An ongoing side-project of mine has been researching the work of Gabrielle Vassal. I started looking at her in 2004 as part of my doctoral work – I didn’t end up using her in my thesis, but I’ve kept pursuing it on and off since then. I published a short piece about her (‘Gabrielle Vassal and the Countess von Hoenstadt’, Notes & Queries, Vol. 56, No. 3, September 2009), have presented various aspects of her life at conferences, and am still trying to put together a couple of longer pieces.
Born in 1880, she grew up in England and married a French doctor in the Colonial service, whose work took them all over the French Empire. Her first book was an account of several years residence in Indochina in the first decade of the twentieth century. She later published her accounts of their postings in China and West Africa as well as their correspondence while he served in the First World War.
One of the things that makes her work so interesting is the detail with which she describes the local cultures, landscape, climate, and conditions. She refers quite sparingly to the European community, which is a marked contrast to some of the female travel writers at the time. Unlike most colonial wives, she was an active participant in scientific discovery. Her observations of the landscape are also often scientifically detailed, with regard for instance to climate and rainfall. What she also did was collect animal specimens and ethnographic artifacts from the places that she visited. A gibbon and some bird species were even named after her. Many of her animal specimens were sent to the Natural History Museum in London, and some time ago I went to visit them in their collections at Tring.
The pictures here are some of the birds she sent to the museum. One is next to an illustration of that species in life, demonstrating the fugitive colours of the feathers – after death, the feathers on the chest have changed colour from green to blue.
I was amazed by the collection at Tring; I saw birds from the Cook voyages in one drawer, and even some of Audubon’s ‘Birds of America’. I thought at first they were just specimens of the type, but these were in fact the actual birds he drew. Museums have such a wealth of items hidden from the public, and offer so much to researchers. Hug a museum today!