Reading Group Guide
This reading group guide for The Wilder Shores of Love includes an introduction, discussion questions, and ideas for enhancing your book club. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
The Wilder Shores of Love is the true tale of four fearless women, all of whom left the safety of home to know and inhabit the mysterious East. Isabel Burton meets her destiny through marriage to the adventurous travel writer Richard Burton and becomes his companion in travel and love; Jane Digby marries a series of husbands on her quest to find her true love, whom she finally meets and marries in a tent in the desert; Aimée Dubucq de Rivery is kidnapped and forced into the Sultan’s harem in Turkey, only to become a beloved favorite and the most powerful woman in the Ottoman Empire; and Isabelle Eberhardt defies every convention to live as a man among desert Arabs. These stirring biographies by Lesley Blanch illustrate the lengths these four women went to in order to fulfill their longings—whether it was giving up family or living forever outside their homelands. The spirit of the desert moved each of the four with dramatic consequences.
TOPICS AND QUESTIONS FOR DISCUSSION
- Needless to say, travel was essential to the heroines of The Wilder Shores of Love. Their desire to travel defined them as people. How have the places you’ve visited or lived influenced you? Is there a place that holds a special place in your heart— either as one you’ve been to, or as one you long to see?
- Whether it’s Isabel Burton’s fortune as told by the gypsy woman of her youth or the palm reading by the Pythoness of Martinique, destiny plays a large part in these women’s stories. Do you believe in destiny or are you the captain of your own ship? To what degree do you think the women align their lives with their foretold futures, or do you think their destinies were decided long before they lived them?
- Do you believe these women could have accomplished their goals without getting married? How does each woman relate to her husband (or husbands)—as harbinger, gatekeeper, impediment?
- “Isabel acted toward Burton very much as England was then acting toward the East. She colonized him” (p 5). What are the attitudes of “colonizer and colonized” in The Wilder Shores of Love? Are there tensions between Eastern and Western Europe? How do these tensions impact the four women of the book?
- The Wilder Shores of Love was originally published in 1952. How do you think the book stands the test of time? Nearly sixty years later, does the book still have something to teach us about love, destiny, and the limitations that were placed on women?
- Isabel Burton married late and was considered by some to be an old maid before she married; Jane Digby was “thought to be forty” when she was sixty-eight (p 181). By contrast, Isabelle Eberhardt died young while struggling with a rapidly debilitating body. How did each of these women deal with the reality of aging? How do you think their attitudes differed from the convention of the time?
- What did you think of the fortune Lesley Blanch had commissioned for the end of Isabelle Eberhardt’s story? Were you impressed with its accuracy? Or did you think that Blanch was stretching the story to fit the reading?
- All of the women in The Wilder Shores of Love mastered many languages—Arabic, French, desert dialects. How do you think this multiplicity of speech and writing affected their lives? Do you speak any other languages? How does the ability to understand someone else in their native language affect your interaction with that person?
- Discuss Isabel Burton’s decision to burn Richard’s translation of The Scented Garden. Do you think she made the right choice? What might have been gained, by her and by the world, if she’d allowed it to be published? Do you think it is what Richard would have wanted or was Isabel acting on her own rationalization?
- Blanch argues that Aimée’s influence on the Turkish government was substantial and affected Napoleon’s French empire. Do you agree? How much influence do you think a wife or mother can have on a ruler? Do you think Aimée affected the history of Europe in a profound way? How might things have turned out if she hadn’t been the sultan’s favorite?
- Explore your destiny: hire a palm reader, a mystic, or someone who specializes in Tarot readings and have everyone’s fortunes told. Or you can pick up a book of horoscopes or a Tarot card book from the library and have someone in your group read the fortunes of everyone else.
- Experience Middle Eastern food: babaganoush, moussaka, or some other delicacy that you wouldn’t normally eat can add new flavors and textures to your palate—you might even discover a new favorite food! You can have everyone bring a different item, or order in from a local Iraqi, Pakistani, Indian, African, or Turkish restaurant.
- Blanch speaks often of the haunting melodies of desert music. Download or get a CD from the library of Turkish Traditional Music by Ensemble Tahir Aydogdu; discuss how the music influences the mood of the book club meeting. How does it differ from Western music that you’re probably more familiar with?