Improbable Women examines the lives of five women writers, all upper class British women, who rebelled against the conventions of their own societies and lived, traveled and explored the Middle East Hester Stanhope, Jane Digby, Isabel Burton, Gertrude Bell, and Freya Stark


10 thoughts on “Improbable Women: Five Who Explored the Middle East

  1. Christine Christine says:

    Disclaimer ARC read via Netgalley Might be changes before final publication Improbable Women is not a bad book It really isn t Yet, I wanted it to be so muchthan it was, and in some way it felt like a letdown Part of this reaction is due to my own preferences when it comes to reading history, and part of it is something else Mr Cotterman is clearly fascinated by the women that he details in this book Queen Zenobia, Lady Hester Stanhope, Jane Digby, Isabella Burton, Gertrude Bell Disclaimer ARC read via Netgalley Might be changes before final publication Improbable Women is not a bad book It really isn t Yet, I wanted it to be so muchthan it was, and in some way it felt like a letdown Part of this reaction is due to my own preferences when it comes to reading history, and part of it is something else Mr Cotterman is clearly fascinated by the women that he details in this book Queen Zenobia, Lady Hester Stanhope, Jane Digby, Isabella Burton, Gertrude Bell, and Freya Stark The idea of the book is that all the modern women are connected not just by their travels in the Middle East, but also by a trip to Palmyra, ruled in the past by Queen Zenobia, hence the section on her And this is where it goes slightly pear shaped The idea is good, but for several of the women, if you blink, you miss the trip to Palmyra There is no real connection between the women and Zenobia, no sense that they were fascinated by her, no sense that Palmyra fascinated them This isn t a bad thing really The women Stanhope, Digby el Mesrab, Burton, Bell, and Stark are all fascinating, and so is Zenobia It just doesn t feel like Zenobia belongs in this book with the other women The reason why she is in the book at all seems to be because Zenobia was a fascinating character She challenged Roman rule The section on Zenobia was interesting, though perhaps too romanticized, how do we know, for instance, that she loved stories about Cleopatra and Boudicca It s a nice image, but we don t know I know some readers of history do not mind this type of speculation, but it isn t my thing, so take this criticism with a grain of salt What you shouldn t take with a grain of salt is the following criticism At times, many times, it seems as if Cotterman isobsessed with the women s sex lives than their lives of exploration It wasn t all that surprising that Isabella Burton had the shortest chapter because she had the most conservative sex life Perhaps this done to get readers, but it feels like a disservice to the women Further, the focus on affairs takes the place ofinteresting life details why did Stanhope refuse to see Queen Caroline when she had been a lady in waiting to the queen a fact that is revealed in the el Mesrab chapter, why was Caroline too scandalous for the scandalous Stanhope , why did she and her sister not exchange letters for so long I understand the book s strutuce precludes a detailed biography, but the emphasis does not have to be on lovers It doesn t even tie to Zenobia, whom supposedly was chaste This opposition might be interesting if Cotterman comments on it, but he doesn t In addition to the emphasis on sef lives, there is an old line about the women being braver than others I don t think Cotterman meant the line to be condescending and dismissive of women, but it comes across that way IF Cotterman really looked at why the five modern women were able to break social taboos, seemingly because of family support and money in some degree, the statement might come across as less insulting Because it he doesn t, it feels like these women were head and shoulders above all women who couldn t do anything, which is simplistic and ignores women like the suffragettes, and implies that five women here were manly men, an idea that is re enforced by the emphasis on their relationships with men, and only men.Yet, it is an interesting book because these women should be better remembered than they are We celebrate T E Lawrence, but Gertrude Bell whose work helped Lawrence and who worked with him politically, is disregarded and all but forgotten Stark did work that was important in the Second World War, Burton helped her husband but we remember best her destruction of his work after his death, Stanhope and Digby el Mesrab changed the culture of their times Cotterman does admire the women not for who they slept with, but for what they did And that makes up for much


