In 1863, Mary Livingstone found herself heading up the Zambezi on board the steamship Pioneer with two other women: Miss Ann Mackenzie, the unmarried sister of Bishop Mackenzie, leader of the frontier mission at Magomero, and Mrs Henry Burrup, the young wife of one of his recruits. Miss Mackenzie had brought her piano and a pet donkey called Kate.
It is a snapshot of Victorians abroad, both unflinchingly confident in the superiority of their culture, and utterly unequipped for the dangers awaiting them. The two women never reached Magomero. By the time they made their journey, both their menfolk are dead, victims of the region’s infamous malarial fevers, and the first Christian mission in central Africa was doomed.
Mary Livingstone, born and raised in Africa, and no stranger to the frontier, was rather better prepared than the other women. She succeeded in a rendezvous with her husband, David, whom she had not seen for four years, and the meeting seemed to be a happy one. Yet, within three months, she too was dead from acute malaria on the banks of the Zambezi. She was 41.
Julie Davidson, who aims to rescue Mary Livingston from the place where history has left her, ‘a whisper in the thunderclap of her husband’s reputation’, begins with her death. Though the unchronological approach will frustrate some, it neatly sets the tone for an idiosyncratic book. Davidson acknowledges early on that there is not enough primary source material for a conventional biography: in stark contrast to her husband, Mary Livingstone left behind no journal and very few letters. Yet she is there, the silent participant on the edge of her husband’s story, and she is worth recovering.
Because she left so little behind, any account of Mary’s life beyond the basic facts and figures must, of necessity, be speculative. Davidson admits this, but she applies careful insight, research and deduction, as well as acknowledging those who have gone before (Janet Wagner Parsons’ book, The Living-stones at Kolobeng, is a key reference point, as are various of the many David Livingstone biographies). Her historical account of Mary Livingstone is interwoven with her own travels in Africa, attempting to follow in her footsteps, beginning with finding her grave.
Davidson is very knowledgable about Africa, historic and contemporary, and is a thoughtful and entertaining writer, but one must at times be patient with her digressions on weaver birds, lion attacks and the King of Swaziland’s 40th birthday party. Her background in travel writing surfaces in occasionally overlong descriptions of bush lodges and their facilities, and entertaining as it is to read about the Swaziland princesses, accessorising their bare-breasted tribal dress with designer sunglasses and handbags, one longs to get back to Mary Livingstone, that silent voice waiting to be heard. However, to her credit, Davidson succeeds in using the present to stimulate the imagination about the past. We see and feel the terrain, much of it inaccessible even today, and begin to imagine what it would mean to travel not by air-conditioned 4x4 with an experienced safari guide, but by oxcart, through uncharted territory.
David Livingstone was inspired to become a missionary to Africa after listening to a lecture by Robert Moffat, a gardener from Ormiston in East Lothian who became a missionary hero, founder of the thriving mission station at Kuruman, the ‘Cathedral of the Kalahari’. The young medical man quickly abandoned his plans to go to China and set his heart instead on Africa. By the time the Moffat family returned to Kuruman, he was there waiting for them. Two years later, he married Moffat’s eldest daughter.
The nature of the Livingstone marriage is one of the central questions in Davidson’s book and, perhaps, like so much that is private, it is ultimately unanswerable. Still, the scant sources which do exist suggest that Mary and David enjoyed one another’s company and were mutually attracted. He described her as ‘my rib’, ‘my heroine’, ‘the best spoke in the wheel’, and at her deathbed was ‘utterly broken down and weeping like a child’. She hated to be parted from him. Davidson goes as far as to suggest that Mary had an ‘emotional dependency’ on her husband which was ‘almost pathological’.
But the Livingstones were also products of their time. In Victorian society, any woman was subject to the choices of her husband, and this was accentuated in missionary life where the man of God would tend to see misfortunes affecting his family as necessary hardships, perhaps even sacrifices made in a greater cause. George Seaver, one of Livingstone’s biographers, wrote that Mary ‘had no choices, just situations.’ Davidson goes further, adding that, as her husband’s religious zeal became subsumed in his ambition to be an explorer, Mary and her children simply became ‘expendable’.
