31 January 2020

Joëlle Désiré Marchand: Alexandra David-Néel, passeur pour notre temps (2016)

Joëlle Désiré Marchand's biography on Alexandra David-Néel is most probably the best on this amazing explorer and writer, although perhaps not the definitive one: at around 250 pages of relatively large print, there is of course much unmentioned, but then David-Néel herself wrote her own stories, frequently sending later published details of her activities back to her amazingly tolerant husband Philippe in her many letters from Asia.

Alexandra (or Louise-Eugénie-Alexandrine) David was born in Saint-Mandé in 1868, then on the outskirts of Paris. Six years later her family moved to Ixelles, Belgium, where such exiles as Élisée Reclus and Jules Verne's publisher Jules Hetzel lived. Her father was journalist (and former teacher) Louis and her mother the Belgian-born Alexandrine. Alexandra's parents were very different from each other, and hardly an inspiration to her, although Louis's anarchist friend Élisée was a major influence: he wrote the Preface to Alexandra David's anarchist Pour la vie (1898).

Alexandra David grew up exploring the area's Bois de la Cambre, later venturing further out as her passion for travel grew, as did her interest in things intellectual, such as Buddhism in particular, theosophy, and feminism. Although she began her working life as a soprano, it was with more than a little surprise to some, though, that in 1904 she married the engineer Philippe Neel [sic], who was to fund many of Alexandra's future journeys in what amounts to an extraordinary relationship in which she refused, in spite of a number of pleas, to divorce him.

This book is the obvious fruit of much research, delving into Alexandra David Néel's long journeys. The fourteen-year-long journey through India, Tibet and the forbidden city of Llasa – making her the first western woman ever to do so – is a stunning tale of a trek in sub-zero conditions, often without food and worn-out footwear, open to human predators and the frequent threat of death. All this was achieved with her faithful young 'servant' Aphur Yongden, whom she adopted as a son and brought back to France, where she set up home in Digne-les-Bains, where her house is now a museum dedicated to her: she died at the age of 101 in 1969, almost thirty years after her husband.

The book, in less detail, goes on to chart more journeys by this truly remarkable woman.

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