  2. Hilary Hilary says:

    Five very different women who influenced history through their surveys, writings, photographs, maps and ethnographies as they were, inexplicably, drawn to the Middle East Lady Hester Stanhope was born in 1776, and Freya Stark died in 1993 In between, the world changed so much Their lives, and those of Jane Digby, Isabel Burton and Gertrude Bell, intersected with those of Sir Richard Burton, Winston Churchill, both William Pitts, Lord Byron, T.E LawrenceTheir interests ranged from archaeol Five very different women who influenced history through their surveys, writings, photographs, maps and ethnographies as they were, inexplicably, drawn to the Middle East Lady Hester Stanhope was born in 1776, and Freya Stark died in 1993 In between, the world changed so much Their lives, and those of Jane Digby, Isabel Burton and Gertrude Bell, intersected with those of Sir Richard Burton, Winston Churchill, both William Pitts, Lord Byron, T.E LawrenceTheir interests ranged from archaeology to politics to mountaineering, and on the whole with maybe one exception their choices and direction were made for sensible reasons rather than an overwhelming sense of romance Each showed an understanding that to know and live with the local cultural s was essential, yet they recognized that complete conformity was not required in most cases Although their political or military acumen varied, they all had an ability to read people and situations, and to know when and how far to push.Each section begins with an introduction to the time in which they lived, giving a historical overview to put these remarkable women in context, whether connecting to the women before her or setting the period within Western history William the Conqueror, Crimean War, the two World Wars , and then begins each biography A detailed, and lengthy, bibliography at the end gives you plenty of extra reading if you want to follow up on any of the historical or biographical details.It is easy to read, yet informative and interesting, most of which comes from the women themselves, but the author chose and related their adventures well The contrasts between some of them, especially Jane Digby and Gertrude Bell, were most interesting I found Hester Stanhope the most fascinating, Isabel Burton the most steadfast, Gertrude Bell the most intrepid, Freya Stark the most influential, and Jane Digby made me speechless you couldn t invent her exploits with any expectation of credulity Each one became alive to me, not just a character in an old and dusty history book.In all, as he says, they are indeed too bizarre for fiction, and yet completely true Incredible.Disclaimer I received a free ARC from Netgalley in exchange for an honest review


  3. Bettie Bettie says:

    Cross posted to Betties Books, LibraryThing, aNobii, NetGalley Cross posted to Betties Books, LibraryThing, aNobii, NetGalley


  4. Sonya Sonya says:

    Read for a class on the middle east The writing was not impressive but the introduction of the five women highlighted in the book and their geopolitical impact on the region was fascinating.


  5. Shomeret Shomeret says:

    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 publ 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 knowabout 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 outFor my complete review see my October 2013 blog post Improbable Women Exploring Women Explorers in the Middle East at


  6. Lauralee Lauralee says:

    What do these five women Hester Stanhope, Jane Digby, Isabel Burton, Gertrude Bell, and Freya Stark have in common According to Improbable Women, each of them were fascinated by Zenobia, Queen of Palmyra Each of them have braved the dangers of the Middle Eastern desert to visit and pay homage to Zenobia s Palmyra, a once great city that was destroyed by the Romans Therefore, this book is a chronicle of these five women s pilgrimage to the ancient ruined city of Palmyra Palmyra was once a c What do these five women Hester Stanhope, Jane Digby, Isabel Burton, Gertrude Bell, and Freya Stark have in common According to Improbable Women, each of them were fascinated by Zenobia, Queen of Palmyra Each of them have braved the dangers of the Middle Eastern desert to visit and pay homage to Zenobia s Palmyra, a once great city that was destroyed by the Romans Therefore, this book is a chronicle of these five women s pilgrimage to the ancient ruined city of Palmyra Palmyra was once a city that prospered from trade around both Arabia, the Far East, and Rome The good water supply and its strategic location helped make Palmyra an affluent city The city was once built by the Arameans, but Alexander the Great conquered the city and named it Palmyra for date palms In late third century, the city was ruled by King Odenath Zenobia was the daughter of a great Palmyrenes general, and she became King Odenath s second wife They later had a son After the murder of her husband, Zenobia became regent for her son She then went to Rome and demanded that they would give herlands to control When they refused, Zenobia declared war She was eventually captured by the Romans and forced to surrender Since then she was given a reputation of the warrior queen A woman who these five women felt that they could relate to These five women each had their own adventures journeying to Palmyra While they were flawed women, each of their biographies seems as if they were heroes in romantic tales Each of them, like Zenobia, made their mark of the Middle East and made many accomplishments This book is not only a biography of these six women, rather it is also a geopolitical book that studies the Middle East Overall, this book is about the accomplishments and contributions these six remarkable women made This book is filled with adventure and romance They have captured the imaginations to the people of their time It is also an in depth study of the geopolitics of the Middle East This book is about how these British women have made contact with the Middle East I recommend this book to anyone interested in British history, and how the British interacted with Middle Easterners NOte I read an ARC copy of this book in courtesy of NetGalley


