Undreamed Shores by Frances Larson review – the heroines of British anthropology

Adventures in Siberia, in the Nile Valley and on Easter Island ... but these female pioneers faced prejudice and tragedy at home

When Maria Czaplicka first encountered the indigenous hunters and herders of northern Siberia it wasn’t clear who was doing anthropology on whom. The Oxford-based scholar had spent much of 1914 sledging over the Arctic steppes to reach the Evenks in order to ask them about their kinship structures, marriage customs and the right way to eat a reindeer. They in turn wanted to know which tundra she had come from and how she made a living without any fox skins to trade. And why did such a young person have such old hair (her blondness struck them as the grey of middle age), and then, the question that women still get: where were her children? The queries that hurtled back and forth were fearless but fertile and produced the rich data that Czaplicka marshalled so brilliantly in My Siberian Year (1916), the hit book that she published on her return to Britain.

It sounds as though Czaplicka was poised for success, if not celebrity. And yet, as Frances Larson explains in this enthralling group biography, the first generation of professional female anthropologists faced far more prejudice back home than they ever did out in the field. Funding, career progression, access to academic publishing (My Siberian Year was actually brought out by Mills & Boon) all remained tantalisingly out of reach. While it’s true that in 1916 Czaplicka was appointed Oxford’s first female lecturer in anthropology, it was made clear that she was to keep the post warm until the right man came home from the war. Obliged to move to Bristol University , the final straw came in 1921 when the Polish-born scholar failed to win a fellowship that would have allowed her to return to Siberia. Exhausted after years of begging and scraping together money for her field work, the 36-year-old downed five fatal pills of mercuric chloride.

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