Retracing Edith Durham’s steps

A review of Elizabeth Gowing’s “Edith and I,” originally published on Balkan Insight.

It’s hard to find an Albanian who doesn’t know about Edith Durham, the British writer and traveller who spent the greater part of her adult life studying and advocating for Albanians in the early 1900’s.

She wrote seven books about Balkan politics within the Ottoman Empire, the Albanian struggle for independence, and anthropological observations of the various peoples of the Balkans she encountered. Her most highly regarded book is “High Albania” (1908), a chronicle of her journey through northern Albania that is part travelogue, part political commentary, part observation of life and customs.

In “Edith and I,”British author and Prishtina Insight columnist Elizabeth Gowing traces the steps of Durham’s life and travels across the Balkans and the United Kingdom. The book chronicles the different phases of Durham’s life and career, and also relates anecdotes and memories of the author where those locations overlap. Through her thorough research, Gowing uncovers facts about Durham that have been lost over the years, such as the charms, textiles and other artefacts she brought with herself to London between her Balkan travels, her possible love affair with an English aid worker, and Durham’s very own microfinance initiative for Albanian cotton and wool weavers.

The historical research embedded into the book provides a portrait of a sensitive, thought provoking woman who was ahead of her time, who found a sense of purpose and meaning in fighting for the cause of a people not her own. Things get murky however, where the author tries to point to her own experiences in Kosovo as a parallel to Durham’s travels – and as a fellow authority on Albanians and their customs.

While Gowing decries the infantilization of Albanians in Durham’s writing, the first opening pages of the book poke fun at the funny mispronunciation of Durham’s last name by Gowing’s Albanian acquaintances: “What are you, AyDIT DourHAM?” In the same breath that Gowing attempts to prove that Durham did not simply see herself as an all-knowing, merciful Westerner, a fawning Kosovo Post official is quoted stating: “Now at last we have a stamp with the picture of the British woman we call Queen” – when in fact, while most Albanians are aware of Durham’s existence and contributions to the Albanian cause, few are taught to refer to her as “queen.” A ride on a tractor from Fushe Kosova to Prishtina is treated as a fun adventure, rather than a reality for those who cannot afford the luxury of a car – a strange counterpoint to the tough and uncomfortable horse and ox-driven journeys that Gowing attributes to Durham.

The book as a whole provides insight into the life, contemporaries, and work of Edith Durham in a thoughtful and comprehensive way. As a book about the life and times of Edith Durham, Gowing’s research is what lends the story weight. The trouble lies in Gowing’s decision to use her own story as a parallel to Durham’s.

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