“There can be no happiness if the things we believe in are different from the things we do.” ~Freya Stark
My great-uncle Bob arrived in his 1958 Chevy Bel Air, dapper in a tweed suit and fedora. A diamond-studded elk’s tooth hung from his watch fob. He was his lodge’s Exalted Ruler.
I called him the “Grand Poobah,” bestower of gifts—an ammonite fossil, a piece of polished agate, a stamp from a faraway land. This Sunday he came bearing chocolate creme Oreos and a worn manila envelope.
He solemnly handed me the envelope and whispered, “Sailors of the Sky. Dragons in Distress.” I nodded, entranced. He’d brought the best treasure of all.
Dinner took forever. I sat and fingered the envelope under the table. Finally, my father sauntered to the sideboard and opened the bottle of brandy.
I looked hopefully at my mother. “Please, may I be excused?”
She nodded. Uncle Bob winked as I ran to my room with the envelope. I climbed onto the bed and slid out my treasure — National Geographic, January 1967.
On the cover, two girls flew into the air, red sarees like dragonfly wings. Did they represent Pakistan: Problems of a Two-part land? Did I want to know about them or Alligators: Dragons in Distress? And who were the Sailors of the Sky?
I studied the swinging girls. They looked about my age. I started reading, but couldn’t grasp their problems. But I would someday, I vowed. National Geographic gave my childhood a sense of wonder, adventure, and purpose.
I wonder now if that’s how Freya Madeleine Stark (1893-1993) felt as she followed the exploits of Lawrence of Arabia.
Freya Stark was an adventurer and explorer, memoir and travel writer who taught herself Arabic, Farsi and Turkish.
But she grew up neither brave nor bold. At age 13, an accident disfigured her face. She escaped into 19th century travelogues and dreamed of journeying into unknown lands, wrapped in scarves and robes, away from prying eyes.
Freya achieved her dreams and became so much more. She passed away at age 100, a Dame of the British Empire and author of over two dozen books.
By her own account, her life started at age 35.
Improbable Genteel Bohemians
Freya’s father and mother were first cousins. Robert Stark was born in England and Flora Stark in Italy. They met for the first time when Flora was 17 and married a year later. Robert had artistic aspirations and just enough money to keep his family in genteel bohemian style.
The story goes that Freya was born in Paris, where they studied art. They lived for a few years in Dartmoor, but Flora found it too dreary. They moved to Asolo in Italy, but Robert missed the English countryside. They had another daughter, Vera, and settled in a pattern of relocation and resentment.
When Freya was ten, her mother ran off with an Italian royal 19 years her junior. But the proposition was business, not passion. Count Mario wanted open a rug factory to employ his impoverished denizens.
Flora Stark was swept away by his vision. She secretly financed the operation. When Robert found out, he was enraged. Flora left him and took the girls to Dronero, Italy to oversee her venture.
Much later, Freya wrote:
“My mother was so improbable. If I don’t explain, it looks very louche, and if I do it is rather brutal.”
Flora thrived with new-found power and responsibility. Her daughters became outcasts in the tiny Italian town.
One day Flora took the girls to see the new machine she’d installed in the factory. They wore their hair below their knees. Freya’s was loose. She stepped too close.
Her hair got caught and dragged her into the spinning steel, up, up to the ceiling. Someone ran to pull the switch, but Count Mario grabbed her feet and wrenched her down. Half of Freya’s scalp, her right ear and part of her eyebrow remained behind. She nearly died.
How did little Freya Madeleine survive to become Dame Freya Stark, intrepid explorer? Continued in Part 2.