The Romance Reviews

The Romance Reviews

A Spell in Provence

A Spell in Provence

Tuesday, 11 August 2015

Isabelle Eberhardt, an inspiring dreamer, nomad and writer

I was always fascinated by North Africa, by its history, art and culture. My mother was born and brought up in Algiers. She was from a French, Spanish and Italian background and had a very original, colourful and at times slightly crazy family (to say the least!).
The Cantrel family, January 1940 - My mother is the little girl standing on the chair
The young man in uniform is her brother Paul, who was to die at Dunkirk
She left Algeria during the war of Independence in 1962, never to return, but her colourful childhood stories made the place special for my sisters and I.

La Robertsau, Algiers
 
The 'cabanon' (literally 'shack') in seaside Suffren, about 50 kilometres from Algiers, where the family would go fishing and spend holidays. It was shared with two other families
As a teenager I read many novels and short stories which were set there. I particularly loved 'Bivouacs sous la Lune' by Frison-Roche for his beautiful tales of the Sahara and its lost kingdoms.

And then I discovered Isabelle Eberhardt and fell under the spell of her short stories, which brought the tastes, smells and landscapes of North Africa to life. Her often tragic characters were unforgettable. Her writing was neat, precise, simple but incredibly powerful and transported me to a bazaar in a small town of the M'zab, or along the steep, narrow alleyways of the Algiers Kasbah, or again across the magnificent wilderness of the Saharan plains.

I was also intrigued by her as a person because her life is definitely a case of reality being more fascinating than fiction. Like Alexandra David-Neel who travelled to Tibet and converted to Buddhism, Odette du Puigaudeau in Mauritania, or again Ella Maillart in Asia, Isabelle was one of the very first Twentieth century women who travelled alone - and relished the adventure and the solitude.

'For those who know the value of and exquisite taste of solitary freedom (for one is only free when alone), the act of leaving is the bravest and most beautiful of all.'

 
Isabelle Eberhardt: 'A nomad I will remain for life, in love with distant and uncharted places.'

Isabelle was born in Geneva in 1877, the illegitimate daughter of Natalia, the widow of a former aide de camp to the Russian tsar Alexander II, and a Ukrainian scholar - an anarchist, according to some. Although her family was shunned by Geneva's polite society, Isabelle was well educated and spoke French, Russian, Italian, German as well as Greek, Latin and Arabic.

From a young age she dreamt of adventure in far away lands, North Africa especially, where two of her brothers joined the Foreign Legion. She was twenty when she travelled to Bône in Algeria, where she lived with her mother and converted to Islam. After her mother's death, she started travelling extensively across Algeria, alone, dressed as a man and under the name Si Mahmoud Saadi. 

 
'Je suis seul, et je rêve' (I am alone, and I dream). 

It's interesting to see that she writes about herself as a man (by using the masculine form of 'seul'). Dressing up and living as a man allowed her freedoms which would have been denied to her as a woman - the freedom to travel or have access to zouaias (islamic religious schools), taverns and brothels.

In 1901 she married Slimane Ehnni, a spahi - a soldier from the French colonial army's light cavalry regiments, but her life was cut tragically short by a flash flood in Ain Sefra in October 1904. She was only 27 when she died.

I can't resist posting this beautiful painting by Maxime Noiré, 'the painter of horizons on fire and weeping almond trees'. Actually it sounds better in French: 'Le peintre des horizons en feu et des amandiers en pleurs'.

And what about this extract of one of her short stories set in Bou Saada - the Saharan oasis nicknamed 'the city of happiness' which was well-known to Hugo and Lucas Saintclair, the heroes of my historical romances ANGEL HEART and THE LION'S EMBRACE.

'Bou-Saada, la reine fauve vêtue de ses jardins obscurs et gardée par ses collines violettes, dort, voluptueuse, au bord escarpé de l'oued où l'eau bruisse sur les cailloux blancs et roses.' Isabelle Eberhardt, Pleurs d'amandiers, 1903

I won't even attempt to translate this into English!

North Africa and my mother's childhood stories also inspired me to write short stories, one of them was published in Accent Press' SHIVER anthology last October. I find the mix of cultures and popular beliefs fascinating. Berber, Arab, Spanish, Italian, French  - brought their own superstitions. But that will be for another post....

http://www.amazon.co.uk/Shiver-collection-halloween-stories-best-selling-ebook/dp/B00O9VKGJG/ref=asap_bc?ie=UTF8

What about you? Who was the writer who influenced you the most and made you dream?

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