by Patricia Donovan
This book of 97,500 words in 257 pages supports the relevance of the aphorism concerning truth being stranger than fiction, for it builds an entertaining novel upon the biography of a nineteenth-century female aristocrat who jumped the fence erected by the conventions, mores and expectations of her peers to follow her inclinations in living life exactly as she wished. More precisely, the book traces her life in Syria, whence she went in 1853 as a woman in her fourth decade of life, an age when she “ought” to have been grandmothering another generation of the Ellenborough dynasty into which she had married at the age of seventeen.
That we do not find Jane Elizabeth Digby, ex-Lady Ellenborough, doing this is due to the fact that she has lived her life as a remarkably sensual being, and her appreciation of the fragrance of campfire woodsmoke; the clarity of the desert air; the feel of goatskin tent-walls; the enormity of the desert and, hardly surprisingly, the freedom from stays, corsets and petticoats afforded her by the decision to adopt Bedouin clothing simply underlines that sensuality.
An opening premise of the book is that, in wishing to view the Roman ruins at Palmyra, Digby is ‘going boldly where no (woman) has gone before...’ but, as noted, she has been doing that very thing all her life and in her own words, “... marriage must be to a man who will let me be myself.” This feature of her character is at once the strength of Ms Donovan’s book and its great weakness, because on closing it, one wonders why this volume isn’t the third of a trilogy, for Miss Digby was remarkable for many more than the last thirty years of her life.
In her story previous husbands, lovers, fiancés, relatives and children enter and flash past in a manner often bewildering and sometimes mystifying. Four husbands and a dizzying procession of lovers, two of them royal and the others a mixture of the aristocratic and the military, ending with a cross-cultural marriage to a Bedouin sheikh certainly indicate her determination to do as she wishes, even as it points to the irony of her ‘finding herself’ in a culture not known for emancipating its women.
Similarly, one of her purposes in residing in Syria is to establish an Arab horse stud and one feels that her love of horses and expertise with them deserves a fuller treatment, while it is hard to ascertain where she gains sufficient familiarity with firearms to down a bird with a pistol from horseback while at full gallop.
Technically, the book is a pleasure to read for the prose is taut, well-written, splendidly proof-read and edited. Some of the dialogue is suspiciously twentieth-century; the formality of someone “...proffering greetings...” sitting uneasily with his next assertion that ...”the name’s Watson, Reverend Watson...”, while his wife’s use of the term “We hail from the same neck of the woods...” is a little American for a 19th century vicar’s wife. However, such lapses are rare and more than balanced by Ms Donovan’s dedication to helping the reader to visualise times past through the eyes of her characters, such as when Jane experiences her lessons in Arabic, or goes shopping in the Damascus soukfor native clothing.
Again— there is enough material here, and sufficient resources, to make the story of this remarkable woman, her life, times and sentiments, into a trilogy and one hopes that Ms Donovan will one day treat us to a prequel, at least.
Author: Patricia Donovan
Publisher: Mary Egan Publishing
Available: paper: bookshops