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The Stolen Woman: Florence Baker's Extraordinary Life From The Harem To The Heart Of Africa

In her author's note at the beginning of The Stolen Woman, Pat Shipman quotes Bernard Malamud: "All biography is ultimately fiction", before she explains she regards her "filling in the gaps" as "putting forward informed hypotheses - both
necessary and appropriate".

Inserting novelistic dialogue into history and biography is fashionable. We even have a local example in Peter Walker's The Fox Boy. This has two effects. The first is to make the characters more immediate and realistic. The second, and adverse, effect is to introduce a reason to doubt the biography's veracity.

If the historian is relaxed enough to imagine for us (and often poorly) a
Character's syntax and emphasis, to dramatise scenes culled from correspondence and journals, then why wouldn't she take other liberties?

Born in Hungary as Barbara Maria Szasz, the blonde and beautiful Florence Baker was sold from a harem in Viddin, the Ottoman Empire, in 1859. Luckily, she was abducted by a visiting wealthy English widower who had bid for her but failed to reach the top price.

He was Samuel Baker, more than 20 years her senior, who was to become the great love of her life.

Together they made two arduous journeys through central Africa, the first a four-year attempt to find the source of the Nile. The second trip to the White Nile, 10 years later, was to eliminate slavery.

Kept prisoner by chiefs, suffering hunger, thirst, festering pustules, diarrhoea, vomiting, malaria, nameless fevers and parasites, wounds from internecine warfare and periods of unconsciousness, the Bakers made laden and laborious ventures.

Pat Shipman's great affection for her subject and for Africa is evident throughout this hybrid work. Despite putting often cloying and clumsy words into Florence and Samuel's mouths, she has re-created one of the grand romances of the 19th century.

* Stephanie Johnson's The Shag Incident won the Deutz Medal for fiction, at last year's Montana Awards.

Bantam Press, $37.95