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Journal and Letters from the Crimea
“The past is a another country, they do things differently there” – so wrote L P Hartley at the beginning of The Go-Between, and the truth of that famous opening line is driven home over and over again as you read Mrs Duberly’s War.
Fanny Duberly was the wife of Captain Henry Duberly, Paymaster of the 8th Royal Irish Hussars and when he was sent to the Crimea in 1854 ….. she went with him. She was, in fact, the only officer’s wife to remain in the Crimea throughout the campaign.
Popular ‘history’ marked Frances Isabel Duberly down as an attractive but hard-hearted flirt who openly had an affair with Lord Cardigan and looked on unmoved at the slaughter of Balaklava.
The Fanny Duberly revealed in her journal and letters (in this new edition, skillfully and seamlessly interwoven into one narrative by Christine Kelly) is, however, a very different woman.
Attractive she undoubtedly was and she didn’t hesitate to make the most of it. She enjoyed – and accepted – the attentions and compliments of the men around her and wasn’t beyond using her gender to get what she wanted. She also, plainly, relished the sheer excitement of it all – but it’s obvious from her journal that she had just one major reason for being in the Crimea, and that was Henry Duberly. She adored him, and was there to keep him alive.
It was not uncommon – strange as it may seem to us now – for an officer’s wife to accompany him on a campaign, but it was very unusual for one to be as tenacious and determined as Fanny was – and she did it in truly appalling conditions.
The most cursory study of the Crimean War reveals a catalogue of atrocious weather, cholera and maladministration of breathtaking proportions and Mrs Duberly’s War is not a book I’d recommend to the faint-hearted. Fanny does not shrink from describing what she witnesses and experiences with a sometimes clinical accuracy, born of the detachment she had to develop in order to survive. The death and suffering of the men (and horses) around her would have felled a lesser woman – mentally if not physically. At times, I found it very hard to continue reading, but she wrote with such a vivacity and zest for life – even in the face of inhumanity – that I felt compelled to stay with her.
It’s extraordinary now to think of her riding out alone on her horse (Bob – who at the time was almost as famous as she was), to find her husband at Balaklava, and witnessing the ill-fated Charge of the Light Brigade – and she yet did exactly that. She vividly described the blood, mud and misery of war, suffered the same privations as the troops – the starvation, the lethal cold, ennervating heat, sickness, exhaustion … but through it all she carried on, convinced that her beloved Henry would not come out of the Crimean War alive without her. And who knows but that she was right?
She was a woman of enormous determination and personal courage. She was also not slow in speaking her mind and I think it was for that reason – and her easy and comfortable familiarity with the men around her – that the scandalous stories started to gather. She was not as a Victorian woman was supposed to be. When she walked through the ruins of Sebastopol to see – and report on – the aftermath, she was accused of being a vulture. A man doing the same thing excited no comment at all … but a woman was not permitted, in some quarters at least, to want to see such things for herself. Nor did she accept what was happening around her unquestioningly. Her contempt for the men in supreme control of the campaign was as profound as her compassion for those they commanded.
The journal ends with the fall of Sebastopol, but Fanny’s travels didn’t. After a brief return to England, Henry was posted first to Ireland and then to India, to aid in the suppression of the Indian Mutiny and – guess what? Yes – Fanny went with him again and this time, she was the ONLY officers wife to accompany her husband: but that’s a whole other story.
Whilst some knowledge of the Crimean War is useful when reading Fanny’s journal and letters, it’s not absolutely essential as Christine Kelly has provided short introductions to each section with detailed notes and appendices at the back, expanding on fleeting references and providing explanations of unfamiliar terms.
Mrs Duberly’s War isn’t a relaxing bedtime read, but it is a spirited and vivid chronicle of what it was REALLY like in the killing fields of the Crimea, bringing history to life in a way that no text book has ever done.
Oxford University Press. Reprint edition. 2008. Paperback. ISBN: 978-0199532063. 416pp.