Hunting for Lions and Liberation

Hunting for Lions and Liberation

Rachel Ingalls’s 1983 novel Binstead’s Safari is a fable-like account of the price of feminism and the freedom from domesticity.


Every travelogue is born of fantasy. Whether or not that fantasy enters the official record as fact is often a matter of what its author believes to be his occupation. Stan Binstead, the title character in Rachel Ingalls’s third novel, Binstead’s Safari (1983), sees illusions and recognizes them as signs. He works as an anthropologist, and deriving patterns from happenstance is the function of his trade. When he hears rumors of lion worship in an unnamed country in East Africa, he travels—first to London, and then to said unnamed country—to confirm his hypotheses, which might be better described as impositions. His conviction stems from a series of linked stories minced through translation, at the center of which is a protagonist who has been vested by lions with the capacity to transform into one himself. Stan’s desire to turn these rumors into his life’s work guides much of his actions. He brings along on this journey his neglected wife, Millie, whom he dismisses as having delusions “instead of thoughts.”

A new edition of Binstead’s Safari was recently released by New Directions, following on the heels of the publisher’s much-lauded 2017 reissue of Ingalls’s 1982 novella, Mrs. Caliban. Each has been described as forgotten or overlooked—monikers that are typically attached to books written by women, and often do more to cement a work’s resurgence as redemptive than to illuminate any aspect of the novel itself. Ingalls, who was born in Boston but has spent much of her life in the United Kingdom, is often described as a writer whose talent exceeds her renown. Since the publication of her debut, Theft, in 1970, she’s written 11 books, many of which in the past few years have been given new life as “classics.”

Both editions of Binstead’s Safari, in particular, were met with the kind of feel-good praise reserved for books about women who show a capacity for self-improvement. Millie, like any quintessential American, finds herself abroad, and her life, like that of any quintessential American woman, is turned into an emblem: “a feminist, fabulist, magical realist romance,” according to one recent review. Writing in The Washington Post on the occasion of the novel’s original release, Wendy Lesser described Binstead’s Safari as a “feminist reworking” of Ernest Hemingway’s story “The Short, Happy Life of Francis Macomber,” to which it bears a basic resemblance. In both, a couple goes on a safari that has fatal consequences. That Lesser misidentifies the novel’s setting—West Africa instead of East—seems only to prove her point. Feminism’s reach is global, after all; the setting is neither here nor there.

But Millie’s transformation, however “empowering,” is so quick and seamless as to appear like an archetype: Initially she’s something, and then she becomes something else. On her first international vacation, and after a haircut and a change of outfit, she goes from being someone “who always made a mess of everything, worried, and then made the worrying come true,” to someone who “[says] the right words, [does] the right things, and [is] accepted by everyone.” Her newfound sense of ease is realized by nothing more than a brief and elusive affair whose passions are papered over by the book’s narration, which moves at a clip. Millie glimpses Henry Lewis, a former soldier and current game hunter, through a pane of glass, and with a shared smile they fall in love. Like all adulterers, their desire is cathected through distance. Millie leaves with Stan on safari but pines for Henry—who, the novel strongly suggests, appears daily at dawn on the periphery of their camp as a magnificent, if inconvenient, lion. He announces his presence with a polite cough.

If all affairs express themselves as riddles, with each potential outcome reliant on the interpretation of its signs, then Millie’s and Henry’s is a riddle of the most obvious variety. Tea leads to sex, sex leads to illicit communication, and illicit communication ends in death. The couple communicates in fragments, and Henry is spoken about more often than he appears. His name is passed like a note between acquaintances, who revere his prowess as a hunter and commander of local respect but nevertheless regard him at a distance. Millie speaks of Henry only rarely, and sends him letters dashed off as quickly as gestures. Her scribbles remain opaque; as signs, they bear no significance.

None of the infidelity in Binstead’s Safari is particularly sexy, or even substantive, which is why it’s confusing that the book should be said to be about an affair, or about a feminist transformation, or even about a newfound sense of female empowerment. Much of the novel, after all, is preoccupied with Stan’s inability to recognize his wife’s cheating in the face of his flourishing hypotheses, a willful density that he shares with Fred, the husband in Mrs. Caliban.

Between the two novels, there exists an obvious pattern. Both feature affairs that are essentially frictionless, and both derive their drama from the lives of housewives whose concerns are chalked up to delusion. Although each novel reflects the interests of the other, to say that their shared qualities amount to a “reworking,” a “revival,” or even catharsis is to ignore the contested territory in which their protagonists find freedom.

