[Isabel] was attracted as much by the life as by the man. "If I were a man, I would be Richard Burton," she once wrote in a letter to her mother; "but being only a woman, I would be Richard Burton's wife ... I long to rush around the world in an express; I feel as if I shall go mad if I remain at home."
Long has Katie Hickman's Daughters of Britannia (1999) haunted my to-be-read shelves; nine years or so, in fact, which is longer than I've kept a separate TBR pile (which became a shelf, then shelves, and now, um, bookcases). As I've noted before, here, because I read so much non-fiction material for my job, I tend to gravitate towards fiction for leisure reading; as a rule, I get through less than a dozen extra-curricular non-fiction books a year. Which seems even more of a shame when I think of what an enjoyable read Daughters of Britannia turned out to be, when I finally brought it out of the doldrums.
Daughters is not ground-breaking, heavy-weight history - indeed, in some ways (which I'll come to) it feels a little old-fashioned - but it is a meticulous, elegant and above all sympathetic look at the under-sung foot-soldiers of British diplomacy since the early modern period: the wives and daughters of the state's ambassadors abroad. Hickman, herself a daughter of diplomats, takes a thematic tour through the experiences of over 100 different women living between the seventeenth century and the present, discussing common topics - travel, settling in, hosting, illness, etiquette, loneliness - with a lightly comparative, but predominantly narrative and anecdotal, touch.
Hickman reconstructs these women's stories from their own accounts, as much as possible - and indeed as necessary (women are little mentioned in source material, especially from the pre-modern period, that they did not write themselves). She quotes liberally from their letters and journals. These are predominantly, as she notes, private sources, and thus perhaps less obliged to be 'diplomatic' about events and conditions than the public narratives left behind by their menfolk. In so doing, Hickman is able to evoke the world behind the official facade, in terms of both its hardships - which were considerable, particularly when it came to travel and settling in - and some unexpected adventures. I particularly enjoyed the account of Ann Fanshawe who, in the mid-17th century, was on board a ship bound for the Ottoman Empire when it was attacked, and who had absolutely no intention of remaining below decks while her husband was in danger; having been locked in her cabin, she
knocked and called to no purpose, until at length a cabin boy came and opened the door. I all in tears desired him to be so good as to give me his blue thrum-cap he wore, and his tarred coat, which he did, and I gave him half a crown; and putting them on, and flinging away my night's clothes, I crept up softly and stood by my husband's side as free from sickness and fear as, I confess, from discretion; but it was the effect of that passion which I could never master.
Nor was Ann (who also found time to give birth to no fewer than fourteen children) the only woman to use man's clothing to secure greater freedom of movement for herself; in 1799, Mary, Lady Elgin, disguised herself as a man in order to attend a reception with the sultan Selim III in Constantinople (with, we're told, the help of Ottoman officials). In the later 19th century the redoubtable Isabel Burton, meanwhile - already quoted at the head of this post - preferred men's much more practical clothes for travelling in Syria with her husband, despite the approbation this earned her in some quarters. Before setting out to join him abroad, she also, rather brilliantly, hunted down a fencing teacher and demanded lessons: "So that I can defend Richard when he is attacked", as she put it.
It was not all swashbuckling, of course; a lot of it was hard work, hardship, and (for some) simple boredom. Hickman has much to say about the difficulties of pre-modern travel - about which more below - and the dislocation involved in moving one's family to another culture in times when journeying abroad was hardly common, and reliable information about your destination not easy to come by. How to even begin preparing for months or even years in a land you had never visited and knew nothing about? By the late nineteenth century, at least, help was at hand - although perhaps 'help' belongs in scare quotes, given the extracts Hickman quotes from Tropical Trials (1883) by one Major S Leigh Hunt, who considered women to rank alongside "the dusky African" and "the heathen Chinee" in terms of her natural resilience in the face of change:
Many and varied are the difficulties which beset a woman, when she first exchanges her European home and its surroundings for the vicissitudes of life in the tropics. Few can realise the sacrifices they will be called upon to make in taking such a decided step; many home comforts, and the host of nameless social fascinations, so dear to a woman's heart, are to be given up, while the attractions offered by the irresistible "day's shopping," the box at the opera, a few of our summer recreations, and nearly all our winter amusements, must be temporarily relegated to the list of past pleasures.
