The lost reviews – Southern Arabia by Theodore and Mabel Bent, 1900

An original edition of the Bents’ “Southern Arabia” (1900) (AbeBooks).

“We cannot too much admire the persistence, courage, and cheerful endurance of hardships displayed by Mr. Bent and his plucky wife.” – The Manchester Guardian

“Mrs. Bent has compiled a work rich in information. Much is included of extreme utility. The volume with its good maps and illustrations and instructive appendices, will deservedly take its place in the category of recognized and authoritative books of travel.” – The World

“May we hope for more.” – The Outlook

In Mabel Bent’s strange book Anglo-Saxons from Palestine (1908), she concludes, oddly, with a series of (favourable) reviews of her 1900 publication, and magnum opus, Southern Arabia (1900).

This was obviously a cathartic process for her – a further tribute to her husband Theodore Bent, on around the tenth anniversary of his early death in May 1897. And it is also worth saluting the great effort and amount of work required to compile and see through the presses a book of such scope.

It is unlikely that this bundle of press cuttings (no doubt from Mabel’s scrapbook) has appeared in a format such as this before, and the Bent Archive is more than pleased to offer it now, as part of our on-going project to bring the work of this remarkable couple to a wider audience.

Some notes are called for: Mabel has not given complete bibliographical references – we will endeavour to update these in due course as researches progress (some are very obscure). We may assume that they all appeared near the publication date of Southern Arabia, 26 January, 1900. Mabel has pieced many of these notices together from very long and enjoyable reviews, well worth the finding in full if you can. It will also become evident that Mabel has occasionally edited her work in rather eccentric manner, and, at least on one occasion, taken a liberty of two (see final two notices, The Spectator and The Athenaeum).

Southern Arabia – By Theodore Bent, F.R.G.S., F.S.A., & Mrs. Theodore Bent

Press Notices

Illustrated London News (Saturday, 21 April 1900): “A touching personal interest is added to this volume by the fact that it is the widow and travelling companion of the late Mr. Theodore Bent, the eminent archaeologist and explorer, both in Africa and Asia, who has, since his lamented death, a few days after his last coming home prepared their joint narrative for our reading. Its perusal we find not saddening, but delightful. The vivacity of her feminine humour, the keen observation of amusing little details, the lively recollection of droll anecdotes and the brave wife’s spirit of comradeship in their frequent adventurous travels, grace with a peculiar charm the instructive revelation of much rare learning which concerns the lore of historical antiquity as well as the present condition of territories yet imperfectly known. In some of these instances, as far as we are aware, no published former descriptions had anticipated the results of their local examination; the sketches and photographs which they took have the value of novelty and originality. The maps . . . will prove useful to future travellers and leaders of government expeditions. Mrs. Bent and her husband . . . endured much insolence and rude treatment, extortion of money and downright robbery and were even shot at, to the danger of their lives in journeys through this wild country. That lady’s high spirit and courage, the tact and cleverness with which she managed to bear her position, as the only female traveller must have been a great help to her conjugal partner. This book is her memorial of him and will be acceptable to many readers.”

Asiatic Quarterly Journal (3rd Series, Vol. X, pp. 208-9): “A very readable and highly interesting volume of their travels . . . the burden of producing the work was thrown upon Mrs. Bent, who has performed her task with excellent results. In the author’s narratives and descriptions there is much to interest the English reader, and their routes and troubles, difficulties and discomforts, will form an excellent guide to those who desire to follow in their footsteps. Some of the interviews are rather amusing. The fauna and flora, as well as the other natural productions and scenery of the various regions are pleasantly described. In the list of Sokotran words . . . is of much interest.”

The World: “Mrs. Bent has compiled a work rich in information. Much is included of extreme utility. The volume with its good maps and illustrations and instructive appendices, will deservedly take its place in the category of recognized and authoritative books of travel.”

Pall Mall Gazette (Thursday, 15 February 1900): “Mrs. Bent has written a very interesting book which should be of the greatest service to future explorers, to merchants dealing with Arabian commodities and to the Foreign Office. It is well illustrated by photos and sketches.”

