Frank, Katherine. A Voyager Out: The Life of Mary Kingsley. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company. 1986
Katherine Frank’s novel A Voyager Out tells the life story of Mary Kingsley. She talks of her childhood, her young adult life, and her traveling life. She wanted to tell the world what this woman explorer did for Africa. Mary Kingsley had a famous family, many of whom were writers. Mary herself wrote two books. In her books however, she leaves out a lot about her life. A lot of what Katherine Frank had discovered came from Mary’s letters to friends while traveling. Some people who were the recipients of her letters found it odd that she put so much into her correspondences. In one case, she wrote a ten-page letter to a friend. His response to her was that she was wasting many of her good stories that could be published on a letter. Her response was to write him a six-page letter. She loved writing. She also loved her voyages to Africa.
Part of Mary Kingsley’s reason for loving her travel abroad came from her childhood life. Mary was born the daughter of a high-class man and his cook. George Kingsley was a writer and came from a family of writers. He did not produce much however. He left a lot of his works unfinished, and many others unstarted. Because he did not do much in his lifetime, it has been said that his greatest gift to the world was his daughter. Her mother, Mary Bailey, was the innkeeper’s daughter. Four days after her father and mother were married, Mary Kingsley was born. If her father had not married her mother, Mary would have been bastard child of a destitute domestic. Mary would have only been able to lead a life of servitude herself. Oddly enough though, most of her young life was lead in servitude.
Mary lived a long life of isolation. During her adolescent years, her mother was her only female role model of what a woman is supposed to be. Her mother was sick most of the time and therefore Mary had to take care of her and the household chores. While her father was off on one of his many voyages, Mary Bailey had the front windows of the house bricked closed. The house was kept dark and stuffy. Growing up like this made a normal childhood almost impossible for Mary Kingsley. Part of her mother’s illnesses came from constant worry about George. He went on many trips overseas and partook in many heroic adventures. He would write home to his family about his adventures and this caused his mother great grief. Because of the grief this caused Mary Bailey, George stopped writing of his heroics to her, and instead wrote of them to his daughter.
Mary Kingsley had to become a self-sufficient person. With her mother being bedridden and her father being overseas, Mary grew up on her own. Being a girl, Mary was not given many opportunities at an education. The only education she had paid for her was a class in German. Most of her education came from reading her father’s books. She taught herself Latin, Physics, and Chemistry, which was an “unusual curriculum for even the most erudite governess” (24). Mary and her father had similar reading interests and were therefore constantly fighting over books to read. They were both interested in reading the same book at the same time. George had a “volcanic temper” (27) so he was usually the victor of the fights.
There was one instance when Mary decided to leave home for a small vacation. Mary had never been away from her home so this was a new experience for her. Only a short time into her trip, her mother became ill and Mary had to return to take care of her mother. After staying at her mother’s bedside for quite some time, Mary Bailey’s health improved so Mary decided to finish her vacation. While gone this second time, Mary Bailey had a stroke and Mary stayed home with her mother from then on. Mary was never able to leave the home for a long period of time without her mother’s condition worsening. Her father became ill and was bedridden for a while as well so Mary was taking care of both of them. George did eventually recover and so Mary was back to only having to take care of her mother. One night that George was feeling particularly well, he went to bed never to awaken. A month and a half later, Mary Bailey died as well. Mary felt her mother died because she no longer had anything to hold on to. The death of her parents was somewhat a relief to Mary. She was finally free to be on her own.
For the rest of Mary’s life, she dressed in black from head to toe. Part of this was out of mourning. After a while, however, the black clothes became accustomed to her. The hardest part of her parent’s death was having to sort through their personal things. She had to go through their old letters and personal papers and decide which things to keep and which things to throw away. While sorting through her parent’s belongings, she found her parents marriage license and her birth certificate. This is when Mary realized just how close to being a bastard child she was. She already felt like an outsider in her family, and this only added to that feeling in her heart.
Mary knew she had to get away. She wanted to travel to some of the places that she read about. A family friend suggested that she travel to the Canary Islands. The idea thrilled her. Unfortunately, Mary still had to look after her brother Charley. She felt that it was her womanly duty to look after her brother. She did not mind it actually. The only thing that bothered her was that her travel plans centered around his travel plans. Every time Mary was ready to leave and thought that Charley was too, his plans would somehow change or get put off. This gave Mary plenty of time to get ready for her voyage to Africa. She was told many times by many people of all the diseases that were awaiting her. This did not deter Mary though. She felt that she was ready for anything. She did, however, realize the risk that was involved, and therefore wrote a will before she left for her travels.
