Books: Heroines (and some cocaine)

Daughters of Britannia: the lives and times of diplomatic wives by Katie Hickman HarperCollins, pounds 19.99, 323pp; Sea-slugs, bubonic plague and 74 under-garments failed to daunt imperial spouses. Sue Gaisford salutes them
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The Independent Culture
Ferrero Rocher chocolates sometimes appear at British Embassy dinners in Kiev: Chris Gardiner, married to our Ambassador, provides them for a joke. Meanwhile, down on the Ivory Coast, diplomatic banquets are prepared by Alex Sutherland, working single-handed in the Embassy kitchen. The Foreign Office has always demanded such unswerving marital dedication - but times are changing. The Gardiners are strangers to chandeliers and white-gloved flunkeys. Chris and his wife live in what looks like an Elephant and Castle council block. And when the Sutherlands' guests arrive, Alex exchanges pinny for kilt and happily discusses shopping, down among the mistresses and the unmarried sisters.

These two obliging husbands are a new breed. Until very recently, all the top jobs were held by men: their wives were the great unsung heroines of Empire. Though Katie Hickman acknowledges the arrival of the male spouse, the main concern of her enormously enjoyable, anecdotal and scholarly book is to extol the magnificence of his female predecessors.

They were certainly heroic. Hickman, herself a diplomatic daughter, knows at first-hand about the pain of separation, when a child is sent to boarding- school while parents remain in dangerous postings. The Hickmans discovered just how dangerous when trying to give support and comfort to the family of Christopher Ewart-Biggs, assassinated in Belfast. Such horrors have always been part of the deal. In the 1780s, the Tullys spent 13 months holed up in Tripoli as bubonic plague raged around them. At Christmas 1989, the Atkinsons hid, terrified, in their cellar while the Romanian revolution thundered over their heads.

But these are daring, doughty and determined women: you can bet they have all been fanatical list-makers. Hickman provides several inspirational and venerable lists, beginning with provisions suggested by the Army and Navy stores for departing diplomats. They feature green baize aprons (for the butler), enemas, worm-powder, poultry-food, Calvert's Carbolic, bunion- plasters and a travelling-bath.

Or take the list of clothing recommended for a departing wife - and take some elephants to carry it. In 1888, a decent woman needed at least 74 different items of underwear, including stays, innumerable petticoats, lisle stockings and, of course, clackingette slip-bodices - and that's not counting what you sported on top of it all. No wonder they never travelled light.

Once arrived and kitted out, there were local entertainments to offer distraction. These could be a mixed blessing. After a couple of hours on a hard bench in Chinese Turkestan, Diana Shipton asked the wife of the Russian Consul how long the performance would last. The alarming reply - six years - proved happily, inaccurate.

It is important always, and graciously, to accept local delicacies. In Kashgar in 1903, Catherine Macartney sampled ancient eggs (they taste like gorgonzola, apparently) and 40 subsequent courses. She coped with gelatinous swallow's-nest soup but had trouble with large black sea-slugs, eventually covering them in mustard and managing to eat four.

In Tokyo in 1889, the menu confronting Mary Fraser featured "Dournat", "Fish Squeak" and "Dam Pudding". These days, the Foreign Office offers guidance about where you can buy nourishing reminders of home - though be warned: there is no Marmite in Azerbaijan.

The comfort of familiar food is second only to the excitement of letters in these far-flung households. News used to take weeks or months to arrive. Sometimes, a parent or, even worse, a child would be dead and buried long before the family found out. The stately ritual of diplomatic calls, receptions and dinners must have seemed intolerably trivial in the face of such calamities.

As for remedies, they were predictably robust. Tisanes of coca (the basis of cocaine) were a helpful suggestion in La Paz; small daily doses of opium were said to prevent colds in India; to cure sand-fly fever in Baghdad, the best thing is a glass of champagne with a couple of biscuits in mid-morning. And for hysteria, you can't beat a little whisky- and-water - and wholesome neglect.

Why did they put up with it? Well, some of them didn't. There are heartening stories of bad behaviour among our more spirited "Ambassadresses". But the rest have done it largely to support their husbands' careers, and because of a strong commitment to the idea that personal contacts destroy misconceptions and advance international relations.

Besides, although it has always been a challenging life, full of loneliness and danger, it is also, incontrovertibly, a tremendous adventure.