BOOK REVIEW / An awful lot of copy in Brazil: The captain's wife - The South American Journals of Maria Graham, 1821-23 ed Elizabeth Mavor, Weidenfeld pounds 18.99

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The Independent Culture
GEORGE CANNING, Foreign Secretary in the 1820s, said he had 'called the New World into existence to redress the balance of the Old' - an electrifying, if vainglorious, claim. In truth, it was the long arm of the Royal Navy, rather than Canning's diplomacy alone, which finally secured the independence of South America from Spain and Portugal. Maria Graham's husband was one of the naval officers involved.

In August 1821, they sailed together in his frigate, HMS Doris, first to Brazil and then to Chile. Thomas Graham died on the passage round Cape Horn, and Maria arrived in Valparaiso a widow. Her journals of the next two years are the record of a personal odyssey, but also vivid evidence of the Navy's role in the emergence of two new countries. They are worth more than any number of the official despatches Thomas might have sent to their Lordships at the Admiralty.

Although a warm and practical woman, Maria was always more than the captain's wife. A bluestocking from an early age, known to the Edinburgh intelligentsia as 'Metaphysics in Muslin', she had already travelled to India, Italy and South Africa, and published accounts of her journeys. Later she wrote the classic Little Arthur's History of England (said to have sold a million copies). But her Brazilian and Chilean journals are surely her best achievement.

Elizabeth Mavor has edited them with skill and feeling, although she must regret having had to cut so much (including all the author's original illustrations). She focuses mainly on Maria's private daily life but there is much also about politics and personalities, with sharp, lively pictures of Don Pedro, first Emperor of independent Brazil, and the liberators of Chile and Peru, Bernardo O'Higgins and Jose San Martin.

Only Lord Cochrane, the brilliant, quarrelsome Scottish admiral, escapes Maria's criticism entirely: the lonely widow describes him as her 'true friend'. He was, rarely for him, discreet about her, perhaps because his pretty, equally brave but rather silly wife, Kitty, accompanied him for some of the period when Maria was in South America. We shall never know if they were lovers but there was surely love on Maria's side.

Kitty had the last word by contriving that her rival be appointed governess to the daughter of Don Pedro. Maria finally returned a year or two later to England, remarried and seems to have put South America out of her mind for ever.