On her journey, Mary brought with her two diaries, one for scientific information, and the other for her own personal thoughts and psychological findings. She did not have a lot of money so she traveled light. Most white people who traveled to Africa brought with them an entire entourage and hired African porters to carry their luggage. Mary did not want to set herself that far apart from the Africans. She traveled by trading goods and this helped her immensely while traveling. She felt that the Africans related better to her as a trader than they would have if she had come in empty handed. When the Africans saw that she had something they wanted, they would welcome her into their home. She lived off of food that the villages provided for her.
Mary’s mode of transportation for this first voyage was the ship The Lagos. While aboard The Lagos the issue of death came up many times. Many of the people aboard had stories of many white people who died making similar trips. The diseases that caused many of the deaths affected the white people so greatly because of the fact that the white’s immune systems just were not able to handle the new climate and bacteria that the Africans had grown accustomed to. While aboard the ship some of the passengers died. At each new place that The Lagos stopped more and more deaths occurred. Still, Mary was not discouraged.
While on this first voyage Mary discovered the sickening prejudice of miscegenation. Mary was a strong defender of polygamy as well. Another unusual thing that Mary did was noting in her two books the physical beauty of the African. Because the African wore little or no clothing, it was probably the first time Mary had seen a naked body other than her own. She was probably the first white person many of these Africans had seen so it was a trade off of firsts. Mary had to deal with a lot of new issues in Africa that she had not even dreamt of while she was back in England, but she used this to learn and grow.
When Mary did finally return to England, she found it dull and lifeless. She was bored in England and missed Africa. To help ease her “homesickness” Mary redecorated her flat. She hung many African paintings and other artwork that she brought home with her. To add to the pseudo-Africa, she kept the temperature in her flat turned up so that the heat was like that of Africa. While in England helping her brother, she decided to write. It was through her writing that her imagination was able to return to Africa. She wrote of the people she met while in Africa and the various tribes she came across. Most of her writings were about the scientific aspect of the tribe. There was also a personal touch that she put in her writings.
Mary did not like being back in England and was excited to be able to return again two years later. She spent the remainder of her time in England preparing for her next voyage. For this next voyage, she had more money available to her because her publisher really wanted her to write about these people. Even though she had the extra money, she decided not to travel any more luxuriously than she had the first time. She felt that traveling as a trader really helped her to connect with the people. She did not want to set herself above the people she was there to get to know. Even though she could afford it, she did not bring tinned food and other travel aids. She thusly decided to travel light. When others heard that she was traveling light they asked her to bring things to their loved ones for them. Mary, the nice woman that she is, could not say no. She ended up having a lot of luggage because of the many care packages she was bringing to various parts of Africa.
While in Christianborg Mary discovered just how bad the white man’s death toll was. She was being given a tour of the Christianborg cemetery and she noted two wooden hoods covering empty graves. When she asked what these were for, she was told that they always had two graves dug ready for the white man to die. She was rather shocked at this revelation, and did not at first believe the necessity for these graves. The tour guide told her that just a few days past two men died before noon and then two more died later on in the evening. Mary wrote about this in her books. She wrote a lot about death in her books. As a matter of fact, most of everything Mary wrote about had a motif of death or beauty.
Part of Mary’s interest in death had to do with the fact that she was largely responsible for taking care of the ill that she came across. She never went anywhere without her medical bag. In one case she volunteered to take the night shift of sitting up with an ill man. She was used to sitting up at night with her mother so it was no big deal to her. She made sure though that no matter what time she was up to, she took an eight-mile walk. Sometimes she even took the walks while the person was asleep. She took the walk in order to keep in shape as well as to discover new parts of the land.
Helping to cure others was her skill in life. She worked so hard to make the diseases she was told about before her first journey into something that the people could overcome. She never put her health into her mind. She was always more concerned with the wellbeing of others. She loved doing the good deeds that she did, even when they were not the best condition.
Mary’s finally voyage was to South Africa. When she arrived there she was told that her job would be to help the Boer prisoners of war. Although the task was not pleasing, Mary accepted the duty. The conditions that she worked in were deplorable. The “hospital” was filled with about 200 wounded men in need of care, and only one doctor and three nurses. Mary was rather busy with this task, and fortunately for her, over time the hospital got a few more doctors and nurses, and even a few male orderlies. Mary wrote letters to friends describing the conditions at the hospital. Typical Mary always added humor to even the saddest of letters.
One of Mary’s final letters never got mailed to its recipient. The letter told of “the stench, the washings, the enemas, the bedpans, and blood” (295) that she had to deal with every day. Those were the things that Mary’s entire life consisted of. She began her life by taking care of her ill mother, crusaded all of her life by helping Africans and British who were overcome by sicknesses found in Africa, and then later died from being surrounded by diseases all of her life. She always took care of others, never worrying about herself. One day she began to feel the same symptoms that she had for so many years treated. She tried to keep silent, not wanting anyone to see her weakness. Finally, it was impossible to hide the fact that she was sick.
