territories of the world.
Gertrude Bell came to me later in life – my mid-20s. I had just finished university and I remember spending a summer tearing through her books on the Middle East. She was a writer, archaeologist and political officer. Educated at Oxford, she was fluent in Persian and Arabic. She joined the British intelligence unit in Cairo in World War I and worked with T.E. Lawrence (later known as Lawrence of Arabia) trying to forge alliances with the desert tribes.
She was the only woman present at the 1921 Conference in Cairo – convened by Winston Churchill to determine the boundaries of two new countries, Iraq and Jordan – and advised British diplomats on structures for the government of Iraq. I lay on my sofa and drank black coffee and ate pistachio nuts and dates and dreamt that I was Gertrude Bell, and that I too could make my mark in such uncharted territory.
Martha Gellhorn, Rex Features
Martha Gellhorn’s books came to me on the recommendation of an adventurous friend from university who has spent the large part of her post-student life in the war zones of the Middle East. Gellhorn is perhaps the best known female war correspondent ever, having covered every war that sprang up during her 60-year career, and for her book of articles on conflicts, The Face of War. In the 1930s she was hired by the Federal Emergency Relief Administration to travel around America and document the impact of the Depression.
The great photographer Dorothea Lange accompanied her and produced the harrowing photos that haunt us when we think of those hard times. Gellhorn was also the only woman to be at the D-Day landing with the Allies – having hidden in the bathroom of a hospital ship to get there. She was passionate about her work and very brave: she covered everything from the Spanish Civil War to the rise of Hitler and both sides of the Vietnam War; she was one of the first journalists at Dachau when it was liberated. At 80, she considered herself too old to cover the conflict in the Balkans and she went instead to Brazil to cover the story of the street children there.
As too many women are, she is best known for her husband – a brief marriage to Ernest Hemingway – although she always bridled at this and apparently only granted interviews if his name was never mentioned. She wrote many books – the one about her time with Hemingway tellingly titled: Travels with Myself and Another: A Memoir. “I’ve been a writer for over 40 years. I was a writer before I met him and I was a writer after I left him. Why should I be merely a footnote in his life?”
Dame Freya Stark, Getty Images
Dame Freya Stark
The indomitable queen of the female explorers and travel writers. D.H. Lawrence called her the “poet of travel”. She was the prolific author of 24 books on her adventures – often undertaken by foot or camel, and in great hardship and danger. I fell in love with travel writing through her books, specifically The Valleys of the Assassins, which describes her perilous journeys into western Iran (much of it unvisited by Westerners) and for which she received an award from the Royal Geographical Society.
Having fallen in love with The Tales of a Thousand and One Nights when she was nine, Stark taught herself Turkish and Arabic when she was young, and went on to learn many more languages and dialects. When asked, at age 93, how she felt about death, she replied, “I feel about it as about the first ball, or the first meet of hounds, anxious as to whether one will get it right, and timid and inexperienced – all the feelings of youth.” She finally headed out for this last adventure aged 100.
These are only a tiny sprinkling of the women I could have chosen to write about – and all are writers of varying kinds. I imagine this is because they have been able to account for their lives in their own words – lived independently and portrayed their stories on their own terms. None of these women gave up doing what they loved because they married, or were sick, or depressed, or grew old. They got on with the (amazing) job. They give me strength and encourage me to reach a little higher, a little farther out, on that bough.