Book review: Looking For Mrs Livingstone, by Julie Davidson

IT’S A rare book that has your eyes stinging before it’s even started. But Julie Davidson’s prologue, with its letter from ten-year-old Anna Mary Livingstone – youngest child of the by then famous African missionary ­explorer Dr Livingstone – did it to me.

The letter is written from her grandparents’ home in Lanarkshire on New Year’s Day, 1869; it’s addressed not to her mother, who had been dead for nearly seven years, nor to her father, whom she had met for the first time at age five and hadn’t seen since, but to Danish writer Hans Christian Andersen. It’s a beautiful piece of Victorian stiff-backed stoicism, explaining how her mother died “of the desert fever” while she herself was a “wee bairn”; and sharing with childish optimism her plan to visit the writer of fairytales in Copenhagen when her father came home from his travels. He ­never did – or not until his ­coffin was carried with affecting ceremony into Westminster Abbey in 1874.

Livingstone’s story had ­acquired its own mythic status long before his death, but this isn’t his story. What emerges of his character and ambition is filtered through the experience of the woman whose own life he eclipsed, and whom ­history has done its best to forget – his wife.

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Mary Moffat Livingstone was born on her father’s mission station, 800 miles north of Cape Town in 1821, and died on the banks of the Zambezi in 1862. She married Livingstone aged 24, but in the next 18 years spent only eight in his company. On two extended ­periods of “exile” in Britain while her husband went ­exploring, she was totally adrift.

In their years in Africa, however, she was resilient and resourceful – through six pregnancies. She crossed the parched Kalahari twice by ox cart, the first white woman to do so; both times while expecting. On the ­second journey she gave birth (with help from her doctor husband) ­under the stars.

She spent months living in mission stations virtually alone while her husband went looking for new tribes to convert. She lived nearly a year with her young family in a reed and pole shelter while he finished building a house for them; another time she spent months living in an ox cart while he travelled ahead. She died after three weeks in the mosquito-infected Zambezi delta, waiting for a ship to send two other women home – a young bride and the spinster sister of a bishop whose missionary menfolk had died while they, and their piano, were en route from Britain.

Others before Davidson have gone in search of Mary – no easy task, since none of her ­letters to her husband, or any other relative, have survived. Davidson warmly acknowledges her debt to her predecessors; but what she does here has a fresh immediacy, thanks in part to her long ­experience as a travel writer. On a series of tailor-made ­safaris, she tracks Mary’s life while painting a vivid picture of ­Africa today.

Given the facts, and the very different world in which we now live, the wonder is that Looking For Mrs Livingstone never stoops to outrage. ­Livingstone emerges as an ­obsessive, driven man, but not a coldly callous one; stirred by his passion to end the slave trade and improve the lot of the indigenous peoples even while succumbing to the vanities of the feted explorer.

And, as Alexander McCall Smith says in a thoughtful ­introduction, the legacy of the Victorian missionary zeal that propelled those like Livingstone – and Mary’s altogether wiser and more sensible parents, Robert and Mary Moffat – is a powerful African style of ­spirituality that secular ­modern westerners have no right to dismiss.

Mary Livingstone was no Hollywood heroine, or we might have heard more of her sooner. She was plain, plump, plain-speaking and, in her lonely years away from her husband, partial to brandy. ­Julie Davidson has found a powerful way to present her life. It’s also a powerful piece of travel writing.