Saturday, August 30, 2014

The real historical figures in Sophie, in Shadow

Alexandra David Néel

In the course of her long and adventurous life, Alexandra David-Néel (24 October 1868 – 8 September 1969) was an opera singer, scholar , spiritualist, Buddhist, anarchist, author of more than thirty books on Eastern religion, and intrepid explorer of the Himalayas. In 1924, at the age of 55, after many unsuccessful attempts to enter Tibet -- long forbidden to foreigners -- she disguised herself as a male pilgrim and, accompanied by her adopted son, Sikkimese monk Aphur Yongden, she became the first European woman to reach Lhasa. Out that journey came her best known book, My Journey to Lhasa (1927). Alexandra’s writings and her adventures inspired not only Jack Kerouac Allen Ginsberg, and philosopher Alan Watts, but generations of Himalayan travellers

Many years earlier, as the 20 year old Alexandra Néel, she studied oriental languages and philosophies in London and Paris.  This younger free-spirited Alexandra appears in my novel Wild Talent: a Novel of the Supernatural.  For Alexandra’s adventures in those early years, I drew on her journal entries, published posthumously as Le sortilège du mystère. Though Wild Talent was meant to be the story of my fictional hero Jeannie Guthrie, her friend Alexandra seemed determined to take over the narrative.

In Sophie, in Shadow, a quarter of a century on, the middle-aged Alexandra is comfortably ensconced in her Himalayan hermit’s cave, ten thousand feet above Gangtok, and is still making plans to visit Tibet. Meanwhile, I’ve given her a new role as spiritual adviser to my young hero Sophie Pritchard.

Sir Charles Bell

 During their stay in Sikkim Sophie and the Grenville-Smith family  are guests of the British Resident, Sir Charles Bell, Britain’s political officer in Sikkim, and his wife Cashie. Sir Charles was a respected Tibetan scholar, a friend of the 13th Dalai Lama, whom he met in 1910, and influential in Sikkimese and Bhutanese politics, However, as we see in Sophie, in Shadow, his relationship with Alexandra David Neel was an uneasy one.

Prince Sidkeong Tulku Namgyal

Prince Sidkeong, Maharaja and Chogyal of Sikkim for a brief period in 1914, was a close friend of Alexandra David Néel. When he died suddenly under suspicious circumstances at the age of 35, Alexandra was distraught. Prince Sidkeong’s reformist plans were opposed by the rest of the Sikkimese royal family, and there was a suggestion that his stepmother, the Dowager Queen Drolma, might have had a hand in his death.

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