Joy Adamson Critical Essays

Introduction

Joy Adamson 1910–1980

(Born Friedrike Victoria Gessner) Austrian nonfiction writer, ethologist, lecturer, photographer, painter, and illustrator.

By sharing with the world the remarkable adventure of her life, Adamson created works that rival fiction for the excitement and drama they convey. Adamson devoted herself to the understanding and preservation of African animal life and tribal culture. It is, however, as chronicler of the amazing relationship she and her husband had with Elsa, a lioness, and Pippa, a cheetah, and their cubs that Adamson is best known.

After marrying George Adamson, the senior game warden of Kenya, Adamson often cared for motherless baby animals. Despite dire predictions and lack of scientific precedent, the Adamsons reared Elsa and then successfully returned her to her natural environment. The story of this venture is documented in Born Free and its sequels Living Free and Forever Free. Adamson's straight forward humorous prose, free of anthropomorphism or sentimentality, caused her books to be hailed as classics. It was generally agreed that the affection Adamson had for her subjects and the perception she used in describing them overruled any literary flaws. All three books were later adapted into film semidocumentaries, as was The Spotted Sphinx; these films, which were supervised by the Adamsons, included scenes between animals and man never before captured cinematically. Born Free was also adapted for television during 1974.

After another successful experiment with Pippa, the subject of The Spotted Sphinx and its sequel, Pippa's Challenge, Adamson began lecturing about Elsa throughout the world, and established the successful Elsa Wild Animal Appeal in the many countries she visited. She continued to draw upon her experiences in books for younger children, and in 1978 published her autobiography, The Searching Spirit. Unfortunately, many critics felt that this anecdotal narrative shed little new light on Adamson and her accomplishments.

As a writer, Adamson preferred to let the facts of her experiences speak for themselves. Her unembellished prose sometimes approached the clinical, but it always reflected the deep concern she brought to her subjects. Although she never considered herself a professional scientist, the documentations of her associations with both the human and animal world have earned her distinction among anthropologists and zoologists. In addition, her work has indisputable value as a persuasive, effective plea for conservation. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 69-72 and 93-96, and Something about the Author, Vol. 11.)

Mrs. Adamson, the wife of a Kenya game warden, describes in this memorable book [Born Free] a difficult, dangerous and illuminating experiment, an experiment in living together. She received from her husband a three-day-old litter of three lion cubs and started to rear them. In due course two of them were sent off into captivity. The Adamsons could not bear to part with Elsa, the weakest third. They decided to let her grow to maturity as one of their family. They would not turn her into a pet; they would not tame her; they could not domesticate her. She was born free….

Mrs. Adamson describes what happened with convincing simplicity and directness. She was withdrawing from Elsa the necessity to learn to kill in order to live, and substituting an artificial regime for the expansion of her tremendous energies…. [Elsa's] growth was a state of increasingly precarious equilibrium between the savage instincts of her kind and something that grew between her and her human household. Mrs. Adamson uses the only words that are available to describe this restraining force—it was, on both sides of the experiment, trust, devotion and love. But ultimately these would not be enough. There was, it seems, no record of a man-reared lioness successfully taking her place with her own pride and her own mate. The crisis of the Adamsons' experiment was to find the right way to let Elsa go…. Mrs. Adamson explains nothing, and much of what she writes needs and merits a lot of explaining; it is her triumph that [her] words ring true.

"Life with a Lioness," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1960; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 3034, April 22, 1960, p. 254.