Daughters of Britannia: The Lives and Times of Diplomatic Wivesby Katie Hickman
In an absorbing mixture of poignant biography and wonderfully entertaining social history, Daughters of Britannia offers the story of diplomatic life as it has never been told before. Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, Vita Sackville-West, and Lady Diana Cooper are among the well-known wives of diplomats who represented Britain in the far-flung corners of the globe. Yet, despite serving such crucial roles, the vast majority of these women are entirely unknown to history. Drawing on letters, private journals, and memoirs, as well as contemporary oral history, Katie Hickman explores not only the public pomp and glamour of diplomatic life but also the most intimate, private face of this most fascinating and mysterious world. Touching on the lives of nearly 100 diplomatic wives (as well as sisters and daughters), Daughters of Britannia is a brilliant and compelling account of more than three centuries of British diplomacy as seen through the eyes of some of its most intrepid but least heralded participants.
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Sometime at the beginning of April 1915 a lonely Kirghiz herdsman wandering with his flocks in the bleak mountain hinterland between Russian and Chinese Turkistan would have beheld a bizarre sight: a purposeful-looking Englishwoman in a solar topi, a parasol clasped firmly in one hand, striding towards the very top of the 12,000-foot Terek Dawan pass.
Ella Sykes, sister of the newly appointed British consul to Kashgar, was dressed in a travelling costume which she had invented herself to cope with the rigours of the journey. Over a riding habit made of the stoutest English tweed was a leather coat. On her legs she wore a pair of thick woollen puttees, while her hands were protected by fur-lined gloves. On her head she wore a pith helmet swathed in a gauze veil, and beneath it, protecting her eyes from the terrible glare of the sun in that thin mountain air, a pair of blue glass goggles. If the herdsman had been able to see beneath this strange mixture of arctic and tropical attire, he would have seen that her cheeks and lips were swollen, her skin so badly sunburnt that it was peeling from her face in large painful patches. But her eyes, behind those incongruous goggles, sparkled with a very English combination of humour and good sense. 'Such slight drawbacks', she would later record, 'matter little to the true traveller who has succumbed to the lure of the Open Road, and to the glamour of the Back of Beyond.'
The glamour described by Ella Sykes is not of the kind usually associated with diplomatic life. Thismysterious existence invariably brings to mind a vague impression of luxury of diamonds and champagne, of vast palaces illuminated by crystal chandeliers, of ambassador's receptions of the Ferrero Rocher chocolates advertisement variety. While it is relatively easy to conjure with these fantastical images (for on the whole this is what they are) it is much more difficult to imagine the reality behind them. To contemplate Ella Sykes on her journey across the Terek Dawan pass is to invite a number of questions. Who were these diplomatic women, and what were their lives really like? Where did they travel to, and under what circumstances? And, most important of all, how did they get there in the first place?
In 1915 an expedition to Kashgar, in Chinese Turkistan, was one of the most difficult journeys on earth. Following the outbreak of the First World War, the normal route for the first leg of the journey across central Europe and down to the Caspian Sea had become too dangerous, and so Ella and her brother Percy travelled to Petrograd (St Petersburg) on a vastly extended route via Norway, Sweden and Finland. From Petrograd they went south and east to Tashkent, the capital of Russian Turkistan, on a train which lumbered its way through a slowly burgeoning spring. At stations frothing with pink and white blossom, children offered them huge bunches of mauve iris, and the samovar ladies changed from their drab winter woollens into flowered cotton dresses and head-kerchiefs.
For all these picturesque scenes, even this early stage of the journey was not easy: the train had no restaurant car, and the beleaguered passengers found it almost impossible to find food. At each halt, of which luckily there were three or four a day, they would all leap off the train and rush to buy what they could at the buffets on the railway platforms, gulping down scalding bowls of cabbage soup or borsch in the few minutes that the train was stationary. The further east they travelled, the more meagre the food supplies became, until all they could procure was a kind of gritty Russian biscuit. Without the soup packets they had brought with them, Ella noted with some sang-froid, they would have half starved.
From Tashkent Percy and Ella took another train to Andijan, the end of the line, and from here they travelled on to Osh by victoria. Here they found that Jafar Bai, the chuprassi (principal servant) from the Kashgar consulate, had come to meet them. Under his careful ministrations they embarked on the final stage of their journey, the 260-mile trek across the mountains.
At first they met a surprising number of people en route: merchants with caravans laden with bales of cotton; Kashgaris with strings of camels on their way to seek work in Osh or Andijan during the summer months: 'Some walked barefoot, others in long leather riding boots or felt leggings, and all had leather caps edged with fur.' The long padded coats they wore were often scarlet, 'faded to delicious tints', and they played mandolins or native drums as they went. On one occasion they met a party of Chinese, an official and a rich merchant, each with his retinue, also bound for Kashgar.
The ladies of the party travelled in four mat-covered palanquins, each drawn by two ponies, one leading and one behind [Ella wrote], and I pitied them having to descend these steep places in such swaying conveyances. They were attended by a crowd of servants in short black coats, tight trousers and black caps with hanging lappets lined with fur, the leaders being old men clad in brocades and wearing velvet shoes and quaint straw hats.
At night Ella and her brother stayed in rest-houses, which in Russia usually consisted of a couple of small rooms, with bedsteads, a table and some stools. Sometimes these rooms looked out onto a courtyard where their ponies were tied for the night, but often there was no shelter for either the animals or their drivers. Over the border in China these rooms became more rudimentary still, lit only by a hole in the roof. The walls were of crumbling mud, the ceilings unplastered, their beams the haunt of scorpions and tarantulas. Up in the mountains, of course, there were no lodgings of any kind...
Meet the Author
Katie Hickman was brought up in Europe, the Far East and South America, and educated at Oxford University. She has been travelling and writing ever since.
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