I’ve done it again. I knew I’d enjoy Helen McCarthy’s new book, Women of the World: The Rise of the Female Diplomat, so I asked the London Library to acquire it. In due course they did and posted it to me. It’s a particular pleasure to be the first reader of a brand-new pristine copy of a book. But not for the first time I made the mistake of not starting it right away. As a new book it can be recalled after two weeks, and it has been, so I had to read all 346 pages over the week-end. I put all my other reading aside and read in odd moments and in bed. Then on Sunday I did something I hardly ever do, except sometimes on holiday. I sat in the garden and read for the whole afternoon.
I’m glad I did. This is a terrific book, scholarly and at the same time a great read. I particularly liked the way it was structured, each chapter began with some important conference or congress, starting with the Congress of Berlin 1878 and ending with the United Nations Conference for International Women’s Year in 1975, revealing the way women only very gradually became more present on the world stage.
It is extraordinary to realise that women were only allowed to enter the Foreign Office and Consular Service in 1946 and that until 1973 a woman had to resign if she got married. It had been inconceivable that a husband would be prepared to follow his wife from posting to posting and if he did, what on earth would be do all day? He would necessarily be a pretty inadequate, unmanly kind of fellow.
It’s all here, a thoroughly researched history of the subject, which is never allowed to become dry. There are some fascinating accounts here of women like Gertrude Bell and Freya Stark, who managed to do good work overseas, and many other lesser known but equally formidable women, coming right up to the present day. Diplomats’ wives aren’t neglected either. Like the wives of the clergy, they were expected to be part of the package, doing huge amounts of unpaid work.
I loved Women of the World, but time now to pack it up and send it back to the library so that the next person can read it.
I said a few weeks ago that I was going to use the London Library more – and I have. I’ve blogged about a book I got out recently: The West End Front: The Wartime Secrets of London’s Grand Hotels by Matthew Sweet. And, for my book group reading, there has also been Italio Calvino’s Invisible Cities and The Elephant’s Journey by Portugese writer, José Saramoga. And let me mention here that I am so grateful to my book group for suggesting books that I wouldn’t otherwise have read, these two among them. It stops me getting too lazy as a reader. I often persist with a book that I don’t initially care for, feeling duty bound to finish, and I am almost always glad that I did. Having said that, this is the time of year for comfort reading, and I’ve also got out Miss Read’s Village Diary and Storm in the Village, At Bertram’s Hotel by Agatha Christie, and the latest Ian Rankin. There has also been Adam Gopnik’s book of essays on winter (interesting but not as good as his book on living in Paris) and there are books still waiting to be read: The Buenos Aires Quintet by Manuel Vásquez Montalbán and Conrad’s Tales of Unrest. I think I’ve mentioned in the past that one of the wonderful things about the London Library is that they don’t throw out books just because they are old (or unread for that matter) and it’s thanks to that that I’ve also been sampling the work of a Golden Age crime novelist new to me: Henry Wade.
Lonely Magdalen was recommended to me by Martin Edwards who blogs at doyouwriteunderyourownname.blogspot.co.uk and when I’d read it, I couldn’t understand why Wade isn’t better known. Henry Wade was the pseudonym of Sir Henry Lancelot Aubrey-Fletcher, 6th Baronet CVO DSO, (1887 – 1969) and he was a founding member of the Detection Club, so I guess was pretty well known in his day. The premise of Lonely Magdalen is intriguing: a prostitute is found murdered on Hampstead Heath and it turns out that she is from an upper class family and disappeared twenty years ago. How did she come to this and does the clue to her murder lie in her distant past? Both prostitution and alcoholism are treated with a frankness surprising for 1940, the year of publication. Wade sustains our interest in the investigation by the dogged Inspector Poole with great skill. Wade isn’t mentioned in Julian Symons’s Bloody Murder: From the Detective Story to the Crime Novel, but I think he should have been. The novel reminded me of the work of the US writer, Hilary Waugh, in the way that Wade manages to write about police procedure, dead ends and all, in a gripping way. Waugh is often seen as the father of the police procedural, but his landmark novel, Last Seen Wearing, didn’t appear until 1952, twelve years after Lonely Magdalen.
Another lovely thing about the London Library is that books can be posted out. They have plenty of Henry Wade’s that I haven’t read and I’ve just requested another, Heir Presumptive, to be sent to me.
I’ve written elsewhere on my web-site about independent libraries. I have always loved libraries. I treasure my membership of the London Library: it is one of my favourite places and certainly my favourite library. I’ve sometimes had a fantasy that I could secretly live there, hiding among the stacks, and emerging after closing time. The same with Cambridge University Library and there the fantasy is fuelled by the first aid room which actually has a bed in it (no sheets though, as I discovered when I was ill once and had to lie down in there). And CUL has a cafe too (used to be famous for its cakes and cheese scone). With all the open stacks, too, it would be easy to lose oneself in there. I noticed once that the regulations forbid walking bare-foot in the library (conjuring up images of long gone hippy students with flowers in their hair) but it doesn’t say anything about not spending the night there.