By Edith Durham. With a new introduction by John Hodgson. First published in 1909. Beacon Press, Virago/Beacon travelers, 1985, 352 pp.
I have always been fascinated by those early, mainly British, women travelers who donned their thick skirts and set off on incredibly difficult journeys—to Africa, or Asia, or the southern Arabian deserts. How ill-prepared they should have been. How extraordinarily well they coped! Mary Kingsley credited her good thick skirt for a safe landing when she fell into a game pit!
For Edith Durham, according to John Hodgson’s introduction to High Albania, travel began as a curative for a personal crisis. Born in London in 1863, the eldest of eight children, she was educated at Bedford College and the Royal Academy of Arts, and hoped to be an artist. But by her 30s, weighed down by illness and family obligations, she perceived her future as “years of grey monotony.” Advised to seek a change of scene, she sailed to Montenegro—and found her calling: as a writer and anthropologist, devoted to the study of the Balkans, a region riddled in her own time—and in ours—by power struggles and both ethnic and religious divisions.
First published in 1909, the culmination of Durham’s travels in the rugged mountains of North Albania, this book is both ethnography and travelogue. Although Durham understood the difficulty—and suspected the impossibility—of anyone from one culture completely understanding another culture, she hoped, insofar as it was possible, “to see life, history, the world, and the great unknown as it looks to the mountain man.” She learned the language, customs, and history of the region, struggled to keep an open mind, and clearly won the confidence of the tribesmen, who did not generally speak freely to outsiders.
Before beginning her travelogue, Durham devotes two chapters to information she considers crucial. The first examines the historical background of the underlying national, tribal, and racial animosities that dominate the region. The second explains the customs to which the people rigidly adhere—the rules of justice, kinship, betrothal, and especially of blood vengeance, the law that “blood can only be wiped out with blood.”
The subject of blood feuds dominates the chapters that follow, as the blood feuds themselves dominate village life. According to Hodgson, an early reviewer complained that the savagery appealed to Durham and that High Albania “literally reeks of blood.”
But Durham’s criticism of blood vengeance is clear. What she admires is the honor with which the tribesmen uphold their code. And as an anthropologist, she is fascinated by the code’s complex rules and its importance in village life as the main source of interest, fear, debate, destruction, and—she somewhat shockingly remarks—entertainment.
Moreover, Durham traveled to observe rather than to judge. “The man whose honour has been soiled must cleanse it,” she observes. “Until he has done so he is degraded in the eyes of all—an outcast from his fellows, treated contemptuously at all gatherings…And lest you that read this book should cry out at the ‘customs of savages,’ I would remind you that we play the same game on a much larger scale and call it war.”
Beyond Durham’s insight into this fascinating and troubled region, it is this breadth of vision and her willingness to carry on a cultural dialogue that make High Albania so worth reading. The book is filled with sharp observations, unorthodox comments, affectionate portraits, and a deep respect for people.
TraveLit--A blog about travel literature.
Even with the best of maps and instruments, we can never fully chart our journeys.