This sudden and complete upset of old-world life, and the disturbance of long existing associations, produces, in many women, a state of mental chaos, that utterly incapacitates them for making due and proper preparations for the contemplated journey.
And so on. Being a good Victorian flower, the poor mite could naturally be expected to swoon upon taking ship for her journey; Hunt thus prescribes that only men wave her off, since female friends on board before departure would only make her worse, presumably lacking stiff upper lips.
As Hickman's study shows, there is truth in Hunt's words, however paternalistic its source; it would be an exceptional person - male or female - who did not feel any trepidation at the thought of such a sharp break with the familiar as a lengthy posting overseas in a time before mass communications, cheap and fast international transport, and a strong measure of cultural globalisation. These people truly were leaving behind everything they knew; homesickness is rather harder to stave off when your only contact with the only land you have ever known is a letter every three or four months, at best. But I share Hickman's preference for Annie Steel's The Complete Indian Housekeeper and Cook (1888; its popularity was such that it ran to 10 editions), which recommends "whisky, water and a little wholesome neglect" for 'hysteria', rather than infantilisation.
I can only assume that coming from a culture which believed as strongly in its own superiority as Victorian Britain - one which had no real room for the notion that other ways of life were not simply defective - made the transition that much harder. This is not something that Daughters of Britannia delves into explicitly, unfortunately, although - pleasing to my historian's heart - we do get a clear sense of how and why experiences varied over time. Changing mores meant that Victorian women had a more difficult time than their counterparts from the more liberal ages of the 17th and 18th centuries; their behaviour and responses were hedged about with more limitations than had been the case previously. The sort of shocks that a woman's naturally delicate constitution could (or should) bear had contracted considerably in the age of steam and bustles.
Where Hunt is hilariously unhelpful is his list of items essential for the well-to-do Englishwoman going abroad, if she was to maintain proper appearances. Alongside sensible suggestions like mosquito nets, he includes a knife-cleaning machine (?) and half a dozen pairs of lace curtains, plus enough clothing to sink the ship carrying her hence, including "several full-sized silk gossamer veils to wear with your topee" and "a most liberal supply of tulle, net, lace, ruffles, frillings, white and coloured collars and cuffs, artificial flowers and ribbons". "[P]retty little wool wraps to throw over the head," he adds, "and an opera cloak, are requisities which should not be overlooked." Annie Steel, for her part, notes that "a woman who wishes to live up to the climate must dress down for it", eschewing ribbons and lace although still stipulating at least one "civilized evening and morning dress" (this was the empire, after all).
Things were little easier on arrival. The role of the diplomat's wife was, for a long time, not clearly defined; much depended on the host country and the period. One extreme is seen through Harriet Granville's time in post-Napoleonic Paris, a glorious but exhausting whirl of balls and soirées ("The height of my earthly aspirations is to be allowed to abstain from pleasure", she wrote, half-despairingly, to her sister in 1825). Other women had the opposite problem, finding themselves little more than appendages, their duty requiring them to be by their husband's side without necessarily giving them much to do; as Lady Mary Elgin's story indicates, a wife's official tasks could, on some assignments, be extremely limited. Sometimes this was imposed by the culture being visited; Hickman notes that in both Soviet states and post-revolutionary China, very few individuals were permitted to interact with foreign embassies' staff, leaving ambassadors' families with few outlets and little to do to alleviate boredom.
For others, the isolation was more self-inflicted. This is one of the areas in which I felt Hickman was perhaps a little too kind to her subjects. She acknowledges that Mary Sheil, stationed in Persia in the middle of the 19th century, was a snob and a prude in her aversion to contact with local women, but elsewhere she shows more indulgence - and the odd unfortunate turn of phrase, as when she discusses the
privations suffered at the turn of this century by that redoubtable Scotswoman, Catherine Macartney, who in her seventeen years in Kashgar, in Chinese Turkistan, saw only three other European women.
Goodness, the indignity! Yes, granted, this was the late 19th century, with all the attendant self-absorption and bigotry that came with being British (as discussed above), but for a modern author to call the lack of European company a "privation" - even if the women of the Chinese court did find her enormous shoes hilarious against their own bound feet - is a sympathetic gesture too far. Macartney's attitude is a fascinating artefact - apparently she never stirred herself to learn a local language at any point during those seventeen years - but I'm not sure its lonely consequences are something for which she is to be pitied.
