“For those who know the value of and exquisite taste of solitary freedom (for one is only free when alone), the act of leaving is the bravest and most beautiful of all.” Isabelle Eberhardt
Isabelle Eberhardt died at the tragically young age of 27, but she managed to pack a lot of adventure into those few years. From the very beginning, she was unconventional daughter of an unconventional mother. She was the illegitimate daughter of an Armenian tutor, originally the tutor to her older half-siblings. Her mother, Nathalie, was a Baltic German with Russian connections, who was convalescing in Geneva, Switzerland, with the children and the tutor just a few months before her husband’s death. Nathalie decided to remain in Switzerland, with the tutor as her husband in all but name. Isabella was born three years later, and her surname is her mother’s maiden name.
She benefited from having a well educated father, and was fluent in at least six languages, including Arabic after her half-brother joined the French Foreign Legion. She was taught to read the Koran, as her mother had a long-standing interest in Islam. She travelled with Nathalie to North Africa, where both mother and daughter converted to Islam.
Then her family was struck with a series of tragedies. Nathalie died while they were still in North Africa, and her father died two years later. One of her half-brothers committed suicide. Isabelle decided to become mistress of her own fate, and moved permanently to Africa, making her home base in Algeria. She set out to have adventures.
Isabelle took on the persona of a North African man, Si Mahmoud Essadi. Dressing as a man gave her the freedom to go places and experience adventures that would have been impossible for a girl, doing good work and fighting against the forces of imperialism. She wrote of her travels and adventures in books and newspapers, and she worked for a time as a war correspondent. She nearly had her arm severed in an assassination attempt. Eventually, she married an Algerian soldier, but they spend long periods of time apart. She died when a flash flood collapsed the adobe house she was occupying at the time.
It wouldn’t be hard to adapt the history of such a brave and interesting young woman into a Steampunk narrative. Isabella seems to be too good to be true, almost the role model of the Plucky Girl who dresses as a boy. But there are certain details that break her out of that box. She converted to Islam. She fought against colonialism, not for it. She didn’t give up her career for love and marriage. From her quote, you can see she was at heart a loner. She died a tragic death … there was no happily ever after for Isabella.
Isabella Eberhardt would make the perfect ‘cameo’ character for a novel set in North Africa in the late Victorian era.