Mary Sheil is the first European, female travel writer who travelled and lived in Persia and left behind a valuable travel journal which later was published in a book. There were many more female travellers to Persia, Ella Sykes, Gertrud Bell, Susan Townley, Elizabeth Ross and others. I selected those that fitted better into the genre of travel writing and also were larger than life characters. However, the inclusion of Mary Sheil is solely for her being the first female who travelled to Persia and wrote a book of some historical importance.
It is also interesting to note that with a few exceptions most of them were English!
They went to places where few men dared to enter unless armed soldiers marched behind them. They were so unique, extremely talented and brave. Some of them had their life calling shaped mysteriously from an early age, like Freya Stark and Sylvia Matheson. And others discovered themselves as they took risks and went forward in life, looking for the right opportunity to unleash their gifts and fulfil their destiny. Isabella Bird was a born traveller who wanted to explore the world and had no fear as she walked or rode alone around the globe. She has been described as “boldest of travellers” and only death stopped her from travelling more.
Thanks for all your support and interest in reading them. I hope their adventures and free spirits have inspired you and piqued your curiosity to read their books and more importantly made you want to travel.
Lady Mary Leonora Sheil
I doubted it if Mary wanted ever to travel, especially the epic journey to Persia and back. Mary was not a typical traveller but circumstances of her life forced her to travel. Perhaps she had no choice in the matter. She married Justin Sheil who was a British soldier and later promoted into high diplomatic positions. He was 22 years her senior and had already been to Persia on various missions and had become an expert person in the field who was effective in Persia for the British.
Contrary to some accounts that Mary was English, she was born in Co. Clare Ireland. And Justin was born in Co. Kilkenny. Because Justin Sheil was part of the “English Mission” they were thought of as English.
Mary did not realise that not just the journey to Persia and back was going to be arduous, even tortuous, also her first three children will be born there. The most traumatic episodes of Mary’s time in Iran was the execution of Bāb and the persecution of his followers. The slaughter that followed after the first assassination attempt on the shah was horrific. Mary was only some few kilometres away when it happened. She tries to keep her distance in describing the unfolding events but still her emotions seep through the sentences and for the reader it’s even harder not to see the senseless brutality that Qajari officials unleashed on the followers of Bāb. This is especially evident when Tahirih (poet and prophetess) was strangled. Mary called it “ a cruel and useless deed.” She also refers to a petition that was submitted to the Prime Minister, “that these barbarous and unheard-of proceedings were not only revolting in themselves but would produce the utmost horror and disgust in Europe.” It was Amir Kabir, the legendary Iranian reformer who ordered the execution of Bāb. He later, for other political reasons was gradually stripped of his posts and murdered by the order of Nāṣer al-Dīn Shah. The Shah himself was assassinated later in life.
In Persia, Mary was confined to the boundaries of a diplomatic life. She did try to learn Persian so she could communicate with the people and go deeper and understand the local customs and tradition. She also makes good use of any encounter with Persians apart from the limited elite.
Some of her information are a direct result of her analysing and recording events, others from another source, perhaps her husband or someone else.
She tries to remain polite even when sometimes she feels like fish out of water in the Iranian Qajar and compares herself to Crab, her Scotch terrier who was stared at with the same strangeness at times.
The book is not devoid of witty anecdotes that used to circulate in some section of the society, especially the cultural rivalries between the Ottoman Turks and Persians after centuries of fightings:
I am informed that there is a great contrast between the manners of an Ottoman and Persian of higher classes. Both are perfectly like gentlemen but in a different way. The Osmanli is calm, sedate, polished, perhaps a little effeminate; the Persian is lively, cordial, witty, and amiable; perhaps a little boisterous for he is still an eelyat. The Turkish courtier spends his time in roaming up and down the Bosphorus, leading life of luxury and ease, never quitting the capital. The Persian courtier is constantly on horseback, hunting with his sovereign in weather of all kings or accompanying him in journeys from one end of Persia to the other. The Osmanli is more refined the Iranee more original.” (p 283)
She is well aware of all those British people who had gone before her and had written on Persia. Her travel journals later printed as Glimpses of Life and Manners in Persia is fresh in a sense that she covers subjects that was never covered before by British male travellers to this extent, which is, how Iranians felt, thought and behaved. Mary tried to explain them and bring them closer to the European mind.
She was in Persia for almost 4 years, between 1849-1852, bringing Frances, Edward and Mary (Milly) into the world. Nothing much can be found after she returned home. Brendan Mc Namara, who was researching the connection between Ireland and Bahia movement came across Mary Sheil and decided to find out more about her. Despite his long research, he couldn’t unearth much except her gravestone. Mary is buried in a cemetery in Dublin and not in the family crypt in England. Before dying at a young age of 44 she gave birth to another 7 children.
Mary Sheil and what she was like maybe to be only found between the pages of her book and I shall end with one of my favourite passages:
The heat at last became so excessive, and I with others felt so exhausted in consequences, that we took refuge in this village, or rather encamped near it, to recruit our strength in its more elevated position. This is the great advantage possessed by Persia over other hot countries. In a few places is it out of one’s power to ascend from a hot, burning plain to a delightful yelak, where one is revived by comparatively cool breezes. We have now been here nearly a week, and are, I am sorry to say to leave it in a day or two. Our tents are pitched close to a clear stream, near a grove of olives, and there are a few large trees overshadowing us. On a hill near us are the ruins of some old castle, which looks very picturesque. The ground is covered with wild flowers and aromatic herbs; and our olive grove is filled with nightingales. Frances and Crab spend their day paddling in the stream; and, altogether, I felt sure any change we make will be for the worse.”
1. I wondered what Mary Sheil looked like for I had found photos of all other travellers but not hers. All attempts to find her portrait has failed so far.
2. Crab did not survive the journey back sadly.
3. The book can be accessed online.