Sunday, 4 November 2007

Traveller's Prelude by Freya Stark

Robert Stark, Freya's father, painted by his wife, Flora

Traveller’s Prelude is, the author Freya Stark tells us, “a bare jumble written with no arrangement of words or style or matter”, written in haste during a lull between her travels in Cyprus and published in 1950. Although she admitted that she had subsequently tidied it up for publication, much of her beautiful prose must stand as originally put down. She writes candidly and fluently, relating the story of her childhood and young adulthood in Devon and Italy.

Born in 1893, Freya was the elder daughter of cousins Robert and Flora Stark. Robert and Flora were never, by the sound of it, ideally suited; Robert was happiest outdoors, building houses, landscaping gardens, and tramping the moors, while the charming 19-year-old Flora basked in London society, playing the piano for polite charity events and moving with ease amongst the artists of St John’s Wood. Raised in Tuscany, when they moved to a series of houses on Dartmoor she was ill-equipped to cope with cold, and wet, and Victorian attitudes which endlessly constrained the actions of young women. Freya said of her parents’ marriage:

Half the marriages that go wrong are destroyed by too much amiability at the outset; each human being has things that in the long run he cannot assimilate or forgo – and to try to do so only means a slow accumulation of disaster. It is far better to know the limits of one’s resistance at once and put up as it were a little friendly fence around the private ground.

The adult Freya expressed her sadness at remaining unmarried, despite all the efforts of family and friends to find her a suitable man. She said that the men concerned didn’t get round to proposing until she had lost interest in them; the impression, perhaps, is that, having observed the pain and loneliness of her parents’ marriage, her own “little friendly fence” might have been too readily obvious to her suitors. Her beloved sister, Vera, entered somewhat reluctantly into the married state with her mother’s business partner. Although this relatively brief marriage was not entirely happy (Vera died very young), and was marred by Vera’s mother living with the couple, it was nonetheless clear that her husband loved her, and tensions eased when Freya finally managed to persuade her mother to leave.

By the time Freya was eight her parents seem effectively to have drifted apart and, while Robert remained at their home near Chagford (in a house which holds a special place in my own life), Flora took herself and the girls to Asolo in Italy, a place which was to be important to Freya all her life. Here, though fortunately provided with a governess who undertook to deal with the gaps in their education, the girls seem to have lived an idyllic existence, with freedom to wander and explore at will. A serious accident at 13 brought Freya close to her mother, a relationship they managed to maintain despite, at times, severe tensions between them.

When Freya was 21 World War I started, and she trained as a nurse. Working at a field hospital close to the Italian front line, she talks in matter-of-fact tones of the horrific injuries she saw, and of a frantic escape retreating in front of the German artillery. She celebrated the end of the war by indulging her passion for mountaineering with her old family friend, W.P. Ker, but peace left her at a loose end, and without an income. Although money was a constant worry she bought a house on the Italian Riviera, near Menton, and moved there with her mother. She established a small vineyard and gradually began to earn a living, but illness dating back to the war began to tell on her. A serious operation followed and, during the time she had to spend convalescing – a very slow business, and full of setbacks – she started to learn Arabic, with a view to eventual travel. Her love of adventure is evident throughout the book, from childhood escapades which would have been the death of most mothers, to traversing icefields, and to smuggling household goods into Italy from France on her shopping trips. When her bank balance reached £300, she decided, she would leave; and so she did, setting sail for Beirut in November 1927.

This is probably the most neglected of Stark’s books, her later travel writings being better known. Here, Freya’s candour about her family and herself shine out of every page. Letters from family members and friends offer a different viewpoint from time to time, but Freya’s intelligent voice seems to speak directly to the reader throughout, capturing the events of the past with a freshness and clarity which is immediately engaging. I recommend it as a fascinating record of a period more often documented by men, but also as a work of literature, and would like to end with another quote which, I hope, shows the quality of her writing:

At night the fishing boats set out into this quiet sea with strong lanterns at their prow to fish for anchovies and later sardines, which both made an annual progress eastwards from Gibraltar round all the Mediterranean coasts. Word of their coming would go round before them. Each lighted boat had a dark sister ship that laid a net around it, enclosing the crowd of flickering fish that danced in the green water below the lighted prow. Gradually the two ships neared each other, the circular net drew in, and the catch was lifted up between them. I always thought of these two ships, the light and the dark, as life and death, working together.
Cross-posted from Outmoded Authors


  1. Many years ago I found a copy of Freya Stark's letters and for weeks I took it everywhere with me; she was the most remarkable of women and yet one who is rarely spoken of these days. Your post made me wonder what had become of the book, but I must have passed it on elsewhere - a shame I would like to go back to it now.

  2. I admire Freya Stark. She's one of the authors I want to read more of for this Outmoded challenge!

  3. I didn't really know anything about Freya Stark, but you've changed that! What a fascinating life she lead.

  4. Catching up on your comments after a few days away...

    I'm hoping to read some of her travel writing for the challenge as well - I raided my mother's collection but, as they were rather hefty hardbacks, I only brought one home from my last visit. I shall collect the others in December. Her writing is no effort to read, it just carries you along. The whole family wrote wonderful letters to each other, too.