The Sketch (Wednesday, 21 February 1900): “. . . His widow, the brave and highly accomplished lady, who was his constant travelling companion, sharing every hardship, fatigue, and occasionally perilous adventures, has prepared a worthy final memorial, a book which presents much rare and curious knowledge with plenty of entertaining personal narrative.”

Punch (March 28, 1900, p. 222): “A record of successive journeyings by Mr. and Mrs. Theodore Bent through unfrequented districts of a still unfamiliar country. A permanent and valuable result is found in the . . . maps, drawn after personal survey of pathways hitherto untrodden by a white man, not to mention a white woman. In his travelling, not always free from peril, Mr. Bent was comforted by the companionship of his plucky and resourceful wife . . . many passages of vivid description.”

Westminster Gazette (Friday, 16 February 1900): “Mr. Theodore Bent belonged to the best type of modern travellers. In his wanderings over some of the world’s little-known places, his only object was to add to the sum of human knowledge, concerning their antiquities, natural history, or inhabitants. Several of his books must be familiar to many of our readers, and it is a matter for regret that he did not live to put into permanent form the information he gained on his last journey. The task has, however, been successfully accomplished by Mrs. Bent, who was the companion of his travels. [But] his book remains a charmingly illustrated record of travel, with many practical hints for those who may wish to follow in his steps, and a valuable mine of facts about the regions visited.”

Westminster Gazette (Wednesday, 4 April 1900): “In Southern Arabia hasty political generalization is conspicuous by its absence . . . yet Mr. Theodore Bent, whose recent loss we so much regret, was incomparably, better equipped than most . . . to express his opinion on the political questions which claimed his attention in his travels. Mr. Theodore Bent’s sad death which occurred four days after his return, left Mrs. Bent the sad task of compiling an account of the travels they had so much enjoyed together. She has done the work with great tact and discretion . . . will be found a mine of information to those who think of traversing the same ground, and full of interest to antiquarians.”

Glasgow Herald (Thursday, 1 February 1900): “Of the man of leisure, who devotes his time to travel, the late Theodore Bent was a typical example. During the Winter season for many years, it was his habit to start for some interesting and unexplored region of the earth. One year it was found in Mashonaland another in Persia, or in Abyssinia, looking for the “Sacred City of the Ethiopians”, and the present volume, which appears under somewhat sad circumstances (owing to Mr. Bent’s recent death), describes a number of expeditions which he made in Southern Arabia, and the adjacent lands. The work as now issued, is from the joint pens of Mr. and Mrs. Theodore Bent. Few ladies have had so great an insight into Mahomedan life in its innermost and extreme fanatical circles, as the Editor of this work . . . an interesting account of the Islands of Bahrein. To the general reader, the most interesting part will doubtless be the graphic descriptions of Mahomedan life. Mrs. Bent had access to some of the harems, and her accounts of some of these are extremely amusing. We cannot pass over a comic account of a bed in the women’s apartments of a sheikh. Space will not allow us to deal as fully as we should like with the many interesting portions of this work; but we certainly must direct our reader’s attention to this extremely interesting account of the Island of Sokotra. We cannot close our notice without a special word of praise to the keen insight of Mrs. Bent into Oriental life, and of the happy knack she displays of knowing what to tell, and how to tell it. At present this book is the best, and indeed, the only account of regions which exercise a great fascination for the explorer and the archaeologist.”

The Scotsman (Thursday, 1 February 1900): “This volume has been produced under circumstances which will evoke strong sympathy with the survivor of the two travellers, who together have explored so many odd corners of Africa and Asia in the interest of archaeology and kindred sciences. Mr. Bent died four days after his return from his last journey to Arabia, and his wife, his companion and helper in his travels and explorations, has taken up the task of piecing together from her husband’s notes, lectures, and published articles, a record of their experiences and discoveries, and of supplementing and as far as possible, completing it from her own diary and recollections. She has not broken the continuity of the narrative by indicating, by inverted commas or other marks, their several parts in the book. Her story forms the bright running thread on which the more solid materials of her husband have been strung. The volume does not really stand in need of the lenient judgment which the reader is ready to exercise regarding it, for it makes a substantial and interesting addition to our knowledge of the obscure, and in these days, almost unvisited localities. Mr. and Mrs. Bent met with many adventures, most of them unpleasant.”