Mary’s final days were spent in bed. She woke up one day with an intense stomach pain. She was rushed into surgery performed by one of the doctors she worked with and had become close to. He was convinced that the surgery had fixed her problem, but Mary knew better. She knew herself well enough to know she was dying. She only had two dying requests. The first being buried at sea rather than in a cold tomb that was waiting for her back in England. She felt that she should be buried in the Cape of Good Hope where she spent a great deal of her time. Her second request was hard for her friends to fulfill, but out of love for Mary, they did. Mary wanted to die alone. She wanted to have her final peace. She needed this. Her friends left her be. When she slipped into a coma, they returned to her bedside and waited.
In order to fulfill Mary’s request to be buried at sea, her good friend and fellow doctor also requested a military burial as well. She would not have permitted this because of how humble she was. Many people felt that this military burial was the only thing appropriate for a woman who did as much as she did. Her funeral was filled with many solemn speeches and final words. Mary would not go out that way, however. She always had to add that bit of humor to everything she did. When her casket was thrown overboard, it was not properly weighted and therefore did not sink. Her coffin bobbed up and down in the water for a while as her final goodbye. An anchor was eventually tied onto the casket and the body of the great Mary Kingsley sunk into the water where she rested with the beauty of the coral and pearls and other sea creatures surrounding her.
Now for the opinion part. The book was great. Mary Kingsley was an extremely interesting woman. She did many great things for those who not many wanted to help. However, the book was not easy to read. The book was rather repetitive. Mary was born, helped the sick, went to Africa, helped the sick, people died, she left Africa, went back to Africa, helped the sick, people died, left Africa, went back to Africa, helped the sick… you get the point. It was a little bit difficult for me to pick out the important details to share with the class in this report. I did not want to bore the class with the same thing over and over. Yes, I realize that Mary led an extremely wonderful life, and therefore all of the details of her life should be considered important. However, some of them were rather boring.
Mary did a great deal of thing that should be looked up to and respected. I do respect this woman that I have never had the chance to meet. The things she did were extremely courageous. She put other people’s lives ahead of hers. Never once did she stop and say, “This could be dangerous to me.” She was always willing to go above and beyond. It gives me a great example of a way to lead a selfless life. I am not saying that I want to go to the extremes that Mary did, but I think that I could definitely learn a lot about helping others by following her lead. We all can. Mary crusaded to help those who did not get help from others. She was a strong woman who did what she believed was right, not what others thought was right. She was a pilgrim of some sorts. She began what others eventually followed. Because of her, many others were willing to help those in need.
I would recommend this book to any of those looking to find their own inner strength. Reading of this woman’s adventures gives a great deal of motivation to get out and do something. If you are one of those who is thinking of going out and helping others and crusading for justice, this book would do a great deal for you. However, this book needs to be read in one sitting. If you read bits and pieces of this book at a time, it takes too long and therefore drones on. That is the trap that I fell into. I read chapter by chapter and it felt as if I was rereading the same part of the book over and over.
Part of the difficulty in the reading might come from the fact that the book was written about someone from that someone’s own books. Confused? Mary wrote a few books and lots of letters. She even wrote her father’s book for him. The research that the author of The Voyager Out based her writings on was Mary’s own writings. A lot of the book therefore was secondhand, and some was firsthand. At times it was hard to tell whether the information was gotten from something Mary herself said or from an assumption Katherine Frank got from reading Mary’s writings.
Another difficulty I found while reading the book was that most of Mary Kingsley’s family was named George, Charles, or Henry. Most of them also had one of those three for middle names as well. The females were named Mary and Charlotte. In order to keep this tradition alive, many of the men married women named Mary or Charlotte. Mary has a cousin Mary, her mother is Mary, and she is Mary. Her Uncle Charles did a lot, but her brother Charley was lazy. While reading I found myself having to reread in order to find out who was being talked about at this time. For a good portion of my reading I was reading about Charley thinking that her uncle was the one being referred to. I had to reread almost an entire chapter once I discovered it was her brother.
The audience of the book is most likely those who are already interested in doing similar deeds. The book is not so much a call to action as it is a remembrance of this great woman, therefore most of the readers probably already have some knowledge of what Mary did based on their own experiences. I think if the book had been written more to persuade others to get involved it would have been more interesting. Because the audience is assumed to already be interested in what Mary did, I am sure most of the readers did not get bored of the repetition of what Mary did throughout her life.
In general I am glad that I read this book, although I am extremely glad that I am done with it. If anyone else would like to read it, great! I would encourage you to go out and gain knowledge of what this woman did to help the sick in Africa. It is a truly touching story. If, on the other hand, you have other things to do, other tests to study for, or parties to go to, I would suggest doing that first.