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.