Improbable Women: Exploring Women Explorers in the Middle East

Improbable Women: Five Who Explored the Middle East (Contemporary Issues in the Middle East) - William Woods Cotterman

Improbable Women: Five Who Explored the Middle EastImprobable Women: Five Who Explored the Middle East by William Woods Cotterman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Would you believe it took me two months to write this review?

The subjects of Improbable Women by William Cotterman are women from wealthy families who were explorers in the 18th and 19th centuries. This was an era when ladies like these were supposed to be homebodies or charitable lady bountifuls if they engaged in any activity. This unconventionality made them seem very interesting to me. I had heard of all of them, but had never read anything about them. So I appreciated the fact that the publisher Syracuse University Press made this available for download on Net Galley.

I saw a review on Goodreads which criticized Cotterman for including the ancient Queen Zenobia of Palmyra as an indulgence on the part of the author because there is no evidence included in the book that all of his explorer subjects were keenly interested in Queen Zenobia as he claimed. Freya Stark did write about Queen Zenobia in Rome on the Euphrates, but it seemed to me that Isabel Arundell Burton only went to the ruins of Queen Zenobia's Palmyra because her husband, Sir Richard Francis Burton was going and they both wanted to prove that an El-Mesrab tribe escort was unnecessary. So I thought the comment that Queen Zenobia wasn't quite relevant to this study was a fair one, but I was nevertheless delighted that she had been included because I wanted to know more about her.

Hester Stanhope, the first of these women explorers, is definitely my favorite. Her father, the Earl of Stanhope, supported the French Revolution and wanted to give up his title. He removed the coat of arms from his gates and decided to call his home Democracy Hall. I found his eccentricity delightful, but he was ironically a rather authoritarian parent. Yet Hester Stanhope's life certainly shows that she could be as eccentric as her father had been in her own way.

Gertrude Bell, another of Cotterman's subjects, had an aunt and uncle with a house in Teheran. She stayed with them and learned Farsi. She was a climber, an archaeologist and did a great deal of interesting political work, but Cotterman seemed too interested in her unhappy romances.

After reading Cotterman's study, I will want to read full scale biographies of both Hester Stanhope and Gertrude Bell. I know that there are excellent books on both women. I think that the main value of Improbable Women is to whet the interest of readers, so that they will want to find out more.

For my complete review see my October 2013 blog post " Improbable Women:Exploring Women Explorers in the Middle East" at

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