It was probably the fact that I was heading for the Western Balkans that made me pick up Albania’s Mountain Queen: Edith Durham and the Balkans from the London Library new books stack, together with the fact that I’m always keen on learning about forgotten women from history. But I didn’t regret it as I trundled on trains through the countryside of what no one local any longer seems to call the former Yugoslavia.
“Undeservedly forgotten woman” is certainly a label that fits Edith Durham. The first half of her life was starchly, fiercely, and clearly horribly unhappily conventional Victorian — spinster stuck at home caring for her ageing mother.
But it was her anger, her frustration — she admitted that she headed for the then wild and off the beaten track Balkans without really caring whether she survived to return to the English proprieties or not — that created the adventurous and high-impact second half of her life which saw her known as the “Queen of the Albanians,” a recognition of her efforts as an aid worker and her sometimes surprisingly strong diplomatic influence in the corridors of power in London.
If she’s known at all now, it’s for one of her many books, High Albania, and particularly its account of the “sworn virgins” who lived as men in a deeply misogynistic culture that otherwise gave women no opportunities at all in life.
Marcus Tanner begins with how he learnt about Durham, as a rookie reporter in 1989, covering the trial of the leader of the League of Communists of Kosovo in what was then the Socialist Federative Republic of Yugoslavia, as Slobodan Milosevic was trying to absorb the province into Serbia. That sets the scene for the perspective of the book, which looks back on Durham from the perspective of the current day.
It sometimes tempting to think that colours this a little too much, and makes Durham seem preternaturally prescient, but perhaps it was indeed obvious to anyone who understood the region — as statesmen drawing lines on a map in London certainly did not — that there would be blood in the future when Kosovo was included within Serbia, as Durham predicted.
There’s a lot to learn here about history seldom discussed, at least in the English language today, about the unstable, dangerous border across which the tottering Ottoman empire in Europe faced the collapsing Austro-Hungarian empire. It’s fascinating how when Albania became an independent country in 1912 it got given a monarch — from an utterly obscure German royal house with no connection to the country — because that was what you had to have. After World War One, that, like a lot else, had changed.
Tanner gives a great overall introduction to the time and the place, through the eyes of an observer who he doesn’t present as a saint or a genius, but an interesting, brave, committed woman.