Daughters of Britannia : The Lives and Times of the Diplomatic Wives

 
9780007624089: Daughters of Britannia : The Lives and Times of the Diplomatic Wives

An authoritative and entertaining account by one of our most talented writers of the courageous and unusual women who have been the backbone of the British Empire and foreign service.

‘English ambassadresses are usually on the dotty side and leaving their embassies drives them completely off their rockers’ – Nancy Mitford

From the first exploratory expeditions into foreign lands, through the heyday of the British Empire and still today, the foreign service has been shaped and run behind the scenes by the wives of ambassadors and minor civil servants. Accompanying their spouses in the most extraordinary, tough, sometimes terrifying circumstances, they have struggled to bring their civilization with them. Their stories – from ambassadresses downwards – never before told, are a feast of eccentricity, genuine hardship and genuine heroism, and make for a hilarious, compelling and fascinating book.

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Review:

As the daughter of a diplomat, Katie Hickman is well-situated to write about the lives of the women who, from the 17th century onward, have traversed the globe as partners of Britain's ambassadors. These women are more than simply bored socialites, they are indispensable companions, intrepid travellers and, in many cases, exemplary ambassadors for their country. Hickman details the lives of the female ambassadors, from flamboyant characters such as Vita Sackville-West, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu and the "bolter" Emma Hamilton, to lesser-known contemporary stoics like Jane-Ewart-Biggs, whose husband, the British Ambassador to Eire, was killed by an IRA car bomb in 1976, and Veronica Atkinson and family, who cowered in the basement of the British Embassy in Bucharest during the 1989 uprising that overthrew the Romanian dictator Nicolai Ceaucescu.

What frequently unites Hickman's wildly different subjects is their loneliness--drawing on letters, diaries and memoirs, she portrays women who had to discipline themselves to adapt (often ingeniously) to unfamiliar cultures, far away from friends and family--many, in particular, were separated from their children, who would be sequestered at boarding school back in Britain--while maintaining an unimpeachable public image. "I shall be obliged to travel three or four days between Buda and Essek without finding any house at all, through desert plains covered with snow, where the cold is so violent many have been killed by it", wrote Lady Mary Wortley Montagu of her treacherous journey to Constantinople in 1716. Almost 300 years later, in 1996, Stephanie Hopkinson wryly itemised the "bizarre qualifications" necessary for daily diplomatic life in a Sarajevo under siege: "Ability to ... apply make-up in the dark; aptitude for bathing in a cold teacup and keeping one's hair/self/clothes clean and uncrumpled as long as possible ... vivid imagination which converts tinned frankfurters, bread and rice into smoked salmon/steak and chips...". Resourcefulness is a common link between the Daughters of Britannia; Katie Hickman has written a fascinating book. --Catherine Taylor

Review:

Her last book, A Trip to the Light Fantastic, received extraordinarily good reviews:

‘The most ambitiously imaginative sort of travel writing’
- Patrick Skene Catling

‘Magic is at the heart of Hickman’s narrative. Her characters would not seem out of place in the oeuvre of Gabriel Garcia Marquez or Isabel Allende’
- Sunday Times

‘Mexico will not have been portrayed more vividly since Graham Greene’s The Lawless Roads… Enchanting’
- Geoffrey Moorhouse, Daily Telegraph

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