Marlow has boasted several famous writers as residents: TS Eliot, the Shelleys, Isaak Walton. But the town’s most extraordinary author was surely Kate Marsden (1859-1931), who became a writer by chance: she was a nurse, who first became obsessed with the need to find a cure for leprosy while working on a Red Cross mission in Bulgaria. Later, in Constantinople, Marsden heard reports of the existence of a rare herb which could alleviate or even cure the disease – in the Yakutsk region of Siberia.
The superbly titled On Sledge and Horseback to Outcast Siberian Lepers (1892) tells the story of her journey, with another woman as assistant and translator, across 11,000 inhospitable Russian miles (by train and boat as well as sledge and horseback), searching for the elusive herb and treating the sick as she went. Marsden travelled with the approval of the Empress of Russia and of Queen Victoria, who presented her with an angel-shaped brooch on her return.
Marsden became one of the first female Fellows of the Royal Geographical Society, and her efforts raised over £2,000 for a leper hospital in Vilyuysk. Some pundits doubted her account of the journey – though it was no less improbable than those of male writers who had travelled in Russia around that time. Others insinuated that Marsden was attempting to “atone” for acts of homosexuality.
Siberians, perhaps predictably, were and are more sympathetic. Residents of Vilyuysk funded the construction of a special monument in Marsden’s memory, which was opened in 2014.