Frances Osborne says these books about female adventurers offer thrilling rides
1. Rebel Heart
By Mary S. Lovell
Pamela Harriman, one of the leading 20th-century seductresses of the great and the good, is said to have been inspired by the adventures of her great-great-aunt, Jane Digby (1807-81). As Mary Lovell recounts in “Rebel Heart” (the title was “A Scandalous Life” in Britain), Digby traveled and romanced her way through Europe and the Middle East at a time when, for a woman alone, even the traveling part was almost unthinkable. Digby had married at 17 (the first of four husbands) and rapidly turned to lovers, including Austrian statesman Felix Schwarzenberg, with whom Digby had two illegitimate children. She had an affair with King Ludwig I of Bavaria before marrying an equally Bavarian baron, who was followed by a Greek count (husband no. 3) and a liaison with the king of Greece. Then came the Albanian general whose brigand army lived in mountainous caves; she became their “queen.” Long-term romantic fulfillment eluded her until age 50, when she married a 30-year-old Bedouin sheik and subsumed herself in the desert life. Given the material, Lovell’s book is almost impossible to put down.
2. Mistress of Modernism
By Mary V. Dearborn
Houghton Mifflin, 2004
By taking down New Yorker Benjamin Guggenheim in 1912, the Titanic put his children in line for modest fortunes when they turned 21. To daughter Peggy that meant waiting until 1919—when she was free to run off to Europe and embark on a life marked by a love of both art and sex. Mary Dearborn tracks her through it all in this captivating biography. Guggenheim befriended Marcel Duchamp and Constantin Brancusi; she married a Dada artist named Laurence Vail. She had an affair with Samuel Beckett; her second husband was artist Max Ernst. During a week in bed with Beckett, she was persuaded by the writer to start collecting modern art, not just modern artists. Guggenheim opened her first gallery in London in 1938, buying “a picture a day” and amassing a collection that included the work of Picasso, Braque, Miró, Mondrian, Dalí and Calder. Yearning for a museum instead of an ever-changing gallery, Guggenheim eventually installed her collection in a Venetian palazzo, later donating the building and its contents to the museum in New York named for her uncle, Solomon R. Guggenheim. Dearborn’s narrative of Guggenheim’s life was criticized for the author’s attachment to her subject, but this affection makes the work all the more enjoyable.
3. A Voyage in the Sunbeam
By Annie Allnutt Brassey
In 1873, Annie Brassey and her husband, British railroad heir Thomas Brassey, commissioned a 157-foot masted and funneled steam yacht, the Sunbeam. Its appointments included a 4,000-book library and a schoolroom—useful additions for the nearly year-long trip around the world that the couple undertook in July 1876 with their five children. “A Voyage in the Sunbeam” is her diary of the journey, a combination family seafaring adventure and geographical tour. Annie helped her children collect botanical specimens by day and, on one occasion on a Pacific island, marched them up a volcano to dine with a local chief by night. The book was a world-wide sensation—in the U.S. it was used as a textbook. Annie continued to travel, both on land and on the ocean; she died of malaria in 1887 at age 48 and was buried at sea.
4. To War With Whitaker
By Hermione Ranfurly
When World War II began, Hermione Ranfurly’s husband, Dan, an earl, was posted to the Middle East. Dan took along his valet, Whitaker, but custom and army rules forced him to leave behind his wife. The couple had been married less than a year, and Hermione, madly in love, followed her husband. When Dan was taken prisoner in 1941, she vowed not to return home until they were reunited. For the next four years, Hermione sought out role after role—including one as confidential secretary in the Special Operations Executive in Cairo—that justified her staying near the war front. “I was prepared to do anything except sleep with people,” she later said. Dan escaped near the end of the war, and the couple was reunited. Her diaries, beautifully and wryly written, give a personal perspective—and a rare female one—on both life at the heart of the war and history’s twists and turns.
5. Gertrude Bell
By Georgina Howell
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2007
Gertrude Bell (1868-1926) fell in love with both the Middle East and its archaeology when visiting an uncle at the British Embassy in Tehran in 1892. A woman of tremendous energy, she began tirelessly crisscrossing the region, learning all that she could—at one point she was dubbed “Daughter of the Desert” by Bedouins who found her camping near the Dead Sea in bad weather. She was so steeped in the Middle East that during World War I British intelligence sought her help. Bell became the only female political officer in the British forces and, together with her friend T.E. Lawrence, also known as Lawrence of Arabia, lit the fuse for the Arab Revolt of 1916-18 against the Ottoman Empire; the two were also instrumental in the creation of Iraq, drawing out its borders on a map. Biographer Georgina Howell captures both the personal drama and the historic consequence of an extraordinary life.
Ms. Osborne is the author of “The Bolter,” a biography of Idina Sackville (the “chief seductress” of Kenya’s Happy Valley set beginning in the 1920s) recently published in paperback.