In 1891, while most women were still consigned to the roles of wife and mother, a young British nurse called Kate Marsden travelled to Siberia by boat, horseback, sledge and cart. She had made it her mission to meet the lepers of the region and improve their lot. A photograph (above) shows her resolute and sturdy, wrapped in a thick wad of fur, looking like a Christmas cake figure rolled in a generous layer of marzipan.
After crossing frozen rivers, wolf-filled forests and burning peat fields, she found the lepers living in miserable conditions, driven from their communities and surviving on twice-weekly food drops of rotten produce.
She had an ambitious vision for a leprasorium where the sufferers would be treated with dignity and housed in warm sanitary buildings, so returned to England to continue fundraising – petitioning Queen Victoria and Russian aristocracy among others.
But scandal began to dog her. There were suggestions she’d helped herself to some of the funds, behaved immorally (which, in her case, meant intimate relationships with women), made the whole journey up, or, perhaps worse, was nothing more than an ‘adventuress’, for whom the expedition had simply been one, long pleasure ride.
Jacki Hill-Murphy follows in her footsteps to try and find out the truth about this capable professional who focused the world’s attention on a much-stigmatised disease. Biography can be reductive but Hill-Murphy allows Marsden to exist in all her complexity. A disciplined, driven, charismatic woman, known for her empathy and humour, but hampered by mysterious periods of ill health and drawn to ‘the world’s applause’.
This account suffers quite badly from its self-published nature but, at its heart, there remains an extraordinary story about a compelling pioneer who defied Victorian convention, left a medical legacy, and expanded what was deemed appropriate behaviour for female travellers.