The newly married couple started their life together in an outlying mission station at Mabotsa. Mary produced three children in three years - Livingstone called her pregnancies ‘the great Irish manufactory’ - and they moved house almost as frequently, each time further into the interior. By the time they reached the frontier mission of Kolobeng, in modern day Botswana, there are hints at conflicting desires: Mary’s for a settled home, Livingstone’s to push further on, finding new lands of conquer, new tribes to convert.
This being Victorian mission life, he would get his wish, but initially he needed to find a way of dealing with his wife and children. First, he sent them back to her parents at Kuruman, but she was unhappy and quickly returned. Then he took them with him, on two punishing treks across the Kalahari. Mary was pregnant both times: on the first trek, her daughter, Elizabeth Pyne, was born just days after their return and lived only six weeks. On the second, her fifth child, Oswell, was born in the bush, not before the whole party nearly died of thirst after becoming lost in the desert.
In 1852, Livingstone found a more radical solution: he sent Mary and the children back to live with his parents in Hamilton, thus beginning the most difficult period of her life. It’s not hard to imagine how the climate and society of Scotland could have depressed a woman who had lived most of her life in Africa. In a grey land, feeling abandoned by her husband, this capable woman struggled to cope. She quarrelled with the Livingstone family, squandered money, suffered from a depressive illness and developed a fondness for drink - though Davidson sensibly points out that she may have used brandy the way many women today use wine, simply to take the edge off life’s hardships. Like so much in Mary’s life for which there is no evidence, we don’t know that she was an alcoholic.
In 1856, Livingstone returned, a hero, having crossed the continent of Africa, and she wrote a poem to welcome him home. While no great poet, she conveys sincere feeling, and begs that they will not again be parted. When he did leave on his next expedition, he resolved that Mary would go with him, though perhaps this had less to do with her happiness than his concern for her spiritual well-being. Mary’s letters written during their long separation (now lost), seemed to suggest that she was questioning her Christian faith.
Davidson points out that Mary would have found Christianity in Britain in a mood of some scepticism, with old certainties being shaken by Darwin’s theories. Even without that, there was enough in her personal experience to encourage her to ask questions. For a passionate Victorian evangelical like Livingstone, this was tantamount to disaster. It concerned the fate of his wife’s immortal soul. Perhaps, also, he was aware of the damage a faithless wife might do to his reputation. In 1859 they sailed for the Cape together, but by the time they landed, Mary was again pregnant, and had to divert to Kuruman where her last child, Anna-Mary, was born. So it was 1863 before she sailed up the Zambezi on the Pioneer to reunion, and her death.
Mary Livingstone is still a silence, a shadow at the heart of her own story, but Davidson’s book gives her a kind of a voice. She seems to speak not only for herself but for so many other women of her time who are similarly lost to us. And she is also interesting for the light she sheds on her husband. At times, the David Livingstone of this book seems remarkably loving, even solicitous. Yet we cannot forget that he dragged his pregnant wife and three young children across the Kalahari because of the diplomatic value she held with the local tribes as Robert Mof-fat’s daughter. Did he also, Davidson asks, destroy her letters to protect his own reputation? Surely, she writes, it is ‘more than carelessness that so many of Mary’s letters written during the various crises of her life have been lost to history.’
In truth, we cannot know, but Davidson’s portrait of Livingstone is not entirely unsympathetic. If he was impulsive, ambitious, selfish, he was also idealistic, and could be kind. He was no hero, but no monster either. And his wife, while strong, steady, courageous, was no angel. Both emerge from this book as complex and contradictory, in other words, real, messy, fallible human beings. In that sense, this book honours both of them.
LOOKING FOR MRS LIVINGSTONE
SAINT ANDREW PRESS, £24.99 ISBN: 9780715209646