Elinor Grace, exploring Arabia in 1911, travels with a supply of plum puddings and a certain sense of personal inadequacy; ‘Mother’s shawl will prove a godsend in the mountains; its strong Persian blues enliven my rather ordinary plainness…’ She is no novice traveller, is used to her own company; but still, she is a virgin, a scholar, an innocent abroad.
She is also an archaeologist. She is travelling to what is now the Yemen, with the intention of disproving the legend which situates the Queen of Sheba’s kingdom there. Her attitudes are robust and patriotic, and her confidence high: ‘As long as one lets it be known that one comes of a good family, and has the supportof one’s government and one’s King, one comes to no harm.’
Her confidence is misplaced, for the journey is both clandestine and risky. The Red Sea littoral is under Ottoman control, and an Arab tribal revolt threatens; travellers’ routes are blocked by armed brigands of dubious allegiance. British interests are overseen from India, and British policy veers between the pragmatic and the grossly unprincipled; at this time, His Majesty’s Government has no desire to encourage the exploration of Arabia. Historical curiosity is, moreover, not a motive acknowledged by the Turks; while Elinor is still hiring her camels in Aden, they have her down as a spy. No wonder she feels – in that first flush of paranoia which still overtakes travellers in the East – that ‘Aden is a most peculiar town. Others know one’s thoughts before one has thought them oneself.’
Jennifer Potter’s book is a fictionalised account of Elinor’s travels, presented through a diary and through the letters of the British diplomats who variously obstructed, protected and persecuted her. It is an ingenious book, dry in tone, both original and gripping, with those disturbing undercurrents an author can create when she is prepared to eschew the obvious, employ a proper reticence, and invite her readers to look between the lines. One is alive to the heroism of those doughty European ladies who enjoyed dashing into the desert, often dressed as boys; their motives, though, require elucidation. Potter’s Elinor travels to fill the Empty Quarter of her inexperienced heart; whether she knows it or not, she is spitting in the eye of the sweet stay-at-homes. She has a pretty and conventional sister called Jane, whom she refers to adoringly from time to time; it is one of Potter’s better ploys, for the reader comes to detest Jane, but love and pity Elinor for so simply and gently admiring her. It may be, one suspects, that Elinor seeks out the earth’s wilder and nastier places because she is quite unfit for polite society; yet both she and society are just too polite to admit it.
For before the trek into the desert begins, Elinor picks up a travelling companion, a Mr Fergusson. He is a Glaswegian, and an inveterate bugger; she does not realise this at the time. She is smitten by his romantic looks, and in the usual way of women in love, abdicates all common sense. Fergusson purports to be a naturalist travelling for the British Museum, but is in fact a gun-runner; he contrives, in due course, not only to land Elinor in a Turkish gaol, but to take credit for her archaeological discoveries. By the way, he has subjected her to various painful erotic practices, which show that it is unwise to lay claim to the status of ‘honorary man’.
In the end, His Majesty’s Government is grievously embarrassed, despite and partly because of the actions of the book’s quiet hero, a Vice-Consul who is smitten by the turbulent lady, and who sends the following dispatch: ‘An Englishwoman languishes in a Turkish gaol, dammit; something must be done.’ (It is the semi-colon, as much as the sentiment, that distinguishes Elinor’s age from ours.) A cover-up must be organised, to save the face of HMG; and Elinor must end by languishing in the English countryside, and seeing her sister married. The whole affair will be ‘scrubbed from the history books’; Elinor’s dangerous self-knowledge must be contained within her own addled brain.
One has only two criticisms of this artful novel. One is that a character who has been given a letter to write should not suddenly start writing as if he were a novelist; he must stick to his brief. The other criticism, or rather observation, is related. The emollient conventions of fiction in our century decree that one may not buttonhole the reader and give him a lecture. It is therefore a puzzle to know how to convey information. Few people know much of the politics of the Arabian peninsula at the turn of the century, and Jennifer Potter leaves us floundering. It is better to puzzle the reader than to condescend to him; yet one feels there is a technical problem which she has not quite solved. If it were not an ambitious book, the problem would not arise; and if she should hit on the solution in the course of future writing, I wish she would put it on a postcard and send it to me.