The Travel Chronicles of Mrs J. Theodore Bent, Volume III: Southern Arabia and Persia, edited by Gerald Brisch.
Oxford, Archaeopress Press, 2010. 429 pp., b/w drawings, illustrations and maps. ISBN 978-1-905739-13-4.
Mabel and her husband Theodore Bent were early members of the Hellenic Society, whose Library now holds Mabel’s many notebooks from her travels. The Archaeopress has undertaken, with Gerald Brisch, to publish her Chronicles, and this is the third in a projected trilogy, Volume I on Greece and the Levantine Littoral having appeared in 2006, and Volume II on Africa and Egypt forthcoming.
Mabel (1846-1929) originally intended her journals to be read by her aunts, sisters and nieces, but this intended small feminine sphere belies the broader appeal of the material contained within them; indeed, Theodore made much use of them when writing up his own published works. Brisch concedes that the Chronicles ‘although of great interest, are far from great travel literature,’ and despite him having ‘smoothed over’ some aspects of the journals, there are passages which might have been culled should Mabel have undertaken a revised version in her lifetime. Instead, following Theodore’s death in 1897, Mabel undertook to publish his notes in Southern Arabia (1900), which may be familiar to ASTENE readers. These Chronicles offer Mabel’s first hand, unedited version of these and other travels. They give us an understanding of the day-to-day tribulations of their travels; the characters whom they met; and moreover a sense of the very real dangers which the couple faced.
The three notebooks which comprise Chronicle 6 describe the Bents’ brief excavations in Bahrain in February 1889, inspired by Durand’s work there in the late 1870s, and their journey home. Seemingly on a whim, they returned overland through Persia, where they gained an audience with the Shah, who was himself undertaking a lengthy journey to Europe. Mabel refers on occasion to Mme. Dieulafoy, whose work also appears in Vita Sackville-West’s Passenger to Teheran (the Tauris Parke edition was reviewed in the Spring ASTENE Bulletin last year). Mabel’s work also shares some of the preoccupations of Isabella Bird-Bishop’s Journeys in Persia and Kurdistan (1891) including fascination with the anderoun and Persian women’s lifestyles. The Bents also visited Persepolis and Isfahan, which were increasingly foci of British travellers’ routes through Persia and their recollections of the country.
Chronologically, the volume here breaks for four years, during which Theodore undertook excavations at Great Zimbabwe. By late 1893, however, the couple were planning their journey to Southern Arabia, landing at Aden, which was by now a familiar port for them. They undertook a number of short journeys around the Hadramaut during the first half of 1894, and returned again in 1895. Although essentially unsuccessful – they were never to enter the Mahri district – the Bents added greatly to British understanding of the region, particularly in terms of flora and fauna. Descriptions of collecting samples, as well as of Mabel’s photography, enliven much of the text.
The final Chronicle which Brisch has transcribed here comes from the island of Sokotra and east of Aden over the winter of 1896-97. This brief notebook contains details of their excavations, negotiations with the Sultan, Mabel’s photography, and then the illness which was to kill Theodore shortly after their return to London. Each of Mabel’s notebooks offers a sharp insight into travel practices for European travellers in the East.
For all these fascinating facets, there are a number of issues with the book. Brisch has taken the decision to emphasise all dates in Mabel’s diaries in bold, repeatedly adding further clarification of day, date, month or year, which not only disturbs the reader’s eye whilst perusing the chronicles, but also
stresses a greater temporality than journals or diaries, by their very nature, tend to do. Some readers may also find the shifts between endnotes and footnotes, and also fonts, an unnecessary distraction, and Brisch himself concedes that his footnotes on Mabel’s notebooks are subjective; some are elucidating, others merely distracting. Furthermore, as the typeface selected for Brisch’s footnotes cannot produce the diacritics he includes for his transliteration of Ḥaḍhramaut, at one point the word is formatted with two fonts (p. 199). Staying with the Hadramaut (as Mabel transcribes it), Brisch offers in the same footnote a definition of the region drawn from 1947;
one wonders whether a contemporaneous reference could not have been found, even one drawn from Theodore’s lectures or newspaper reports. Minor typographical errors include dating a Freya Stark reference 1983 rather than 1938. Nonetheless, Brisch and Archaeopress should be commended for their attempts to bring Mabel’s work into the public eye. The diaries’ relationship with Theodore’s Southern Arabia sheds light on the monumental work Mabel undertook following his death, to bring their experiences to public attention. Although their journey through Persia was an afterthought, and their attempts to enter the Hadramaut problematic, there is much to relish in these chronicles, not least another glimpse of intrepid women explorers in the late nineteenth century.