Review: ‘Improbable Women’ by William Woods Cotterman



Syracuse University Press

Augusta Zenobia ruled Palmyra in the mid to late third century and made a terrible nuisance of herself to the Roman Empire. Eventually she lost her fight and after being taken to Rome a prisoner disappeared in to obscurity. Sixteen hundred years or so later the first of five remarkable English women explored the Middle East inspired by her and the romance of the east.

These women – Lady Hester Stanhope, Lady Jane Digby El Mesrab, Isabel Arundell Burton, Gertrude Bell and Freya Stark – were influential in their own times and the last two helped shape the course of the Second World War, and the Middle East in the second half of the twentieth century. Between Lady Hester Stanhope’s birth in 1776 and Dame Freya Stark’s death in 1993 more than two hundred years had passed and the world changed completely, and they were a part of that change.

Their lives, and the world they inhabited, are minutely detailed in this book. Cotterman looks at the potential influences that persuaded these women to travel East, their family backgrounds, and the journeys they took. They were middle and upper class women with the means and interest to travel, and all developed a love of the desert and the people who lived there.

I rather enjoyed this book; it is well written and the extensive sources are detailed before the index. Containing a large number of quotes from private letters and the memoirs of people who knew the ladies, this book is a fascinating insight into their world.

There is very little illustration, and I felt that it would be helpful to have more detailed maps of the routes taken by the women on their travels and the Middle East as it was when they visited. Such maps are there are, are not very clear.



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