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The best books on The Diplomat’s Wife

recommended by Brigid Keenan

The author discusses a varied selection of books about young women living abroad. Draws on her own experiences as a Diplomat's Wife. Features Out of Africa and The Jewel In The Crown with three more travel classics

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Brigid Keenan

Brigid Keenan is an author and journalist who has spent her life living ‘in other people’s countries’. Her father was a Brigadier General in the Indian Army under the British Raj and with her diplomat husband she has lived in Nepal, Ethiopia, Brussels, Trinidad, Barbados, India, West Africa, Syria, Kazakhstan, and Azerbaijan. She has written five books, including the bestselling Diplomatic Baggage – an account of her unsettled life as a diplomat’s wife.

Life as an ambassador's wife (Article)
Brigid Keenan on Wikipedia

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What was it like being a diplomat’s wife?

In the beginning I found it very difficult because I’d given up a wonderful job (I was fashion editor of The Sunday Times) in order to travel with my husband and I felt rather lost… In our first posting in Brussels I was at a dinner party when somebody asked me what I did. I got into a complete panic because I didn’t know the answer, since I didn’t have a job any more. A lot of this new life was challenging – I was a young person with small children, in a foreign country, where I didn’t know anybody. With hindsight, I now realise it took about a year to settle in to each new posting and find that I was happy.

Your first book, like all your recommendations, is about a young woman living abroad. Tell me about Out of Africa.

Out of Africa is an incredible introduction to Africa, and I read the book when I needed it most. My husband was posted to Ethiopia quite soon after we were married, and I didn’t know anything at all about the continent, which made me very apprehensive. He travelled there ahead of me and somehow found Blixen’s autobiography. He rang me and said that there was this book that I must read which seemed to sum the whole place up. When I got to Addis I was able to relate to the country more easily because I’d read it. Blixen writes about a different place (Kenya) and in a different era but the picture it paints still has resonance.

Your next book, The Poisonwood Bible, is also about foreigners living in Africa.

This is about everything that can go wrong when you are in another country and faced with another culture. It’s about a family – primarily it centres on a father and his four daughters – who move to the Congo from America as missionaries. The book is tragic because the father has the best intentions of making a good life for his family, but he’s too closed-minded and set in his American ways. I identify with the daughters because they have a childish sensitivity to their surroundings that adults don’t always have. It is important if you go to live in other countries to be aware of the cultural differences, otherwise you can upset people.

Do you think the sort of life you have lived, constantly moving places, inevitably puts personal relationships under the sort of strain described in The Poisonwood Bible?

In my own family there are four of us: I have two daughters. When we travelled around the world in our little family capsule we became very attached and reliant on one another. We were probably closer than ‘normal’ families in the United Kingdom would be, because we shared so many unusual – sometimes wonderful, sometimes difficult – experiences in strange places.

Your next book is called An English Lady in Chinese Turkestan: tell me about it.

I don’t know how I came across this book but I read it when my husband was posted to Kazakhstan, which, initially, I absolutely hated. In her book Lady Macartney describes going through Russian-controlled territory on her way to China, accompanying her husband. She describes her loneliness on finding that no one speaks English and then the shock of finding that all the street signs and road signs are in Russian. I found this a problem myself when I arrived in the ex-Soviet territories – one of the main reasons I didn’t like Kazakhstan was because I couldn’t speak Russian (the main language) and this put me at a big disadvantage as very few people spoke English. The book was reassuring because Lady Macartney seemed to face all the same difficulties and homesickness as me. She did her journey to China in the 19th century though, and they didn’t have anything then, of course – no e-mail, no phones – to help her on her journey into the unknown. She helped me pull myself through Kazakhstan, because I thought that if she could do it a hundred years ago without any help, then I must be able to do it with all the help in the world.

Your next book The Inner Life of Syria, Palestine and the Holy Land is also about a travelling spouse. This time the author loves the country her husband has taken her to.

The book is written by the wife of the famous adventurer/traveller Richard Burton. I identified with her because she was a Catholic like me, and she loved her posting to Syria with her husband just as much as I did. She was interested in the same things that fascinated me – the old houses in Damascus are just one example (I actually wrote a book about houses in Damascus). When she was there in the mid-19th century there was a fashion for renovating the old houses in a more European style. In The Inner Life she describes the new interior decorations of these houses, houses that I saw when I was there but are now old and battered. In many ways her Damascus doesn’t seem to have changed that much. She describes going to a lady’s day at a Hamam (the traditional bath) – the leg waxing and beauty treatments are still the same today. However there are some things that she describes, things that I wasn’t able to see – like the thousands of pilgrims from all over the world assembling in Damascus to make the pilgrimage to Mecca (the Hajj).

One of the problems, I suppose, of being a travelling spouse is that you have to leave the places that you live in, no matter how much you love them. Did she find this a problem?

Well, at the end of the Burton’s time in Syria, there was a problem and Burton was recalled to London. Oddly enough, this is another parallel between Isabel’s experiences and my own: at the end of our posting in Syria we had some problems too. Isabel Burton wrote that her last happy day was the day before she heard that she had to move back to London. I loved Damascus so much that I identified very strongly with this feeling.

Your last book, The Jewel in the Crown, the first in The Raj Quartet, has perhaps the darkest perspective of your recommendations. Tell me about the book.

It’s a story about a British family in India in the last days of the British Raj (it all takes place in the early 1940s before the British left). That was the time when I was in India as a child, but I was 20 years younger than the heroine of the book, Daphne Manners. The basic plot is that Daphne falls in love with a young Indian journalist who has been educated in England. He’s quite posh, and of the same class as Daphne, but he’s Indian. No one can accept this. The author Paul Scott uses the story to illustrate the whole social map of India at that time. You’ve got the British hanging on for grim death, the European missionaries, nuns, civil servants, teachers, etc – people who were embedded in India and knew it very well – living through the end of the era and having to leave the country when India became independent.

That’s an epic backdrop to the story. You must have lived through some interesting times as well?

The event that is engraved on my soul is from when I was in Ethiopia during the terrible famine of the early 1970s. I had taken a sabbatical from my job at The Sunday Times to join my husband in Africa. He met me at the airport and told me that there was an important story which I had to cover because the situation was so desperate. I headed off to the north as quickly as I could and I visited a camp where there were five thousand people and no food. The man running the camp had gone mad, and there were some schoolboys, aged about ten, from the nearest town trying to write down names of the dying. I went back down south thinking that I must get the news out about what was happening – make them send food up. When I returned to the camp about a week later, there was no one there – everyone had died. To this day I lie in bed at night and think about that experience: I should have taken just one person out.

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Brigid Keenan

Brigid Keenan is an author and journalist who has spent her life living ‘in other people’s countries’. Her father was a Brigadier General in the Indian Army under the British Raj and with her diplomat husband she has lived in Nepal, Ethiopia, Brussels, Trinidad, Barbados, India, West Africa, Syria, Kazakhstan, and Azerbaijan. She has written five books, including the bestselling Diplomatic Baggage – an account of her unsettled life as a diplomat’s wife.

Life as an ambassador's wife (Article)
Brigid Keenan on Wikipedia