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How would you like to spend a decade writing a biography of a historical figure and then—after logging onto Amazon.com to see what the public thinks of your tome—learn that your subject had a “deep, dark secret” that almost no one, including yourself, knew about? Jane Fletcher Geniesse, author of Passionate Nomad: The Life of Freya Stark (Random House), had such a thing happen. She just gritted her teeth and smiled.
The posting, made by a West Coast professor, led to the revelation of a long-secret lover of Stark’s mother, Flora. A Connecticut family descended from the lover possessed an unpublished manuscript that included the startling revelation that Freya—a famed explorer of the Middle East—had probably been an illegitimate child. In late November, Geniesse read the manuscript and decided that its story rang true. (Indeed, it solved a mystery: Geniesse’s book had noted that Freya’s “premature” childbirth “took everyone by surprise.”)
Fortunately, Geniesse says, the discovery didn’t dramatically change the gist of Stark’s life, which may be summed up thus: Fascinating travels, admirable fortitude…and a troubled psyche. At 13, Stark lost an ear, an eyelid, and much of her scalp in a horrific accident at her family’s factory. Though she hid the wounds reasonably well under a sweeping hairdo, Stark always seemed to have trouble making lasting attachments. She married only briefly, to a husband who turned out to be gay.
“I would not have liked to have been her,” Geniesse says from the sunny study of her Dupont Circle apartment. “I admire her enormously—she was a polymath and an autodidact, and she was thirsty for learning and spoke seven or eight languages. But I think at heart she was lonely.”
Stark—who is widely revered in her native Great Britain but largely unknown in America—caught Geniesse’s eye by accident. Geniesse was born into an intellectual family in Cambridge, Mass.; her father was a professor of theology and ethics, and her mother was a poet and teacher. Geniesse’s brother Joseph Fletcher was an Asian studies scholar at Harvard who knew 17 languages, including Uighur, Mongol, and Tibetan.
Geniesse worked as a journalist most of her adult life. In 1978, she published a novel, The Riches of Life, and in 1984—as Geniesse was casting about for her next book topic—Joseph Fletcher died. Devastated, Geniesse looked for a topic that would carry on her brother’s flame.
Geniesse says she had a tough time convincing Stark’s protective circle of British friends to open up to an obscure American journalist like her. But in time, Geniesse broke through to them, and as the book progressed, she was able to indulge an old wish from her youth—to follow the lead of famed foreign correspondent Marguerite Higgins.
“I’d always wanted to have cigarettes dangling from my lips and be in Jeeps rocking over dangerous terrain with guns firing at my back,” she says. For the book, Geniesse traveled to Italy—where she met the near-centenarian Freya Stark—as well as Turkey, Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Israel, Yemen, and Egypt. Not as pioneering as the travels of Freya, who discovered exotic sites then unknown to Western eyes, but bracing nonetheless.—Louis Jacobson
Jane Fletcher Geniesse presents a lecture at 6 p.m. on Dec. 15 at Meridian International Center, 1630 Crescent Place NW.