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Serpent in Paradise
Off the Beaten Track: Three Centuries of Women Travellers
Spinsters Abroad: Victorian Lady Explorers
Mary Kingsley: Imperial Adventuress
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Jella: From Lagos to Liverpool - A Woman at Sea in a Man's World

Co-edited by Dea Birkett
Amazonian: The Penguin Book of Women’s New Travel Writing

Mary Kingsley: Imperial Adventuress

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Mary Kingsley: Imperial Adventuress

The first thing I ever wrote on Mary Henrietta Kingsley was an undergraduate essay. The title had been set by my African history lecturer: ‘Mary Kingsley – Can her views be taken seriously?’ In a flush of feminist feeling, my few pages argued fiercely that they could.

Since then, I have written many articles on Mary Kingsley, at least one of which takes an almost directly opposing view to this first essay. I have changed my mind about what Mary Kingsley was like and whether I admire her or not many times. Depending upon the audience I am writing for, which of her writings I have read most recently, or even my own mood, I may set out to either defend or destroy her. I do not put this down, as some biographers might, to Mary Kingsley being an elusive, essentially unknowable person, endowing her with a certain mystery. I see these constant shifts in my assessment of her as integral to the creation of my subject.

Mary Kingsley herself acted out and experimented with many identities and disguises. At different times she was the African Explorer, Political Campaigner, Journalist, Bestselling Travel Writer, Representative of Her Britannic Majesty in Africa, Imperialist, Popular Lecturer, Nurse and Dutiful Victorian Daughter. In search for an understanding her life, I have not looked for the real Mary Kingsley, the core behind these fragments . . . . I am aware and would like to emphasise that in writing this biography I have created and not revealed Mary Kingsley . . .

Mary Kingsley's signed publicity photo, on which she scribbled to a friend "the melancholy picture of one who tried to be just to all parties."
   
   
   

The aim of a biographer is not only ‘accuracy’ but also ‘understanding’. In pursuit of Mary Kingsley, I visited the British Hotel where she stayed at the Cape, have learnt that she smoke, and found a letter to a close friend headed ‘2 a.m. Dead tired.’ So is it pure fantasy if I create a scene where Mary Kingsley sits in her hotel room under the gaslight, yawns, lights a cigarette, picks up her pen and scribbles, ‘Dear Lady . . .’?

From the Preface of Mary Kingsley: Imperial Adventuress

Left: Mary Kingsley's signed publicity photo, on which she scribbled to a friend "the melancholy picture of one who tried to be just to all parties."


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