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3.8 out of 5 stars
3.8 out of 5 stars
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on 8 July 1999
Ambassadresses 'Extraordinary': Whether you are a diplomat, a social historian, an armchair traveler, or just love a good adventure story, this book is for you. Katie Hickman's account of British ambassadresses, some eccentric 'oddballs', others quite ordinary women, all forced by marriage into the most extraordinary of lives, is a fascinating book.
This is political history in a domestic context, social history at its best. Ms. Hickman is not only a remarkable writer, she is also an excellent editor. She lets her diplomatic wives speak for themselves. It must have taken a great deal of diligent research to find the correspondence that tells such a powerful story. The anecdotes range across the spectrum of human emotion: the thrill of a visit to the Sultan's jewel-encrusted harem in Constantinople, the shock and tragedy of assassination in Dublin, the embarrassment of employing a butler who assures the dinner guests that he never washes his hands.
While Ms. Hickman confesses to her own preference for the nomadic and peripatetic life, she also deals very fairly with the hardships that diplomatic life presents to wives, the dangers, the medical problems, the decisions over children and careers, to name a few. Her final chapter on the new diplomatic spouses, namely men, who accounted for 13% of the Foreign Offices's spouses in 1998, is a delight.
This book belongs with other 'great' books about diplomatic life including "Pepita" (Vita Sackville-West) and "Don't Tell Alfred" (Nancy Mitford). Like Katie Hickman, this reviewer is also the daughter of a British ambassadress (albeit American-born), and can only say Yes! Yes! Yes! to this tribute to a class of women who supported their husbands' profession with so much courage, and resourcefulness. Thank you, Katie Hickman, for writing it.
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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.
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on 17 September 2003
As an expat who sees the local embassy and its life from the outside, this book was a real eye-opener. It has a wealth of detail and information on what really goes on behind the scenes of the genteel receptions etc held at what here is a beautiful period residence, but may well be less than ideal when you're actually living 'above the shop'. Most of the information is drawn from many years ago, but there are plenty of examples from recent years too. I have to disagree with the reviewer who said that s/he found it difficult to keep track of the various time periods; I found the contrast between 'then' and 'now' was brought out all the more clearly by the juxta-position of the information from both periods. A compelling read for anyone interested in history, life, and just what Britannia expected, for no or little return, of her ambassadors' wives.
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on 24 August 2000
'Daughters of Britannia' is a fascinating book. The subject is incredibly interesting, and I think it is the only book of it's kind that I have encountered. Katie Hickman is a masterful writer. I found I had to read with a dictionary and a pencil, and I relished the opportunity to learn from her excellent vocabulary!
As an avid student of social history, 'Daughters of Britannia' is a perfect example of everything I love about studying women's lives through their letters, journals and memoirs. Without using irritating feminist rhetoric, Hickman notes the unique perspective we can gain through these sources. You may learn about political or military manoeuvres from a man's memoirs, but a woman's will likely give you a much better picture of how people actually lived, what frightened and cheered them, what was hard and rewarding on a day-to-day basis. I loved the vignettes she shared from her own life. The letters to and from her mother gave the book a very personal flavour which added immensely to it's charm. Like the previous reviewer, I found the organisation a little wanting. It was difficult to keep track of the different people and places, and that was my only hindrance to giving this book five stars.
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on 3 June 2000
Although, at times, I had a hard time with the jumping of time periods, I thoroughly enjoyed this book. A really interesting subject for study. Hickman did a womderful job in touching all the bases of the life of a diplomatic wife. I originally got this just to round out an order and it turned out to be the best book in the box!
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on 22 January 2014
I shall not override what other reviewers have already stated, they are all correct in their assessments. I bought this book simply because of Katie Hickman's book 'Courtesans', an excellent treatise on the subject. This book though was simply a punt on something interesting I hoped and, I was totally amazed. The accompanying pictures/photographs compliment the situation that these women found/find themselves, when liberally scattered around the globe, often alone and unheeded by their menfolk, the diplomats and intriguers. An excellent read, a good sized book of quality production as well. Recommended by myself as an aid to historical learning in fact..
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on 21 March 2014
I found the first part of thebook informative and facinating, but when it got to the 20th century, many of the comments were similar to newspaper and TV items and also to my own experiences. Eventually the 'daughters' seemed to lament tne young educated element of wives. I always feel sad for the children. Bea jones.
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on 15 January 2013
This is an unexpected and an excellent book. Highlighting the role of Wives in the diplomatic service over the last 300 years. Through a mixture of personal reminscences, illustrations and stories of past Daughters of Britannia like Freya Stark we get an insight the slightly surreal world of the Diplomatic Wife. This covers everything from travel to post ( sometimes it took months) to dealing with dangerous groups. It is a charming book, wonderful illustrations and all neatly observed by Katie Hickman who was one of those daughters of Britannia
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on 31 July 2013
This book makes you think about the trials and tribulations of traveling and living as a diplomatic wife. Particularly thought provoking about the historic situations, families travelling for weeks across frozen tundra and mountains to get to postings, carrying months of supplies. Full of interesting facts and stories though the narrative jumps around chronologically a lot. Worth a read.
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on 26 June 2014
An interesting book and an eye opener into the lives of the Embassys abroad. I found the jumping of time periods and stories very confusing. I must add it is a tribute to those wives and daughters who supported the Ambassadors in their work.
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