Barbara Foster and Michael Foster
Lawrence Durrell called Alexandra David-Neel “the most astonishing French-woman of our time.” Alan Watts praised her “wonderfully lucid” writing. Indeed, the Buddhist adventurer who lived over one hundred years merits superlatives. A Renaissance woman, she defied Victorian stereotypes operative in Belle Epoque Paris, refusing to be either a “nice girl” or a prostitute. Instead, she found her own identity on the snowcapped mountains of Tibet. Peter Hopkirk, the noted Asian expert, extolled her remarkable courage and determination in his preface to her classic travel yarn written in English, My Journey to Lhasa, a worldwide best-seller when it appeared in 1927: “At the age of fifty-four, Alexandra David-Neel became the first white woman to enter the holy city of Lhasa (Tibet). Disguised as a beggar, and with a revolver concealed beneath her rags, she made her bold dash for the forbidden Buddhist citadel in 1923.”
Louise Eugénie Alexandrine Marie was born in Paris in 1868 and died at Digne, France, in 1969. Her radical father (Louis David) took the infant Alexandra to view the remnants of the Paris Commune in flames. Seeking adventure, the precocious child ran away from her wealthy home often. An introspective yet lovely young woman, she became a left-winger given to philosophical speculations. Trapped in a bourgeois family, she tried hashish, kept a revolver hidden in her drawer, and briefly contemplated suicide. Studying at the Sorbonne, where male students pushed females who dared intrude on their exclusive domain downstairs, she became a lifelong feminist. After her parents lost their fortune, she became an opera singer, but her voice eventually failed. She descended from Parisian opera to singing in a provincial nightclub in Tunisia.
In 1904 she married a staid railroad engineer, Philip Neel, who shared her Protestant background, if not her passion for adventure. The reluctant matron dabbled in journalism and wrote an inflammatory essay advocating that house-