Teresa and George Littledale weren’t just two of the most accomplished adventurers of the late 1800s, Teresa was also one of the first (if not the first) European woman to ever embark on such extreme expeditions. So Through a Land of Extremes: The Littledales of Central Asia, by Elizabeth and Nicholas Clinch, should have been a fascinating book. Should have been.
To be clear, parts of this book are absolutely fascinating and engaging. I mean, come on, this is the story of a relatively wealthy woman, who married someone even wealthier, possibly had an affair with a younger man, married that younger man when her first husband died, became even wealthier, and then spent her life traveling to some of the most remote, extreme environments in the world. Meanwhile, that young husband of hers was one of the greatest hunters and explores of the time, and during their expeditions, he was very likely involved in some low-level espionage for the British government against the Russians. How could such a story be anything but insanely exciting???
Well, sadly, the story isn’t told very well. The authors went to such ‘extremes’ to make sure their account was the most accurate telling possible, that they completely removed all elements of excitement and adventure. It was more akin to high-school history where names, dates and only the most concrete facts are covered, rather than bringing this couple to life. The book often dragged as one adventure after another sounded exactly alike. This dullness is especially unfortunate given how much time and effort the authors put into researching the story. The Clinches begin the book by telling us about their own adventure trying to locate letters and diaries about the Littledales’ travels. It sounds like they put forth a herculean effort that involved twists and turns and hopes and disappoints, worthy of their own story. The authors also kept building up the story, implying that one adventure after another was exciting, but nothing compared to what the adventurous couple would experience later. But then the climax was a considerable let down.
Another issue I had with the telling of the story was how often foreign words and concepts were introduced with absolutely no explanation. 1800s expedition travel into southeast Asia is something unfamiliar to most people, and I would have appreciated a lot more description about what was involved in the travel.
That said, there’s a part of me that really, really wants you to read this book. While the authors may have lacked a satisfactory story-telling style, the story is still amazing. The couple was amazing. The conflict between Britain and Russia at the time, an earlier cold war, known as The Game, was completely new to me, and the politics involved in traveling through Russia to Asia was fascinating. Then, there was everything involved in an expedition. I’m used to today’s mountaineering, in which everything is as light as possible. The exact opposite was the case back then. They’d take thousands of pounds of food, requiring tens and sometimes hundreds of animals, which meant they needed as many as fifty or more people to help them manage all of this. They hires guides and other assistants from the local tribes of the mountains they’d travel to, and these employees often plotted against the couple in an effort to steal money and animals (which the couple almost always managed to thwart). Teresa, being a woman, often wasn’t expected to hike, so there were devices purchased and rigged up so that men could carry her. It’s simply an amazing lifestyle.
I spent much of the book trying to figure out how I could rewrite it as a slightly more fictitious book to incorporate more of the intrigue and emotions and risk that the couple faced. I may still try. The ending was something of a disappointment as their main travel goal was ultimately thwarted, so I’m not quite sure how to spin the story. But the Littledales deserve to have their story told. For now, Through a Land of Extremes, is the best telling they’ll get. It was clearly a labor of love, and the authors deserve credit for their work; it’s just not the exciting book it should have been.