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Obviously a labour of love, but not for me
on 21 August 2011
When British ambassadors and other diplomats were appointed to postings all over the world, their wives were expected to accompany them and organise their households, whether that meant living under canvas in Persia or in a palace in Paris. This book tells their stories, using their own words, from the seventeenth century to the present day.
It's a scholarly work, well written and thoroughly researched, but it manages to be very accessible too. The author has found a lot of original personal papers, and it's fascinating to read lists of goods that had to be shipped across the world to keep diplomatic establishments afloat in the wilds of Kurdistan or Chile in the 19th century, and letters written over the years by lonely mothers, daughters and sisters to family, often children, thousands of miles away.
My only real criticism is that she should have been less ambitious and just told the story of each woman in turn, chapter by chapter, instead of grouping her information together in loose themes. As she compares how they coped with particular situations - embassy life, journeys, foreign etiquette, etc - it's very hard to remember which one was Mary or Norah and who their husbands were, and where they were posted. I found I was constantly flipping back through the pages to remind myself of who was who.
But far more of a problem for me was something that really couldn't be helped, and that's the subject and tone of the whole book. As a child of the diplomatic service herself, Katie Hickman obviously finds it quite an acceptable and normal world, and perhaps other readers will too. But I wish she'd started by explaining or even questioning the need for these women to be traipsing round the world in the first place, however admirably they coped. I needed more information on the work their husbands actually did, and why it was necessary to fly the flag in such a superior fashion in some very far-flung places. Especially when the only people they encountered seemed to be servants, kings, and other diplomats. The snobbery was quite crushing - imagine the horror when, after 1919, ambassadors were paid salaries and the middle classes started to creep into the service! To me, some of these redoubtable women who trekked around on mules while organising the natives to cook their dinners and wash their clothes sounded more appalling than heroic, and yet it's sad to think that their only companions were often their servants, who could never be their friends. Meanwhile in the bigger postings, in cities like Washington or Madrid, there was an endless round of social events with other diplomats, where hierarchy and etiquette were their only concerns. But just who were all these tennis and bridge parties for, apart from each other?
Try as I might, when the servants in China withdrew their labour during the cultural revolution, and the brave embassy wives had to make the canapes for the next reception all by themselves, I just couldn't enter into the spirit of it at all. But it's an interesting look at a very particular and overlooked subject, and whether you enjoy it or find it irritating is down to personal taste. Either way, it's probably a book that's better to dip into rather than read straight through.