I recently read ‘Too Close to the Sun’ about Denys Finch Hatton and it reminded me of the amazing women through the ages who chose to spend their lives in foreign lands. Here area few of my favorites.
Karen Blixen was Danish. She married Baron Bror von Blixen and moved to Kenya in 1914. Unfortunately he gave her syphilis and she returned to Denmark after only one year for arsenic treatment. She lived through it, however, and returned to live in Kenya for another 16 years. She ran a coffee farm for a while but always struggled with it and eventually was forced to sell the land. Her lover, Denys Finch Hatton, was a big game hunter who died in a plane crash just as she was dealing with the loss of her farm. She returned to Denmark and lived there for the rest of her life. She wrote under the name Isak Dineson as well as a few others and a couple of her more famous books are:
Out of Africa (1937); Anecdotes of Destiny (1958) – includes Babette’s Feast which was made into a movie; Letters from Africa 1914-1931 (1981 – posthumous)
Beryl Markam was English. Her family moved to Kenya when she was 4 years old in 1906. She became friends with Karen Blixen even though there was an 18 year gap in age. Beryl also had an affair with Denys Finch Hatton and was due to fly with him the day he crashed. She had some kind of premonition and did not go. However she did go on to fly extensively in the African bush and was the first women to fly across the Atlantic from East to West. She briefly lived in California married to an avocado farmer but eventually retuned to Kenya and became a well known horse trainer. There is a new book out about her life called “Circling the Sun”.
Her memoir (a very good read) is: West with the Night (1942, re-released in 1983)
Alexandra David-Neel was French. She became an explorer at a young age running away from home at the age of 18 to ride her bicycle to Spain and back. In 1904 at the age of 36 she was traveling in Tunis and married a railway engineer. That didn’t last long since she immediately had itchy feet and set off for India. She told her husband she would be back in 18 months but did not return for 14 years. Her goal was Sikkim in the northern mountains. She spent years studying with the hermits and monks of the region and eventually, dressed as a man, snuck into the forbidden city of Lhasa.
Her account of her trip to Lhasa is a fascinating read: My Journey to Lhasa (1927)
Gertrude Stein was born in Pennsylvania, grew up in California, attended Radcliff and Johns Hopkins University, discovered her sexual awakening while in Baltimore and fell in love with another woman. She moved to Paris in 1904 where she collected art and held “Salons” promoting modern unknown artists such as Picasso, Matisse and Cezanne. During World War I she learned to drive and drove a supply truck for the American Fund for French Wounded. Her writing was revolutionary and influenced many modern writers including Hemmingway. She was a strong, opinionated woman and a copious writer with a great sense of humor. Her lifelong companion, Alice B. Toklas cooked and ran the household. Two of my favorite books by Stein are:
The Autobiography of Alice B Toklas (1933); Ida, A Novel (1941)
Sylvia Beach was a contemporary of Gertrude Stein and also lived in Paris. She was born in Baltimore, Maryland. Her father was a minister and she grew up in Europe. She owned the bookstore Shakespeare and Company and published James Joyce’s Ulysses when nobody else would touch it, even though she had no money herself. She lived in Paris most of her adult life.
Her memoir is: Shakespeare & Company (1959)
And just for fun… Catherine the Great. She was born in Stettin, Prussia (now Szczecin, Poland), and traveled to Russia in 1744. In 1745, at age 16, she married Grand Duke Peter of Russia and became the Russian empress in 1762. She did not get on well with her husband and managed to “convince” him to abdicate so she could take the throne. Soon afterwards he was mysteriously killed. She continued to rule Russia until her death at age 67. I visited her palace outside St Petersburg a couple of times when I was living in Russia. One room I particularly liked was the Amber Room. The walls are covered in amber and other precious jewels.
A good book about her life is: Catherine the Great by Robert K Massie (2011)
Who are your favorites??