Sunday , May 19 2024
... her real ambition was to go to the Congo, and that was where she went next ...

An adventurous woman

I’ve forgotten who pointed me to Emily Hahn, the 20th-century journalist and writer, but I’m very grateful they did, having just read No Hurry to Get Home, the collection of articles that forms her memoir.

I particularly identify with her, I think, because of her unconventional educational start: “Flushed with the glory and the triumph of my BSc., excited by the publicity which I received as the First Woman Graduate in Mining Engineering from the University of Wisconsin [this was 1926], and generally on top of the world, I completely forgot the reason for my acquiring that extraordinary diploma and actually took a job with a mining company.” p. 56 (She had ended up in that course only due to sheer bloodymindedness, when denied by bureaucracy the right to take chemistry as an arts major.)

Leaving that mining company, she drifted into a job stencilling cards in Santa Fe, before moving to New York in 1930, just in time for the Depression. Her roommate ended up pregnant, and I’ve not read a better account of the realities of the time …

…she cried sharply:’Oh I wish I could! I wish I could go home right now!’
   ’Then why don’t you?’
   ’I can’t. I’m having a baby,’ said Kathy.
   What she meant, and did not have to explain, was that she did not intend to have it; outside of books and movies, girls in her predicament never did. Both of us knew that much but very little more, except that the operation was illegal. We discussed possible ways and means at such length that Kathy got distressed to a greater extent, and when I said that we had to get in touch with Ivan she had hysterics and had to be helped to bed …
   He found the abortionist, he supplied a part, at least, of the money and he even arranged to be at the apartment on the day of the operation, to make sure we got back all right&#8212for I went with her of course. I can see now that it all must have been a considerable strain on him as well as Kathy, but at the same time, when we got back and found him drunk, I was not inclined to make allowances. I’d found it very difficult to get Kathy up the stairs and the sight of Ivan, staggering and foolish, was too much. Grimly I got her to bed. She was trembling, and rather green in the face. (p. 119-120)

So far, so relatively conventional, but then she was off to London, for a research job at the British Museum, where she found what seemed to be her natural base in the Reading Room, to which she always returned.

   However, “A time arrived when I overdid things and strained the patience of even as permanent a spirit as the Reading Room’s, by staying away a full decade. It was 1946 when I returned that time, and I felt a nasty little shock as soon as I set foot in the entrance room. The Museum had changed. Dust was everywhere … Wooden supports held up the ceiling and there were rough screens barring the public [from bomb-damaged areas]…
   Surely my permission to use the Reading Room would have lapsed, I thought, if only because the records had been scattered, so I went to the old office and asked for an application. The attendant, when I explained the situation, was hurt and surprised. ‘But Madam,’ he said,’if you already hold a card, all you need do is hand it in and we’ll issue you a new card.’
   I said, ‘Alas I lost it. I know it was careless of me, but I was in China, you see, and what with the war and one thing and another -‘
   ’Oh I quite understand,’ he said. His pleasantness did not relax one tittle. ‘In the circumstances, we’ll give you a new card even though you can’t turn in the old one…
   He picked up an ancient ledger, blew off some dust, and opened it at the right letter …” (p.132-133)

But her real ambition was to go to the Congo, and that was where she went next, staying first with a (very odd) man she had met in Europe, whom she was forced to leave in something of a hurry …

My departure was seemly enough, but I must admit it wasn’t well thought out. Details are awfully important in the Ituri, and in collecting supplies I neglected several important idem. I took no sugar, no butter and no other cooking fat of any sort because to get these rare commodities I would have had to ask Stewart to give me some. Except for these things, however, I had everything I needed; I was used to travelling light. To be sure I wasn’t very clear as to my immediate destination, but I knew that I wanted to go east and then south. I had come into the Congo from the west, and my overall aim was to cross Africa by way of Lake Kivu, which was southeast, at the border of Ruanda-Urundi. (p. 163)

She was strongly advised by the locals against the route, but .. “All this I ignored, because, in the Congo of those days, if you listened to local warnings you never got anything done. You had to possess a strong conceit. If you didn’t believe down to the marrow of your bones that you always knew best, and that Nature was sure to smile on your undertakings, whatever she might do to those of others, you would have to give up …” (p. 164)

She made it to Dar es Salaam, of course, where she horrified the British colonists by mixing with the Greeks, Argentines and others classified as “not white.”

Next, and to fit this all into one post, I have to rush, she went with her sister to Japan, then to Shanghai (where she became an opium addict&#8212which she writes about in detail), then a prisoner of the Japanese in Hong Kong with her daughter&#8212her husband by now (although she doesn’t talk about this) being the chief British spy on the island.

This was the life of a girl from a conventional, if education-valuing, family from St Louis, Missouri. So when she came home from the Congo and her parents heard her arranging to go dancing with an old friend. She stops short at the look on her mother’s face …

   ’You’re calling for him?’ she demanded, shrilly incredulous.
   ’You’re going into a public place, a hotel, and ask for a man? At the desk?’
   My jaw dropped. For years I had been living on my own&#8212sometimes without excitement, but more often on the verge of disaster, financial or otherwise. I looked at Mother; Mother looked at me. She also began to cry.
   ’What will they think of you?’ she asked tragically. ‘Whatever will those people take you for?’

Hahn changes her arrangements to avoid upsetting her mother, this time, but it beautifully illustrates how far and bravely she travelled&#8212utterly inspiring stuff!

About Natalie Bennett

Natalie blogs at Philobiblon, on books, history and all things feminist. In her public life she's the leader of the Green Party of England and Wales.

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