It reads like a Boys' Own Adventure – only she’s a thirty-year-old woman, striding off, in her long skirts and her corsets, to West Africa in the late years of the nineteenth century. Once there she undertakes multi-day expeditions through trackless jungle, single-handedly fights off crocodiles with the paddle of her canoe, survives falling into pits full of sharpened stakes by merit of her thick wool skirt, and wades chin deep through swamps with leeches attaching themselves around her neck like a ruff.
Maybe you have to take it with a grain of salt. Is it really possible to wade neck deep through swamp in full Victorian women’s garb, I wonder? Wouldn’t your waterlogged skirts slow you down and make the whole thing impossibly exhausting? Or did she, like her native guides, strip off and wade through with her clothes carried above her head? Perhaps she did – you could see why she might not have shared that detail with her readership.
More scepticism-inducing even than the tales of derring-do, though, is her tendency to take credit for every lifesaving decision. It is she who notices that the bush is on fire and rouses her companions from sleep just in time to prevent a fiery death. It is she who realizes that the mangrove swamp through which they are hiking is tidal, and gives the order to retrace their steps before they are drowned by the rising waters. And it is she who takes the tiller of the boat when the crew falls asleep, guiding them safely through the spectacularly starlit African night.
And yet – and yet – the whole book is a lyrical delight. A keen observer with the talent to capture the detail on paper, she brings her adventures to life in a quite addictive fashion, and you want to believe.
She’s a creature of her time, of course. As an Englishwoman and a Victorian she simply assumes that the right to judge is hers. Even the fact that many – if not most – of her judgements are positive (“he is a splendidly built, square-shouldered man, a pure Benga, of the finest type”) does not cancel out the hubris. What does help – somewhat – is that she judges herself with the same wry eye she applies to the rest of the world.
The tension between prejudice and open-mindedness is most noticeable when she is talking about the habits of thought needed to understand the people amongst whom she is living. You need to let go of your preconceptions, she says. She tells the story of the game hunter who cannot understand why, every time he comes within shot, the antelope take fright and run away. He knows he and his party are upwind and have made no sound. Eventually he discovers that his servant is triumphantly flourishing the consular flag behind him every time he has an animal in his sights. This is the key, says Kingsley – “if you go hunting the African idea with the flag of your own religion or opinions floating ostentatiously over you, you will similarly get very poor bag.”
Her choice of metaphor (“hunting the African idea”) is as damning as it is redeeming. She’s still the Victorian hunter-collector, trying to capture what she seeks in order to display it, back at home, fangs and teeth rendered safely impotent. But she does at least try to come at things with an open mind. And that’s the best any of us can hope for, I guess.