April 3, 2013
After three marriages, six children, and a coterie of international lovers (a Bavarian count, an Austrian prince, a Greek king), JANE DIGBY (1807–81) found true love with a Bedouin tribal leader. Flagrant affairs and one very public divorce ensured that the aristocratic society she had been born into was closed to her; she decamped from London to Munich to Athens, eventually arriving in Damascus where she met Abdul Medjuel el Mesrab. Escorting her to meet yet another of her paramours, Mesrab proposed marriage. He was in his late 20s; she was 46. A year later she happily settled into life as his wife — provided he forsake his harem. They lived among his clansmen, half the year in Damascus, half the year as nomads. The desert enthralled her. She took on the custom of washing her hair in camel’s urine. As a dutiful Bedouin wife, she also washed Mesrab’s feet, prepared his meals, and rode into battle at his side. She did not merely live among the Bedouins, she lived as one of them. She spoke nine languages, painted, wrote poetry and was an inveterate list-maker and letter-writer. She followed in Hester Stanhope’s footsteps without going off her rocker. Had she been a man, Digby might have had a career like that of Richard Francis Burton; instead, he drew upon her knowledge of harem life for his Arabian Nights. She sought out swashbuckling lovers but ultimately the boundary-breaking and pleasure-seeking was all hers. She became her own Byronic archetype. “Lady Jane Digby el Mesrab was a woman,” as Burton said, “whose life’s poetry never sank to prose.”
ADVENTURERS as HILO HEROES: Katia Krafft | Freya Stark | Louise Arner Boyd | Mary Kingsley | Bruce Chatwin | Hester Lucy Stanhope | Annie Smith Peck | Richard Francis Burton | Isabella Lucy Bird | Calamity Jane | Ernest Shackleton | Osa Helen Johnson | Redmond O’Hanlon | Gertrude Bell | George Mallory | Neta Snook | Jane Digby | Patty Wagstaff | Wilfred Thesiger | Joe Carstairs | Florence “Pancho” Barnes | Erskine Childers | Jacques-Yves Cousteau | Michael Collins | Thor Heyerdahl | Jean-Paul Clébert | Tristan Jones | Neil Armstrong
READ MORE about members of the Autotelic Generation (1805–14).