Daily Telegraph & Courier (London) (Saturday 14 April 1900): “Mr. Bent went out to visit some of these neglected spots taking his wife with him, the courageous lady on whom has devolved the duty of publishing their experiences . . . their researches were distinctly fruitful of promise for the future. . . The fanatical inhabitants made Mr. and Mrs. Bent’s journey one of daily excitement, they nearly succeeded in killing them on one or two occasions. But in the spite of everything, the travellers brought back an excellent map of the district and many interesting geographical facts – the joint authors, as usual, doing much to make smooth the way for further investigation. Altogether their book is curious and valuable since it deals with districts which have been lost sight of by the active world for 1,000 years or more.”

The Geographical Journal (1900, Vol. 16, p. 101): “The publication of Mrs. Theodore Bent’s volume makes a valuable addition to our scanty knowledge of a most interesting country . . . has been accomplished with much success, the materials having been combined into a readable whole. An excellent description is given. . . from an archaeological view its interest is no less . . .”

Literature (March 10, 1900, p. 210 [published by The Times]): “A real explorer will find much that is interesting and valuable in South Arabia. Ably as Mrs. Bent has performed her task, we can only regret that Mr. Bent did not live to write it himself. For all the travelling instincts of Englishmen, we are as a nation too seldom endowed with workers, who are patient, painstaking and thorough. Arabia remains on the whole the most likely country for an explorer to lose his life in. Mr. and Mrs. Bent owed their immunity to their caution and kindness.”

Yorkshire Post and Leeds Intelligencer (Saturday, 24 February 1900): “The death of Mr. Theodore Bent has thrown on Mrs. Bent the task of describing his last journey. They required all the pluck backed by strong curiosity, which he and his partner had aforetime shown themselves to possess. The Arabian Peninsula is a land of which European travellers have little to tell us. A glance at the map with its evidence as to the very small portion which these intrepid investigators traversed, is itself eloquent enough of the difficulties which attend travel in Arabia. Pluck and discretion of no common order are needed by those who would place themselves in charge of the Bedouin of the Hadhramout or the still wilder Gara tribe. Nor is the expedition along the coast of Soudan, with incursions inland, quite the holiday jaunt we should recommend to the average tourist. Mr. and Mrs. Bent seem to have taken hardships and dangers as a matter of course. They preserved very careful records of the countries, they saw the inhabitants and their ways, and of such detailed experiences as may be of value to other persons following in their step. As a book for the general reader this plain record of somewhat perilous journeys has a fascination all its own.”

The Pilot (March 24, 1900, p. 111): The late Mr. Theodore Bent, who has done so much for the extension of our knowledge of Africa by his daring and learned researches from Abyssinia to Mashonaland, was one of those lucky people who die in harness. The story of the last journeys is told in this interesting book. The present narrative we owe to the pious labours of the wife who bravely shared his dangers and his toils, and now modestly erects this final monument to his memory. ‘It would have been better told but that I only am left to tell it,’ she says in the simple and pathetic words which conclude the work. We may be content to say that it is very well told; with a freshness and eye for the picturesque, which will go far to compensate, in the view of the unscientific reader, for the absence of such further details as may have perished with Mr. Bent. The travellers succeeded in bringing home much fresh and valuable information. Books of this kind have their value alike for the politician, the archaeologist and the student of humanity. To the politician, the account of Bahrein will be opportune at the present moment. Mr. Bent’s account of this little-known sphere of influence (Persian Gulf) is well worth studying. For that matter his remarks on Muskat . . . will be novel to many readers. The chapter on Sokotra . . . also deserves careful study. The politician should be as interested in the Island’s value as the philologist in the specimens of its unique language. We may welcome books like Mr. Bent’s . . . these last journeys rewarded him with some remarkable archaeological discoveries. We have left ourselves little space to speak of the author’s contributions to anthropology, which are numerous and interesting. This book is a worthy crown to the work of Mr. Bent’s too short life.”