  7. Carrie Slager Carrie Slager says:

    Full disclosure I received a free ebook through NetGalley in exchange for an honest review As someone who personally admires Zenobia, I knew I just had to pick up Improbable Women A biography of one of my favourite heroines as well as five other incredible women How could could I not read it I was slightly disappointed in the level of detail in the biographies, but I m fully aware that including enough details to satisfy me would have meant a separate book for each woman If you haven t hea Full disclosure I received a free ebook through NetGalley in exchange for an honest review As someone who personally admires Zenobia, I knew I just had to pick up Improbable Women A biography of one of my favourite heroines as well as five other incredible women How could could I not read it I was slightly disappointed in the level of detail in the biographies, but I m fully aware that including enough details to satisfy me would have meant a separate book for each woman If you haven t heard anything about these women the information could be a little overwhelming at first, but William Woods Cotterman has a great writing style to help you along It s actually easier to read Improbable Women if you read one biography and then pause to reflect before going onto the next one, but it s not a requirement.Improbable Women was actually broken up into logical segments which seems to be rare in the nonfiction books I ve read through NetGalley Each section is clearly labelled and the order the biographies are in actually make sense Some of the women profiled in here were inspired by other women in the book, so I liked how that was mentioned and the similarities between each the two were pointed out At the same time, readers are never spoken down to when these similarities are drawn.Overall, Improbable Women is a great read for anyone who loves reading about women who were ahead of their time Every single woman in this collection of biographies from Zenobia to Freya Stark was ahead of her time and lived a fascinating life Some wereinteresting than others, but that s a matter of personal preference than anything I would highly recommend Improbable Women to people who love history when it comes out on October 15 or 16 it says 15 on Goodreads, 16 on NetGalley of this year.I give this book 5 5 stars


  8. Mandy Mandy says:

    In every generation there are women who break the mould, who choose to defy societal norms and follow their own path through life This fascinating book explores the life of 5 such women from different time periods the mid 18th century to the mid 20th all of whom were free spirits who became inexplicably drawn to the Middle East and chose to leave their comfortable lives in England to explore the area, and in some cases actually influence its history and politics.The book begins with a chapt In every generation there are women who break the mould, who choose to defy societal norms and follow their own path through life This fascinating book explores the life of 5 such women from different time periods the mid 18th century to the mid 20th all of whom were free spirits who became inexplicably drawn to the Middle East and chose to leave their comfortable lives in England to explore the area, and in some cases actually influence its history and politics.The book begins with a chapter dedicated to Zenobia, Queen of Syria in the 3rd century who rebelled against Roman rule, and although she was ultimately defeated, left behind a legend that to this day attracts visitors to her capital Palmyra, which remains one of the great cities of the ancient world, and to which all the women featured in this book made their own pilgrimage.The five women who defied the pressures of society to be good wives and mothers and instead dared to explore often dangerous and unknown places are Hester Stanhope, Jane Digby, Isabel Burton, Gertrude Bell and Freya Stark Each in her own way left behind a legacy that resounds to this day They weren t merely visitors, but took their travels seriously, compiling collections of maps, photographs, surveys and other writings that helped future explorers and became the basis of Middle Eastern studies Their interests were wide ranging from archaeology to politics to mountaineering and nothing seemed to frighten or dismay them They were truly remarkable women, and this is an excellent and even handed sturdy of them Each is put into her own historical context so that the reader can see the wider picture, and I found the book both absorbing and highly entertaining My thanks to Netgalley for sending it to me


  9. Joanne Wood Joanne Wood says:

    The usual caveat applies Netgalley, free copy, blah, blah Gertrude BellThis book is the story of five women of the last 300 years of so, who travelled extensively in the Middle East at a time when their contemporaries barely left their homes It s interesting to speculate on whether or not the journeys would be easier today, if indeed it would be possible at all.What a really fascinating book When I picked it up I was expecting the standard layout of different sections devoted to each of the The usual caveat applies Netgalley, free copy, blah, blah Gertrude BellThis book is the story of five women of the last 300 years of so, who travelled extensively in the Middle East at a time when their contemporaries barely left their homes It s interesting to speculate on whether or not the journeys would be easier today, if indeed it would be possible at all.What a really fascinating book When I picked it up I was expecting the standard layout of different sections devoted to each of these remarkable women with no real cohesion Mr Cotterman does much better than that and manages to link them all to the story of Queen Zenobia of Palmyra scene of the recent appalling Isis vandalism.This makes for a very enjoyable and original read The women featured here would be fascinating in any book, but this method makes for a muchcoherent read There s no doubt these women deserve to be written about and remembered and this book is an excellent addition to their stories


  10. Kimberly Kimberly says:

    This contains accounts of five upper class, British, women who explored and loved the Middle East The book begins with the story legend of Zenobia, the only woman in the book I had not read about before The author painted Zenobia as a force that drew and inspired each woman but I felt like this was a little far fetched However, Zenobia s section was interesting and left me wishing I knewabout her The other five women were given brief sections that highlighted their lives and times in t This contains accounts of five upper class, British, women who explored and loved the Middle East The book begins with the story legend of Zenobia, the only woman in the book I had not read about before The author painted Zenobia as a force that drew and inspired each woman but I felt like this was a little far fetched However, Zenobia s section was interesting and left me wishing I knewabout her The other five women were given brief sections that highlighted their lives and times in the Middle East For those new to biographies or new to these women, this book is an excellent place to start It will wet your appetite and send you off in search ofinformation Well written with good pacing