Recently, while revisiting my book reviews on Amazon, I was reminded of one of my favourite books – A Scandalous Life, the biography of Lady Jane Digby, by Mary S. Lovell. I first heard of Jane Digby while visiting Damascus in 2008 and was immediately intrigued by her story so, having enjoyed an earlier work by Mary S. Lovell, I bought A Scandalous Life on the recommendation of a friend.
Like Straight on Till Morning, the author’s biography of Beryl Markham, this is a thoroughly-researched, entertaining and compelling portrait of a woman who lived an extraordinary (for her time) life. The book also contains a number of interesting black and white photographs and portraits of the people and places that featured prominently in the subject’s life. It made me want to travel the ‘Jane Digby trail’ from her childhood haunt of Holkham Hall in Norfolk to Paris, Munich, Weinheim and Athens where she followed the succession of men who in turn captured her heart; on to Beirut and at last to Damascus and Palmyra where she finally found lasting happiness with her Bedouin sheikh, Medjuel el Mezrab. In later life she exchanged adventures in the bedroom for adventures in the desert among Medjuel’s people, for whom she cared and provided generously. She learned to ride and care for camels as expertly as she did horses – seeming at times to possess more love for her animals than for most of the numerous children she bore (her last – beloved – child died tragically young).
The author hints that after she settled in Syria, Jane Digby may have regretted abandoning her surviving offspring along the way as she did and to me, that speaks of a constant youthful yearning for ‘something more’ (she was married off for the first time at just 18 years of age to a man considerably older than she). We should bear in mind that 19th century gentlewomen were not nearly as involved with the day-to-day upbringing of children as are modern women. The Victorian age provided the wealthy with wonderful opportunities for adventure and exploration though it was not generally expected that these opportunities would be grabbed by women. Originally seeking lasting love rather than adventure, Jane eventually found both and must have been a remarkable woman (and a talented artist). I would like to have met her!
As an aside, I should mention here another book that I found interesting at the time and which had fuelled my interest in visiting Syria: Damascus – Hidden Treasures of the Old City by Brigid Keenan, with photographs by Tim Beddow. Keenan had lived in Damascus for several years while accompanying her husband on a diplomatic posting there in the early 1990s (which she wrote about in her highly amusing autobiographical account, Diplomatic Baggage). During her time there, she had become interested in the old courtyard houses of the city and was involved in the restoration of Bait Mujallid. The book documents many of the architectural treasures of the city, as well as the way of life in the narrow alleyways of the old souks, which I very much fear may have suffered irreparable damage as a result of the dreadful conflict in Syria over the past few years (quite apart from the appalling human cost). The book is one of the few photographic records of the courtyard houses of Damascus as they were at the end of the 20th century, which, together with Keenan’s well-researched prose, makes it a valuable historical account in today’s context.