- Edith and I: On the Trail of an Edwardian Traveller in Kosovo by Elizabeth Gowing
Following in the footsteps of British traveler, writer, and anthropologist Edith Durham, Elizabeth Gowing’s recounting of her journey through Edith’s Kosovo is a moving depiction of the ways in which the story of Kosovo and its peoples have been presented and understood by those who travel across its terrain and seek to understand its characters. Through physically following the path trodden by a female traveler who had died nearly thirty years before Gowing’s birth, the author combines journeys in Kosovo, conversations with Edith’s living family members, and extensive archival work, to marry an insight into the life and passions of Edith Durham together with a more personal love of Kosovo and its peoples. The author’s desire to preserve and protect cultural artifacts and treasures under threat from a perceived rush to modernize on the one hand, and the deliberate policy of destruction of cultural heritage on the other, is documented very clearly as she unravels the treasures that inspired Edith Durham and that continue to provoke the passions of Elizabeth Gowing.
The author’s obvious love for her subject comes across on every page, and the opportunities she offers the reader to share in that enthusiasm make this a very engaging read, offering a fascinating approach to the challenges faced by the Kosovo of today, in comparison with Edith Durham’s (or Aydit Dourham’s) Kosovo. Edith’s world in Kosovo and her life in her homeland merge fluidly with the author’s experiences of Kosovo and Kosovars and her own search for her future trajectory. The reader is left with the impression that the author is almost seeking guidance from Edith’s biographical fragments to plot her own future biography. Along with evocations of where Edith’s world and the life of Elizabeth Gowing collide, there are almost painful moments of nostalgia, regret, and missed opportunity. The author’s sadness and [End Page 840] feelings of an opportunity lost forever after being told, towards the end of her research, of the recent death of one of Edith’s family members who had had living memories of the subject of her passion, and the missed potential for hearing the story of Edith “from the horse’s mouth,” is almost tangible. The reader is drawn into the author’s disappointment to the extent that we are almost willing for an alternate family member, carrying with him/her equal opportunity for memory and anecdotal riches, to appear before the book and the author’s journey is complete.
Given the emphasis the author places upon descriptions of Edith Durham’s physical appearance, the lack of photos of Edith is a little disappointing, although perhaps it is because of the lack of available photos that the author feels the need to go into such detail in describing Edith’s physical features— such detail, it could be suggested, may have bemused Edith Durham herself. It would also be interesting to know how any possible Albanian translation of the book may be received within Kosovo itself. Parts of the narrative raise wider questions around the role of non-resident travelers in the developmental and historical dynamic of a community, and specifically the potential for conflict between the preservation of history and its relics and the practical daily realities of modern life. The tension between the plans for development of an outdated residence versus the passion for conservation on the part of the historian or the anthropologist was clear in one particular example of action taken by the author to block the proposed development of a building in which a family had lived for generations and which contained within it historic examples of çardaks but no central heating. The family in residence assured the author that they had acquiesced to the proposed demolition of the building by a property developer in return for being granted rights of residence in one of the luxury modern flats that was to be...