The Speaker: “His wife, who shared his love of voyage and investigating enthusiasm, has presented the result of their discoveries with much skill . . . the Authoress has succeeded in cleverly welding into a readable whole, her own connecting discoveries. The object of the voyages of discovery was two-fold, and the desire for [the] scientific was pleasantly combined with an interest in the persons, and things of the present. Incidents recorded should be of considerable use to any that shall venture in the steps of these venturesome voyagers.”

Daily Chronicle: “Mr. Theodore Bent was widely known as one of those energetic Englishmen with time and money at their disposal, whose great desire was to visit the unexplored regions of the earth, and in his ambition he seems to have succeeded. For many years he was engaged in these expeditions, and the present work describes a series of attempts to penetrate into the hitherto unexplored regions of Southern Arabia. The success of the journeys was certainly the Chronicle kept by Mrs. Bent, which is invaluable as a record of Mahometan life, in perhaps, the greatest hot-bed of fanaticism. Here we have the life of a land where, to the women, at least Europe is unknown. The book is a mine of wealth, all the more valuable for the fact that the Editress knows what to tell and how to tell it. In no work have we met with so many interesting traits of Mahometan life . . . the author affords us an interesting description of the curious sect of Wahabi. There are many other portions of this interesting work we should like to refer to, but space is limited. It abounds in valuable matter, and above all is a most valuable chronicle of Islamic life, in its purest and most fanatic form, untouched by Western civilization. The illustrations are numerous and excellent, and it is to be hoped we shall still have some chronicles from the pen of Mrs. Bent. The maps will add much to our knowledge of a hitherto unknown region.”

Manchester Guardian (Friday, 9 March 1900) “Mr. Theodore Bent was an intrepid explorer, zealous in Archaeological discoveries to the confusion of armchair antiquaries. The chief interest of Mr. Bent’s volume – or rather Mrs. Bent’s, for the work appears to have been largely compiled from the diaries of her courageous fellow-traveller – lies in its descriptions of the people of Southern Arabia. The tribes were often at war, and Mr. and Mrs. Bent were evidently in serious danger on several occasions. They considered the journeys they made under the protection of the Jabberi “quite the worst experience we had ever undergone in any of our travels”, which was saying a good deal. One must admire the coolness with which, while the Bedouin were shooting round their tent during the night in order to extract some more dollars, Mr. Bent told them he “would see about it in the morning”, and then lay down to sleep! [The work ] contains a vast deal of novel information about little known, and even absolutely unknown, parts of the world, and presents for the first time maps of those parts. Considering the obstacles they had to surmount, the difficulties of the journeys, and the impediments to conversation, it is wonderful that so large a body of valuable facts should have been gathered. The list of plants from Dhofar is a valuable addition to botanical knowledge, and eleven new species of land and fresh-water molluscs from Sokotra were added. All this was accomplished in spite of much opposition and treachery, in face of peculiar linguistic obstacles. We cannot too much admire the persistence, courage, and cheerful endurance of hardships displayed by Mr. Bent and his plucky wife.”

London Daily News (Monday, 26 February 1900): “The well-known traveller and scholar, the late Mr. Theodore Bent, and Mrs. Theodore Bent, who accompanied him on big expeditions, set forth what the Persians . . . the subject is interesting [sic]. It contains much matter that is new, and [a] very useful bibliography lists Arabic words collected in Sokotra and Southern Arabia, etc.”

