A Review of “Daughters of Britannia” by Katie Hickman

In the Indian epic Ramayana, there is a poignant scene: Rama, the prince of Ayodhya, is forced to renounce his kingdom and go to the forest for fourteen years.  His young wife Sita insists on accompanying him, against his better counsel.  As they step out of the palace, Sita asks: “How much further to the forest?”  It is said that at this, Rama’s eyes moistened for the first time.

I think most of the the so-called “Diplomatic Wives” mentioned in Katie Hickman’s Daughters of Britannia would have sympathised with both Sita and Rama.

England, as the pioneering marine and trading power, must have been the first country to understand the need for diplomats.  Even before the country started sending official envoys, the East India Company was posting its employees at strategic points around the globe to safeguard and further their commercial interests.  These postings were isolated, difficult and many a time downright dangerous – according to the maxim of those days, “no place for a woman”. However, the wives of these diplomats had little choice – they were forced to follow their husbands into the wilderness, because “it was a wife’s duty to be at the side of her husband”.

It would have been bad enough if these poor souls were forced move out of a sane, civilised country to savage barbarian lands (in their viewpoints, at least) – they were also expected to fulfill an unpaid official function: that of the diplomat’s wife.  It was an exacting task, emotionally and physically draining, especially a couple of centuries back when the world was not the known and familiar space it is now.  These ladies had to make official visits to Sultans’ harems, host diplomatic dinners for hundreds of people and sometimes attend official functions along with their husbands without making a faux pas in a totally alien culture.  And most of the junior diplomats’ wives had to put up with cranky, eccentric “ambassadresses” (the ambassadors’ wives) who treated them little better than slaves in a rigidly enforced social hierarchy.

There were also the physical dangers.  Before the aeroplane was invented, the journey to the “posting” comprised terrifying treks across inhospitable mountains and death-defying voyages across stormy seas.  Most of the host countries (especially the tropics) were home to a number of diseases which were potentially deadly to the English physique.  There were even scourges like the plague to be encountered!  And this is apart from the very real dangers of captivity, rape, torture and death which were always present in the turbulent climes these ladies inhabited.

Yet most of them bore it all with true British fortitude (stiff upper lip, Jeeves!) and many wrote poignant and amusing memoirs, full of underplayed English humour.  Katie Hickman, herself a “diplomatic daughter”, has researched these extensively and produced a fascinating book, drawing upon her mother’s reminiscences and her own childhood memories too in the process.

These diplomatic wives span across the years from 1661 to the present.  Forty-six of them are credited as “principal women”; however, a number of others are mentioned in passing so I suspect the number may exceed a hundred.  Sixty-two books have been credited in the bibliography, apart from various magazines (the main ones being various issues of BDSA [British Diplomatic Spouses Association] and DSWA [Diplomatic Service Wives’ Association]  house journals).  The amount of research is extensive and exhaustive.

The organisation of the book is also excellent: instead of presenting the stories chronologically or sequentially, Hickman has chosen to divide the book into chapters which explore the various facets of the diplomatic life.  Thus we have chapters on “Public Life”, “Social Life”, “Hardships” etc.  to name a few.  In each of these chapters, the author explores the experiences of her protagonists separated across time and space, emphasising the similarities and differences alike – so what the reader gets is a continuous narrative, a feeling of solidarity among these poor daughters of a colonial power, forced to bear the standard of their country in hostile atmospheres – mainly out of necessity, not out of choice – yet doing it in grand fashion, most of the time.

Some of the wives stand out as special characters.  Isabel Burton, wife of Sir Richard Burton, following him willfully into the jungles of Brazil; the swashbuckling Ann Fanshawe; Victoria Sackville-West, whose stain of illegitimacy is washed away in the diplomatic arena; Emma Hamilton, who climbed the ladder all the way from prostitute to princess (well, metaphorically)… and many more.  As I read this book, I was filled with admiration for these daughters of the empire – all the more so, because as an expatriate, I know the cultural shock of adjustment even in these modern times.

A very worthwhile read.

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