Read this book: Edith & I by Elizabeth Gowing

Edith & I cover imageEdith & I is a travelogue which spans time as well as distance. In 1900, an English anthropologist named Edith Durham traversed the Accursed Mountains into Kosovo, shaded from the Balkan sun by her tam o’shanter. She was honoured for her humanitarian work and for championing the unity and independence of Albania.

One hundred years later and another Englishwoman, Elizabeth Gowing, is working in Pristina, Kosovo where her local friends and students occasionally compare her to a certain AyDIT DourHAM. This is puzzling to Elizabeth – and then flattering once she learns who Edith Durham was. We are given a synopsis of the Edwardian woman’s life, neatly, through a cloze passage Elizabeth completes with a student.

Elizabeth reads Edith’s High Albania and feels “the faltering beginning of a relationship”, finding familiarity in many of Edith’s thoughts and experiences and warming to “her sense of humour, her intrepidity, her frankness”. It’s when Elizabeth finds herself back in London, out of sorts and missing Kosovo, that her journey into the past, into Edith’s life, truly starts. Empathising with a melodramatic line of Edith’s (written during her stifling years in London spent caring for her ailing mother), Elizabeth sets out to learn not about Edith the Queen of the Mountain People at first, but Edith “the rather stout lady stuck in Hampstead”.

Elizabeth’s descent into archives and museum storage is reminiscent, for me, of the academic pursuit (as both activity and action) that takes place in AS Byatt’s extraordinary novel Possession. Of course Edith & I is non-fiction and Elizabeth is racing neither against the clock nor rival scholars in her quest for information. Neverthess she maintains pace and suspense by making Edith three-dimensional to the reader as she becomes three-dimensional to Elizabeth. First there are photographs and postcards, then Elizabeth finds Edith’s traditional ‘opinga’ shoes, “which could have just been scuffed off by her while she popped in for a coffee”. The scene in the British Library when Elizabeth listens to a recording of Edith’s voice, captured on wax cylinders in Albania, gave me goosebumps.

As Elizabeth’s journey with Edith progresses, we read excerpts from old diaries, letters and notebooks; are bumped along Kosovan roads in a ‘motokultivator’ (“the most basic form of self-propulsion possible”); enter the homes and lives of people directly connected to Edith. From Elizabeth’s retracing of Edith’s steps (backwards) through the Rugova valley, to her visiting an old Serbian monastery, there is plenty to sate the appetites of readers who enjoy travel writing. We learn more about what drives Elizabeth, and see parallels between the lives of the two women, but Elizabeth always reserves centre stage for Edith.

There must come a sense of responsibility in reanimating a person from fragments, letters, objects. Elizabeth does this sensitively, speculating a little but usually allowing Edith to shine through in her own words and known actions. I empathised with Elizabeth’s desire to find a love interest for Edith, to learn whom she “shared intimacy, or adventures, with”, as this is so often the key to a person’s essence.

Through Elizabeth’s warm writing, borne from thorough research, it’s obvious how fond of her “strangely endearing” subject she becomes, treating her with tenderness and compassion; refusing to make assumptions. Even views of Edith’s that modern readers might find unpalatable, Elizabeth sets in historical context, achieving that delicate balance of neither condoning nor condemning.

Elizabeth’s writing, as always, is compelling; her narrative persona humble and likeable. For me, not a page passed in Edith & I where I didn’t smile at the beauty of a sentence or comical or wry observation: “perhaps we are all incongruous in our love letters, just as we are in our dressing gowns”. The last two chapters in particular soar and achieve something, I believe, good travel literature should do: transcend their immediate subject matter to say more about people, families and the complexities of the lives we lead.

Edith & I is travel writing, history, love, and passion for a subject all rolled into one enjoyable journey.

You can read more about Elizabeth – and Edith – at www.edith-and-i.com.

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Travels in Blood and Honey

A few weeks ago I attended the launch of Elizabeth Gowing’s delightful book, Travels in Blood and Honey: Becoming a Beekeeper in Kosovo.

When Elizabeth first accompanied her partner Rob to Kosovo (where he had landed a job as adviser to the prime minister), her journey amounted to “an extended blind date” with the country. Having had only 20 days to pack up their house in north London and say their goodbyes, Elizabeth found herself being driven in a British Office car through the “dusty, baffling streets of Pristina’s suburbs”, looking at “untranslatable” images, wondering what people were thinking, who was Serbian and who was Albanian …

The book shows Elizabeth immersing herself in Kosovan life as she sets up home; grapples (impressively) with the languages; forms lifelong friendships; discovers new recipes (which nestle deliciously at the end of several chapters) and steers her way through social customs and expectations.

Most crucially to her story, a birthday gift of a beehive from Rob leads Elizabeth to an informal apprenticeship in beekeeping with a local family. Learning this delicate art, she meets other beekeepers: political activists, former guerrilla fighters, people who have been victims of human trafficking, and a group of women who teach her how to dance. It is through the national language of beekeeping that Elizabeth starts getting to the heart of Kosovo, its history and its hopes for the future.

I adored the book. Emerging profoundly from its pages, aside from Elizabeth’s deepening love for Kosovo, is her warm and likeable narrative voice. I am more than happy to see the country and its people through her eyes – although her vivid writing has also made me want to experience Kosovo for myself.

Elizabeth is available for book signings and honey tastings this summer. You can contact her via her blog, One Hundred Days of Honey.

Marie Kreft and Elizabeth Gowing
Elizabeth signs my copy of her book. Image courtesy of Elizabeth Gowing. Copyright Geraint Davies.