Morning Post (Thursday, 15 March 1900): “Theodore Bent was one of a comparatively small band of travellers prepared to face countless discomforts, and to undergo serious perils in the wildest, the unhealthiest, and most inhospitable of regions, if only they can add something to the general stock of scientific knowledge, and his present work which is devoted partly to the almost unknown country. . . is a valuable record of Antiquarian research, as well as a graphic narrative of adventure. Unfortunately, his journeying to Southern Arabia was fated to be his last, for he died (of malarial fever) only four days after his return. His story, therefore, is supplemented by his wife, who was his companion throughout his wanderings, and faced with perfect equanimity all manner of risks. On this Arabian journey the explorers were in considerable danger – they were actually fired at, but after some weeks of perilous adventure, they accomplished their task, having opened up a wide country, and found many objects of antiquarian importance, as well as various natural history specimens, entirely new to science. There is an amusing account of a visit to the ruler of Dhofar. Of their visit to Sokotra, of their perilous voyages in Arab waters . . . we have no space to speak, nor can we do more than hint at the scientific results by which both the British Museum and Kew Gardens have been enriched. The book is a valuable one, and is eminently readable, and it adds to our regret that the career of a traveller of a rare type has been prematurely closed.”

The Table: “Mrs. Theodore Bent gives some weird descriptions of Arab food, &c. . . An interesting description of the Hadhramout. . . The journey, if not an agreeable one, from a geographical and historical one, yielded some important results. . . The description of Sokotra and its inhabitants and their mode of living, given by Mrs. Bent, is well worth reading. . . The work also contains much that will interest the historian and archaeologist, as well as the geographer. Good work was done, and the investigation of [Phoenician ?] tombs . . . discovery of ancient gold workings. . . information obtained respecting sites of ancient towns, and the early frankincense trade, all help to throw light on the early history of this interesting part of the world.”

Egyptian Gazette: “Araby the blest has been lately visited, and few more interesting books of travel have been published than the story of the journeys undertaken in Southern Arabia by the late Theodore Bent and his wife. . . Note this interesting picture, describing how some curious women came to see Mrs. Bent. . . It abounds in valuable matter.”

The Outlook: “Of the few regions of the inhabited earth that may still be described as impenetralia, Southern Arabia is one. Like another region, that of Thibet, the forbidden land, it owes its seclusion to the intense fanaticism of its inhabitants. To the late Mr. Bent, a born wanderer, who year after year visited obscure regions of the earth, such as the ruined fortress-cities of Mashonaland or the sacred city of the Ethiopians at Axum, it presented a great fascination, and he has devoted no less than four campaigns to attempt to reach the once historically important region of the Hadhramout. The last expedition, that to the Fadhli land, cost him his life. Stricken with fever, and worn out, the party reached Aden, and Mr. Bent died a few days after his return to England. The task of editing the journals of the several expeditions fell to Mrs. Bent, who humbly describes herself as the Chronicler of the expeditions, an office she certainly ably filled. [The work is rich material] coming essentially from the pen of Mrs. Bent, who possesses in a marked degree the art of knowing what to tell and how to tell it. The harems of the wild mountaineers were open to her, and she gives a curious description of their inmates. Of Sokotra a graphic and interesting description. . .  May we hope for more.”

North British Daily Mail: “The long companionship of which this volume (the last of many) reminds us, has been broken by death. . . It has been left for the widow, who had been always with him in his wanderings in Africa, Arabia,  and elsewhere, to bring out this narrative, incorporating his notes and some articles from his pen with records she made regularly during their journeys. We have nothing but praise for the style in which this has been done, and the whole narrative reads like the work of one person. On the general scope of the book it may be said that it adds considerably to our knowledge of some of the places visited. Mr. and Mrs. Bent seem to have got on very well with the people of Baherin [sic]; only on one occasion were they in some danger. Less pleasant and more dangerous was the expedition to the Hadhramout, though it offered more in the way of novelty. A very interesting narrative is that which Mrs. Bent gives us, interesting as much for the story of adventures, trials of patience, and last for the description of the people and the land. But it must be read to the full in her own pages. From her studies of the harem, which, to one of her experiences offered little novelty or pleasure, but which could not be escaped, one gets glimpses of beauty and fashion. The expedition along the eastern fringe of the Soudan 1895, when it was not the least risky thing in the world to go exploring . . . inland from the Red Sea, and the later exploration of the Island of Sokotra, so rarely visited, offer many points of interest to those who will read this volume. There are few great prizes left to the traveller bent on exploring untrodden or little-trodden ground, but Mrs. Bent has given us an excellent  account of much good work and hard work, which involved great courage and endurance.”

