Recently, Victoria did a post on Jane Digby, the 19th century English adventuress, about which author Mary S. Lovell, Jane's biographer, sent us an email. We were delighted that Mary had found us via this blog. Mary is the author of many notable biographies: Bess of Hardwick, Beryl Markham, the Mitford Sisters, and Amelia Earhart. Her latest book, The Churchills: A Family at the Heart of History, will be released this month in the UK and in May in the US. You can read an in-depth review of the book that appeared in The Guardian here.
You can visit Mary's website here for news and information about all of her biographies. We were thrilled when Mary agreed to do a guest post for us on her own travels to Syria and along Jane's own path.
I was fascinated to see your website marking Jane Digby’s birthday last week, in which you also refer to the current situation in Syria.
When I began researching my biography of Jane in 1992 I went to Syria to track down her grave, and her house in Damascus (which I had been told had been demolished). The same source insisted that her diaries had been burned, but when some diligent research had turned those up intact, I decided I wanted to see the site of the demolished house for myself. It wasn’t easy in those days to visit Syria; it was a closed country and tourism was unknown, so I had to describe myself as an amateur archaeologist to obtain a visa. I not only found the grave, but – with the help of my fantastic young guide and interpreter, Hussein Hinnawi – located what survived of Jane's house as well. It was then divided into flats the main part lived in by an old man whose parents bought it from Jane’s stepson in the ‘30s.
That first visit, soon after the Russians pulled out, was enough to make me fall in love with Syria and its friendly, courteous and hospitable people, its amazing historical sites, and - during my annual visits there ever since - I have seen it grow and change out of all recognition. It is the only country in the Middle East, now, that has any remaining traces of the fabulous Arabian Nights.
Until last year 2010, I led small groups to Syria every spring in Jane’s adventurous footsteps, and often we had small adventures of our own. I have now given up leading groups, on the basis that it is as much as I can do to look after myself, but I still make a point of maintaining Jane’s grave. The launch of my new book (The Churchills) in April 2011 means I shall have to travel to Syria later this year, in October in fact, which means I shall be spending my 70th birthday there, in an old palace converted into a lovely hotel, a short walk from the biblical ‘Street called Straight’, and from Jane’s old home.
Jane’s grave (see picture above), which is visited by large numbers of UK tourists now, is in the tiny Protestant Cemetery on the Airport Road. It is kept locked so if you go there you will have to find the Supervisor’s house and give him a tip (baksheesh) of a few dollars to open the gate for you.
You might like to know that several friends of mine are visiting Syria at present and all report no signs of unrest despite what is on TV news. There is clearly a problem there, but if you are sensible and stick to the main areas of interest to visitors I see no reason why you should not still travel there. It would not prevent me.
Although I have written a number of books since my Digby biography, Jane Digby remains my favourite subject for sheer daring and romanticism.