Book #62

A Hippo Banquet by Mary Kingsley

Told with verve and self-mocking wit, the adventures of doughty female Victorian explorer Mary Kingsley describe stumbling upon five hippos by night, dodging elephants and fighting off a leopard with a stool. 

I had never heard of Mary Kingsley before picking up this book, and I'm both ashamed and amazed at this fact. A woman choosing to be an explorer in Victorian times was shocking; exploration and travel were men's hobbies (usually for the very rich) and for Kingsley to simply take off and pursue her dream, not bothering one ounce about what society's opinion of this was, shows complete strength and drive.

No doubt dispelling many social expectations of the time, she travels alone with only an interpreter and natives guiding her through the jungles. Not a single white man 'escorts' her on her mission; she learns as much of the language and dialect as she can, and survives an emancipated woman. And what a woman.

Her musings on her time in Africa are peppered with humour alongside hints at the danger she was in, between both the big game and the natives. Although she reminds us frequently of her feminine disadvantage (with female locals fleeing upon seeing what they believe to be a white woman devil), she also shows us determination; whether that be eating a snake her awestruck companions believe to be treacherous, or fighting off a leopard with a wooden stool matters not. Despite her dangers, a clear love of animals seeped through her words, and this was the most heartening aspect of all.

The writing itself is gorgeous; I loved reading her descriptions of her surroundings and the animals she encountered. My favourites were the birds; their colours, their bodies, their behaviours. She captured all of these beautifully, and I could picture everything so vividly, I thought I could smell the gunpowder.

For me, this volume is what the Little Black Classics range is all about; opening readers up to writing they otherwise wouldn't be exposed to, and prompting them to look at these types of historical figures in more depth. This was absolutely captivating, and an excellent legacy for an excellent woman.