Durham was the eldest of eight children; her father, Arthur Edward Durham, was a distinguished London surgeon. Educated privately, she developed a talent for illustration and watercolouring and attended the Royal Academy of Arts and Bedford College in London. She exhibited widely and contributed a number of detailed drawings to the amphibia and reptiles volume of the Cambridge Natural History (published 1899).
After the death of her father, Durham took on the responsibilities of caring for her sick mother for several years. It proved an exhausting experience; when she was 37, her doctor recommended that she should undertake a foreign vacation to recuperate. She took a trip by sea down the coast of Dalmatia, travelling from Trieste to Kotor and then overland to Cetinje, the capital of Montenegro. It gave her a taste for southern Balkan life that she was to retain for the rest of her life.
Durham travelled extensively in the Balkans over the next twenty years, focusing particularly on Albania, which then was one of the most isolated and undeveloped areas of Europe. She worked in a variety of relief organisations, painted and wrote, and collected folklore and folk art. Her work was of genuine anthropological significance; she contributed frequently to the journal Man and became a Fellow of the Royal Anthropological Institute. Her writings, however, were to earn her particular fame. She wrote seven books on Balkan affairs, of which High Albania (1909) is the best known. It is still regarded as the pre-eminent guide to the customs and society of the highlands of northern Albania.
Durham came to identify closely with the Albanian cause and championed the unity and independence of the Albanian people. She earned a reputation as a difficult and eccentric person, and was strongly criticised by - and criticised in turn - advocates of a Yugoslav state, who supported the incorporation of Albanian-populated Kosovo into Slavic Serbia. She became increasingly anti-Serb, denouncing what she termed "Serb vermin" for having "not created a Jugoslavia but have carried out their original aim of making Great Serbia .... Far from being liberated the bulk of people live under a far harsher rule than before."
Other, more pro-Serb British intellectuals sharply criticised her views. Rebecca West described Durham in Black Lamb and Grey Falcon as the sort of traveller who came back "with a pet Balkan people established in their hearts as suffering and innocent, eternally the massacree and never the massacrer." The distinguished historian R.W. Seton-Watson commented that "the fact is that while always denouncing 'Balkan mentality', she is herself exactly what she means by the word."
For their part, however, the Albanians held Durham in high regard. They dubbed her "Mbretëresha e Malësoreve" – the "Queen of the Highlanders." She was well received in the Albanian highlands and passed unmolested despite being a lone female traveller. She benefited from the Albanian tradition of insuring a guest's safety, and from an ancient Albanian custom, the tradition of "Sworn virgins" – women who wore men's clothes and were regarded as protected individuals. When she died in 1944 she received high praise for her work from the exiled King Zog, who wrote: "She gave us her heart and she won the ear of our mountaineers." She is still regarded as something of a national heroine; in 2004, Albanian President Alfred Moisiu described her as "one of the most distinguished personalities of the Albanian world during the last century"
Much of Durham's work was donated to academic collections following her death. Her papers were held by the short-lived Museum of Mankind (part of the British Museum) and the Royal Anthropological Institute in London, while her collections of Balkan jewellery are held by the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford and the Bankfield Museum in Halifax. The latter holds the collection of textiles and dress which Durham made during her travels throughout the Balkan region, and presents a permanent exhibition about her life and work.
- Thomas Cushman; Stjepan Mestrovic (1 October 1996). This Time We Knew: Western Responses to Genocide in Bosnia. NYU Press. p. 248. ISBN 978-0-8147-7224-9. Retrieved 30 August 2013. "...Durham turned increasingly anti-Serbian..."
- Presidenti i Republikës së Shqiperisë at www.president.al
- Halifax Town Centre Forum - The official home of Halifax town centre on the web. Halifax, West Yorkshire, UK at www.halifaxuk.co.uk
|Library resources about
|By Edith Durham|
- Through the Lands of the Serb (1904)
- The burden of the Balkans (1905)
- High Albania (1909)
- The struggle for Scutari (1914)
- Twenty Years of Balkan Tangle (1920)
- The Serajevo Crime (1925)
- Some Tribal Origins, Laws and Customs of the Balkans (1928)
- Albania and the Albanians: selected articles and letters, 1903-1944, ed. by Betjullah Destani (I.B. Tauris, 2001)
- Edith Durham : një zonjë e madhe për Shqipërinë, Kastriot Frashëri (Geer, 2004)
- The Durham Collection of Garments and Embroideries from Albania and Jugoslavia, Laura Emily Start (1939)
- "Queen of the Highlanders: Edith Durham in 'the land of the living past'", Charles King, Times Literary Supplement, 4 August 2000, pp. 13–14
- "Queen of the Mountains: The Balkan Adventures of Edith Durham". Gill Trethowan. British Council. 1996. No ISBN.
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