Saturday, October 24, 2009

Heroine of the Weekend

Our heroine this weekend is Alexandra David-Neel, born on October 24, 1868. Her bio calls her "a Belgian-French explorer, anarchist, spiritualist, Buddhist, and writer," perhaps best known for her daring voyage into Tibet in 1924, when foreigners were forbidden to enter the country. She wrote over 30 books about Eastern religion, philosophy, and her travels.

She was born in Paris to rather strict parents, and found refuge in the books of Jules Verne, which made her dream of outdoing these heroes in adventures. (She also enjoyed running away from home on occasion, the first time being at the age of 5, right before a move to Brussels). At 15 she was a student of music, and secretly of occult books (especially an English journal published by the Society of the Supreme Gnosis). At 17 she left home again, traveling alone by train to Switzerland to hike over the Saint-Gotthard Pass through the Alps to the Italian lakes. (She was fetched home by her mother when she ran out of money at Lake Maggiore). The following year she entered the Royal Conservatory at Brussels, and 3 years later took first prize for her voice. In 1888 she went to study in London, staying at the Society of the Supreme Gnosis and meeting Madame Blavatsky, the founder of the Theosophical Society and a great early influence on Alexandra. She then went to study at the Sorbonne and join radical societies. In 1891, disguised in men's clothes, she joined a Paris cult led by Sri Ananda Saraswati (which used hashish as a prime means of obtaining visions!). By this time she was all of 23.

That same year she received a small inheritance from her godmother, which gave her the means to travel for more than a year through Ceylon and India. She studied Sanskrit, Yoga, and heard Tibetan music for the first time. But then the money ran out, and she was forced to return to Brussels. But she wasn't idle there. She finished an anarchist treatise. Publishers wouldn't print it, so her friends printed and distributed it themselves and eventually it was translated into 5 languages. From 1894 to 1900 she lived as an aspiring singer and actress, and in 1900 she accepted a job with the opera in Tunis. There she met Philip Neel, a 39-year-old railway engineer. They married in 1904 and moved into a villa at La Goulette, near the Mediterranean.

Marriage didn't slow her down for long. In 1911 she went again to India to study Sanskrit and Buddhism (she met the 13th Dalai Lama twice in 1912 and learned much from him--unprecedeneted for a European woman at the time). She also met the Gomchen (great hermit) of the monastery of Lachen. From 1914-16 she lived in a cave in Sikkim, near the border of Tibet, along with a young Sikkimese monk named Aphur Yongden, who became her lifelong traveling companion and later her adopted son. From their cave they snuck into Tibet (where they met the Panchen Lama), and were expelled from Sikkim. Unable to return to Europe because of World War I, they went to Japan and China. By traversing China from east to west, they were able to sneak into Tibet again and stayed there for 2 months.

She legally separated from her husband in 1928, but they corresponded and he supported her until his death in 1941. Alexandra settled in Provence in her middle age and wrote books, but she went on to travek again to China and the Soviet Union in the 1930s and 40s. They ended up back in Tibet, where they circled the holy mountain Amnye Machen. They returned to France in 1946, when Neel was 78. Yongden died in 1955, and Alexandra continued to study and write until her own death in 1969 at 101. Her ashes were scattered in the Ganges.

Of Tibet, she wrote, "Truthfully, I am 'homesick' for a land that is not mine. I am haunted by the steppes, the solitude, the everlasting snow and the great blue sky 'up there'! The difficult hours, the hunger, the cold, the wind slashing at my face..."

As well as her own books, some good sources on her life are:
Barbara and Michael Foster, Forbidden Journey: The Life of Alexandra David-Neel
Ruth Middleton, Alexandra David-Neel
And there is a great website with all sorts of info here

Next month, to celebrate the release of my Elizabethan Christmas book The Winter Queen, we're going to look at some fascinating Tudor-era women! (Lettice Knollys, her daughter Penelope Rich, the Countess of Pembroke, and the Grey sisters)


Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

What a wonderful story. I had never heard of her before today.

Carrie said...