Dorothy, in Mrs. Caliban, is from the American suburbs and falls in love with a creature from the sea, while Millie travels to a former colony and falls in love with a lion who refuses to be captured. Fantasies, especially those premised on romance, are always a means of escape, but they nevertheless eke drama from the harsh realities of everyday life. Dorothy’s lover is persecuted, and Millie’s is hunted. Although their respective affairs are habitually chalked up to “fantasy” or “fabulism,” each is deeply concerned with, and eventually mitigated by, the material violence of its circumstance. Because the nation has a vested interest in maintaining the boundaries of the home, the liberation of housewives, however “glorious,” will always be bound up in theft.

For a novel whose social role has been described so enthusiastically, Binstead’s Safari is surprisingly concerned with the flimsiness of epistemological claims. As an anthropologist, Stan’s job is to massage extrapolations into an official record, and his research, which quickly becomes all-consuming, consists primarily of refusing to heed the misgivings of his acquaintances. Where they see rumor, he sees fact, and this failure to agree on the basic tenets of reality guides much of the plot. As Stan’s inconclusive search for lion worship drives him, his wife, and their support team of hunters, translators, and servants further into the countryside, he begins to forget why he came to Africa in the first place. “He had been looking for a story that was being made into a fixed pattern, a standard and order against which to set the chaos of life,” Ingalls writes. “But life was for living, not to be studied.”

Confirmation bias—the tendency to process new information as evidence of one’s beliefs—is a phenomenon usually relegated to participants in psychological studies but better represented among those who catalog social movements. A white anthropologist in Africa will bend reality to his preconceived notions and call the resulting deception “scholarship,” just as a white feminist will find examples of “female empowerment” wherever a wife has killed her husband. Often, she will be right. In the case of Binstead’s Safari, however, the murder approximates metaphor. The logistics of Millie’s liberation present themselves as phantasmagoria: Henry, who is killed in town by poachers, finds new life as the lion that—spoiler—kills Millie and Stan in sequence. For Millie, death begets an extramarital union; she greets it with literal open arms. For Stan, death becomes the mechanism by which his suspicions—of infidelity, on the one hand, and tribal mysticism on the other—are confirmed.

With the death of his wife at the hands of her lover, Stan’s hypotheses begin to approximate fact. “The story of [Henry] Lewis,” writes Ingalls, “would be the basis of his best work—a popular study of the mysticism of leadership, The Life of a Hero: how that life became set into phrases and rituals and scenes to be acted out, how people talked about it.” But as soon as Stan’s fantasies are brought to life, an alternate reality comes into sharper focus: “the truth, the real story, was that the man had been just an opportunistic exploiter of black labor and credulity, and perhaps tribal prejudices too.” Nevertheless, Stan’s conviction remains resolute despite all the signs indicating that things are stranger than they appear, just as Millie’s fantasies bleed into, and ultimately release her from, everyday life.

Each traveler is permitted their travelogue, even if it approximates fiction. But “traveler” itself is a designation whose bounds are continually shored up—against those whose movements are motivated by neither fantasy nor fiction, and who therefore appear as the tourist’s sinister twin: the migrant.

When Millie and Stan arrive in Africa, they’re driven around town by Abdullah, a man who, years before, traveled the reverse route and returned home embittered. As they drive, Abdullah recounts his memories of Europe: “the devils, the pigs, the dogs who put him in a filthy room like a box, they say you undesirable alien, you are bad to come here, you don’t have food what you want, you take what you get and you pay for the boat or you go to jail, may they die in unspeakable agonies.” As Millie and Stan exit the car, she turns toward her husband, animated by their first encounter with local life. “Would you have missed that for anything?” she asks. “If half the things he said are true—.” Her husband interrupts with a correction: “They aren’t.”

Millie’s independence, more of a feeling than a material reality, is conditioned by the failed promises of national independence, which anticipate and make possible her eventual liberation. At every stage, her affair with Henry is tended to by black laborers: Her letters to him are fielded by a black porter, and when the couple exchanges hushed nothings in a restaurant, the black waiters look on “silently, doing their work quickly and politely, as they had before Independence.” To read into Millie the story of a liberated woman is to indulge in the fantasy of a feminism relinquished from the burdens of its own history. An independent life is always a contradiction: Millie is bound to those who enable her freedom. Together they’re entangled in an ugly knot, and their companionship, neither glorious nor emancipating, endures.

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