“Recollection of the Tartar Steppes and their Inhabitants” by Lucy Atkinson

Lucy Atkinson serving tea  in a yurt Lucy Atkinson serving tea in a yurt

To appreciate Lucy Atkinson as the most intrepid of all Victorian women explorers one only has to read her discreet allusion to giving birth after 150 kms of horseback riding across a waterless steppe: “I was in expectation of a little stranger, whom I thought might arrive about the end of December or the beginning of January; expecting to return to civilisation, I had not thought of preparing anything for him, when, lo and behold, on the 4th November, at twenty minutes past four pm, he made his appearance.” No one ever maintained a stiffer upper lip.

Lucy Sherrard Finley, born in 1817, had adventure bred in her bones. From a merchant marine family, whose lives revolved around London’s docks, she had siblings emigrate to Australia; she herself found employment as a governess in Saint Petersburg; her son born on the steppe became a successful journalist in Hawaii. At the home of her employers, the well-connected Counts Muraiev, she met Thomas Witlam Atkinson, 18 years older than she, already a famous explorer and painter. After a year of diligent letter exchanging, she decided to marry him in 1848 and join him on a 5-year, 40,000 mile scientific and artistic journey across Kazakhstan and Siberia. She had never ridden a horse before.

 

Recollections of Tartar Steppes and Their Inhabitants, Lucy Atkinson, Nick Fielding (intro), Marianne Simpson (intro) (Signal Books, September 2021)
Recollections of Tartar Steppes and Their Inhabitants, Lucy Atkinson, Nick Fielding (intro), Marianne Simpson (intro) (Signal Books, September 2021)

Thomas Atkinson came home to a lion’s welcome, invited to join various learned societies, and publishing his Travels in the Regions of the Upper and Lower Amoor and the Russian Acquisitions on the Confines of India and China  to great success in 1860. He never once mentions his wife or son in the course of his narrative. The reason for this omission was especially galling to Lucy. Her husband was a bigamist. His first wife had eyes on his money, and after his untimely death in 1861, his estate. Lucy published her side of the story not out of pique at her husband’s passing over her in silence, but because she needed the money. As a result, we have one of the most lively, engaging and amusing descriptions of both Russia in the age of Nicolas I and the Kazakhs in the twilight of their independent lifestyle.

Mrs Atkinson’s book is a complement to Mr Atkinson’s. The husband describes the activities of the Kazakh herders, their hunts, their horse races, their interactions with the ever more intrusive imperial government. The wife describes how a little lamb is slaughtered, the curiosity of the Kazakh women for her elaborate toilette, and the outcomes of affairs of the heart on the steppe. It reminds one of other husband-wife ethnological teams like the Ferneas in Iraq and the Duprees in Afghanistan, though we will never know what Thomas Atkinson thought of Lucy Atkinson’s services to science.

Lucy Atkinson is condescending to the Kazakhs, but at the same time open-minded. She mocks her Kazakh minder for entreating her to sew for him a cap like the one she made for her baby son. Afterward he parades through the settlement wearing the cap. On another occasion, she cites a Muslim man of religion’s critique of Christianity, “You say God created the world in six days and on the seventh day he rested. Do you think God is a cobbler? He can create the world in an instant.” In face of this argument, which goes back to Al-Ghazali, Atkinson has no reply. Some of her interactions with the Kazakhs are very familiar to me. She asks her hosts why they do not eat the lovely wild berries along the way. “Our animals eat them and we eat the animals,” was the reply, which I heard verbatim 150 years later.

 

This welcome re-edition of the book issued in 1863 and again in 1972 has its strengths and weaknesses. The biographical notice of Lucy Atkinson is extremely complete, and paints an engrossing story about middle-class mettle and ambition among Victorians, who faced bankruptcy, childhood death and crushing legal fees with heroic equanimity. On the other hand, the notes to the text can be confusing. The editors don’t systematically correct Lucy’s idiomatic spelling of Russian or Kazakh words, and don’t always provide the modern names for the places she visited. Helpfully, they did change the 19th-century usage of the word “Kirghiz” to refer to the Kazakhs, or else many readers would have been confused. It’s annoying that they don’t explain Atkinson’s constant use of the word “dressing gown” as a reference to a “khalat”, or ceremonial robe. The Russians took to using the Turkish word for their informal house wear. As a result Lucy Atkinson’s proud Khazakh sultans parade around in their “dressing gowns”. Additional Russian and Kazakh cultural notes would have been useful.

Readers will enjoy Lucy Atkinson’s lively storytelling style, her arch observations on gender issues in English, Russian and Kazakh society, as well as her evocation of the natural wonders that she and her husband first brought to the world’s attention.


David Chaffetz is the author of Three Asian Divas: Women, Art and Culture in Shiraz, Delhi and Yangzhou (Abbreviated Press, November 2019). His forthcoming book Horse Power will be published by WW Norton in 2023.