Alexandra David-Néel lived 100 years. She was born in France in 1868, the period of la belle epoque, and died there in 1969, soon after the student riots in Paris. In between she spent fourteen years studying Buddhism in Asia and, at the age of 55, became the first Western woman to enter the Tibetan city of Lhasa. It is tempting to think that she was born too soon, but so free and bold a female spirit would have encountered obstacles anywhere, at any time. At the age of 16 she was already running away from home for jaunts across Europe, and she traveled to India at 21. Her early adulthood was taken up by a career as an opera singer—ample accomplishment for an ordinary life, but almost overlooked in hers.
It was not until middle age that she married Philippe Néel, the French engineer who supported her through her subsequent adventures, but with whom she almost never lived. Niel did not understand his wife’s interest in Buddhism and the East, but in 1910 he offered her a “long voyage”—he meant something like a year—to “get it out of her system.” She was gone for fourteen years, traveling and living in India, Sikkim, Nepal, Bhutan, China, Japan, making forays into the forbidden kingdom of Tibet. On her return to Europe, she was celebrated as an adventuress and lived another 45 years as a lecturer and writer. She left four projects unfinished when she died just short of her 101st birthday.
In an age when even those sympathetic to the East were mostly dabblers or lovers of the occult, Alexandra David-Néel distinguished herself both as a scholar and a practitioner. The style of her day was to examine things dispassionately and objectively, but David-Néel experienced them personally and, in such books as My Journey to Lhasa and Magic and Mystery in Tibet, wrote about them the same way.
Alexandra’s father, Louis David, was a French Protestant, a Huguenot, a socialist and a Freemason. He opposed the monarchy of Louis Philippe, participated in the Revolution of 1848, and fled to Belgium with his friend and compatriot, the novelist Victor Hugo. There he fell in love with Alexandrine Borghmans, a devout Roman Catholic who supported the Belgian monarchy and who in many ways was his opposite. They married and eventually moved back to France, and 13 years passed before they had their first child. Mme David was bitterly disappointed that Alexandra was not a boy, and paid almost no attention to her.
“Ever since I was five years old,” David-Néel wrote in My Journey to Lhasa, “I wished to move out of the narrow limits in which, like all children of my age, I was then kept. I craved to go beyond the garden gate, to follow the road that passed it by, and to set out for the Unknown. But strangely enough, this ‘Unknown’ fancied by my baby mind always turned out to be a solitary spot where I could sit alone, with no one near.”
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