To the extent that these women did have an expected role, it lay in organisation and entertainment. Wives were expected to represent their country and their husbands by hosting receptions, charming important local guests, and generally making it all look effortless - a pressure that increased with the shifting cultural mores of the Victorian era, and was policed ever more strictly with the move into the newspaper age, as Lady Susan Townley discovered to her cost in the late 19th-century US.
It was delicate work, and in some cases vital to an ambassador's success; Victoria Sackville, for example, had to play this role for her unmarried father in the late 19th-century United States, since high-status American women of the period simply "did not attend entertainments in households where there was no hostess to receive them". Victoria's daughter, Vita Sackville-West, was able to leverage her own, much higher status into a refusal to accompany her husband Henry Nicholson on his missions abroad (instead she travelled to visit him in Persia on a couple of occasions). But for the majority of wives this was not an option; marriage to a diplomat, increasingly, meant marriage to the diplomatic service.
Behind the scenes, wives were largely responsible for the organisation and financial management of a diplomatic mission; and, as embassies grew, for marshalling the growing staff of junior officials, dependants and servants. (Hickman, thanks to her family's history of involvement in the service, is particularly strong in giving an impression of the 'embassy family'.) Although Hickman does not view the organisational efforts of the wives through a feminist lens - opting instead for the more traditional language of We Know Who Was Really In Charge, Eh, Ladies? - she includes a telling quotation from Isabel Burton, who sounds like a proto-Betty Friedan when she observes,
Husbands ... though they never see the petit détail going on ... like to keep up the pleasant illusion that it is all done by magic.
(That way, she might have added, they can best convince themselves they're the ones doing the real work, and not trouble themselves too much with the thought of how much effort their wives were putting in.)
For much of the period under discussion, of course, diplomatic wives did not have to go it completely alone; servants are an omnipresent element of the accounts Hickman quotes, and not one of which she makes enough. I couldn't help but feel that, in places, this leads her to overstate the deprivation to which the wives were subject; while travelling through the extreme variations of climate, altitude and facilities of Central Asia in the early twentieth century was undoubtedly harsh for Ella Sykes, the fact that she had servants to draw her a bath every night probably made the whole thing rather more comfortable - especially compared with the experiences of, say, her servants. Likewise, dwelling on the fact that the Tully family spent thirteen months in quarantine in 1780s Tripoli during a plague outbreak seems a bit churlish when juxtaposed with the played-down admission that this was only made possible by the family's ability to pay locals to (risk their lives to) bring in supplies. They may indeed have suffered during those thirteen months; but thanks to their privileged position they at least survived, whereas 10,000 of the city's 35,000-strong population did not.
This said, one area of the diplomatic wives' suffering that is undeniable is the risk of illness from unfamiliar conditions and cuisine, and (especially) the strain of long-term travel. Elizabeth McNeill had to watch three of her four children die during her husband's posting took her to Persia in the 1820s and 30s, without the support network of an extended family around her. This was not unusual; Ann Fanshawe, too, lost both pregnancies and children on the road, but those who remained behind in England fared little better:
"In the latter end of this summer I miscarried, when I was near half-gone with child, of three sons, in two hours one after another," is one typically sanguine observation. "And my daughter Mary died in Hertfordshire in August."
The matter-of-factness of her tone is easily misconstrued. It was not that women were indifferent to the loss of their children; it was simply too common an occurence to merit much comment. Throughout her married life Ann Fanshawe was almost continually pregnant, an exhausting but not unusual state of affairs for a woman of that era. Between 1644, the year of their marriage, and 1666, when her husband died, Ann gave birth to a total of six sons and eight daughters, miscarrying a further six children (nine if you count the triplets).
Only five of these fourteen born children survived to the age of majority.
Daughters of Britannia comes recommended, then; as a historian, I wanted more dates and more context, more examination of the self-presentation of the women and the nature of the accounts they were writing, and certainly more on the lives of people outside the loftiest circles, but this is that rare popular history book that really benefits from the author's personal engagement with the topic. Hickman's comments on the more recent decades of diplomatic life - the changing social make up of the service, the development of correspondance journals for women to compare notes and keep each other's spirits up - make for a valuable counterpoint to the older anecdotes. Furthermore, her insight into the way prolonged absence shapes family relations - there is some rather poignant reflection of waiting for parental letters at boarding school - and how the habit of travel becomes wanderlust, helps to ground the historical material in emotional realities.