The Leopard Woman

May 5, 2007

They are few genres more sexist than the early 20th century romantic adventure novel. If you don’t believe me, read The Sheik. The Leopard Womanby Stewart Edward White, isn’t quite as bad as that, but it’s the same sort of storyline — the proud, adventurous woman being subdued by the strong, masterful hunter-type.

The masterful hunter, in this case, is named Culbertson, but in Africa he goes my the name of Kingozi. He’s an Englishman, and, along with a German named Winkleman, one of the world’s two foremost experts on Africa. The Leopard Woman was published in 1916, but I’m guessing it takes place a couple of years before that, because war breaks out between England and Germany halfway through the book.

Kingozi has been sent to find an African king named M’tela, who rules over a vast number of people in a country which no white man has ever scene. The British want to become friends with him so that they’ll have his cooperation when they want to build a road through that part of the country in a year or so. Kingozi’s good at dealing with the natives, and he’s an experienced safari-goer (is there a word for that?), so he doesn’t anticipate much trouble, but before he and his retinue have gotten very far, they encounter a mysterious white woman who won’t give her name but speaks perfect English with a slight accent, which, we discover eventually, is Austrian.

Now, when I first saw the title of this book, I imagined the Leopard Woman as the ruler of some native tribe, or a wild woman, or, best of all, some kind of half human creature. No such luck. It’s just the nickname Kingozi gives this Austrian woman because she reminds him of a leopard. Boring.

The Leopard Woman, or Bibi-Ya-Chui, has never been this far into the wilderness before, and she’s not great at handling her servants. Kingozi saves her from being run over by a rhinoceros, and then swiftly gains the loyalty of her servants. The two white people combine their safaris and sort of make friends, but Kingozi soon comes to suspect that Bibi-Ya-Chui has some kind of secret purpose for visiting her. He thinks perhaps she is on the same mission he is, and doesn’t see why they can’t work together, but she refuses to disclose anything.

Also, Bibi-Ya-Chui wears a lot of slinky silk dresses, and Kingozi finds her very attractive, but he’s a superman-type on a mission, so he tries to ignore the fact that most of her clothes are see-through.

She tries harder and harder to get him to turn the safari back, mostly by causing lots of delays. Kingozi keeps going, so she sends one of her people to murder him. The attempt fails, but the very next day, Kingozi goes blind. Not completely, or permanently, but if he doesn’t have a certain operation within two months, he’ll be permanently blind. He’s got a medicine that will temporarily restore his sight, but he can’t read the labels on his medicine bottles, and nor can his African servants. Bibi-Ya-Chui can, but she refuses, saying that she’s getting him back for his condescension toward her, or something. One of the medicine bottles breaks, and she tells him it’s the one with the medicine he needed. She clearly wants him to turn back, and he does, on the condition that she turn back too.

On their way back, they encounter some messengers. The first group brings the news that war has broken out, and the second brings a letter to Bibi-Ya-Chui. It turns out that her mission was to delay Kingozi’s safari until her compatriot Winkleman, who is also in search of M’tela, reached a certain point. He has, and because of Kingozi’s blindness, and the necessity for hasty surgery, she feels like she can tell him about it, but Kingozi immediately turns back towards M’tela’s country and sends two of his best men to delay Winkleman, which they do very cleverly.

Kingozi doesn’t find it difficult to make friends with M’tela, especially after his guys capture Winkleman’s safari and have his goods to trade as well as their own. Winkleman arrives as Kingozi’s prisoner, but they’re old friends, so Winkleman promises not to escape, and the two of them hang out and talk about anthropology and dinosaur bones. Winkleman also finds the required medicine in the medicine box — apparently it’s not broken. Kingozi is troubled, because now that he’s won the race to get to M’tela, it seems like cruelty on the Leopard Woman’s part to keep this a secret, when she sees that his sight is temporarily restores, she’s shocked and happy, so she must have thought that the medicine bottle really did break.

Then the author runs out of pages. No seriously: a safari of Englishmen arrive and congratulate Kingozi on his good work. They’re followed by a doctor who can perform the necessary operation on Kingozi’s eyes. Kingozi introduces the Leopard woman to them as his future wife. The end. We don’t even get to find out whether the operation is a success.

I hope he’s permanently blind.

Okay, not really.


  1. For what it’s worth, White’s westerns are better.

  2. Thanks — that’s definitely worth knowing. Do you recommend any book in particular?

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