London Evening Standard (Thursday, 13 September 1900): “A melancholy interest belongs to this volume, which tells the story of journeys in Southern Arabia and adjacent regions. Four days after his return from his last expedition, Mr. Theodore Bent succumbed to a fever. His death while in full vigour was a grave loss to scientific travel, and especially to geography and archaeology. Partial accounts of this last set of journeys, begun in 1889, have been already published in magazines and geographical journals, but Mrs. Bent has welded these together with the manuscript journals kept by herself and her husband so as to give a condensed and systematic account of a very interesting, and rather hazardous series of explorations. The chief difficulties in this and other journeys, apart from the minor miseries of dirt and stenches, vermin and obtrusive natives, were due to two kinds of people, rogues and fanatics. Their hosts, like Gehazi, were moved by the idea of getting something out of the strangers, now by wiles, now by extortion. The book shows much close and careful observation, and deepens our regret for the loss of a traveller no less enterprising than accomplished. It is written in an easy, pleasant style, and illustrated by photographs which were often taken under considerable difficulties, owing to heat and the dryness of the climate.”

The Spectator (April 21, 1900, pp. 556-7): “No region is less known than the Hadramout, the Hazarmaveth of Genesis X, to which the most important chapters of Mrs. Bent’s records of her own and her husband’s travels are devoted. Save for one solitary traveller, Dr. Hirsch, who penetrated one of the valleys, the land of frankincense and myrhh remained virgin soil for the intrepid Anglo-Irish pair of travellers, who ran the gauntlet of its hostile tribes. They were rewarded by the most dangerous and unpleasant journey that even their contempt of comfort could desire. The tribes were as usual at feud, the country was thoroughly unsafe, the guides and chiefs were extortionate and threatening. Indeed Mr. and Mrs. Bent’s book is full of interesting information and suggestions about a terra plurimus incognita. The seven journeys were rich in observation of men and manners or perhaps of women and no manners, and not least in botanical and zoological collection. Southern Arabia is a book to read…”

[Mabel has been understandably selective above. The critic here – an outside bet Gertrude Bell (not a fan) or, more likely, the Arabist David Hogarth, a fickle friend to the Bents ever since Theodore pipped him to the post at Olba in the late 1880s – concludes his/her review thus: “If the travellers had been more at home in the languages, and their book had been better written, it would have been intensely interesting. Even as it is, despite loose grammar and no style… Southern Arabia is a book to read – with discrimination.”

The Athenaeum (No. 3776, 10 March 10, 1900, pp. 296-7): “Mr. Theodore Bent . . . we shall not easily find another to fill his place with equal zeal, energy, perseverance, and self-devotion, aided to the full by a wife who shared his courage and enthusiasm. These last records of their journeys are a pathetic memorial of honest work carried out with unflinching pluck and endurance. Whatever Mr. and Mrs. Bent collected about the Hadramis, is practically new material. There is plenty of curious and obviously trustworthy information about the people and the country, which was well worth collecting. There is a charming and novel account of Dhofar and the beautiful Gara mountains. There is also an excellent account of Sokotra.”

[Mabel has also heavily edited this review for inclusion in her selection; it ends as follows: “These last records of their journeys are a pathetic memorial of honest work carried out with unflinching pluck and endurance. . . Mrs. Bent has done the best she could with her husband’s notes, filled in and supplemented by her own diary, but it must be frankly confessed that this best might be easily bettered. There is far too much of trivial detail in her book, and too little of scientific precision. . . The maps. . . are perhaps the most valuable feature in a book which, however interesting in its account of little-known regions, is too vague and sketchy to stand as a permanent authority.”

Mabel Bent in the Palestinian hinterland in 1900/1 (Moses Cotsworth collection, Rare Books and Special Collections, Irving K. Barber Learning Centre, University of British Columbia).

Who can blame Mabel for omitting that – how painful it must have been after her loss and all the effort required to assemble a lengthy and complicated book.  At least, the critic had that last line wrong – for Southern Arabia defiantly remains on the shelves of all serious researchers on the area, 120 years later.