Diplomatic Baggage: Adventures of a Trailing Spouse, by Brigid Keenan

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Review by Elaine Simpson-Long

Bridget Keenan worked as an editor on Nova magazine, and on the newspapers The Observer and The Sunday Times. I remember reading her pieces and thinking that her style was deft and amusing. Just recently Bloomsbury reissued Diplomatic Baggage and I was able to reacquaint myself with the author.  I had not realised that she had married a diplomat and had to choose between her own career or that of a ‘trailing spouse’ as she followed her husband around the world to the various places he was posted. Six weeks after their wedding he was posted to Ethiopia and ‘it dawned on me that I would have to give up my wonderful job and follow him around the world or spend my life pining for rare glimpses of my beloved‘.

It was thirty five years before they returned to live in England permanently.

She admits she spent a lot of time weeping and wailing, and though, with great insight, honesty and humour, she takes us on the journey of her life, there were times when I felt she must have been a bit of a trial to her husband, who struck me as being a rock of certainty and self control. Traits that I assume are essential in the diplomatic service

However, it does seem she had reason to weep and wail as there was very little support or understanding for the wives of the diplomats who had to organise a life, social and otherwise, often not understanding the language nor having the faintest idea what to do. 

Oh God I don’t know if I can bear it. This is my first morning in Kazakhstan and it is only eleven o’clock and I’ve already run out of things to do and I have another four years to go until this posting comes to an end. How on earth am I going to get through it?

Bridget Keenan decided to write this book when she met an unhappy young woman at a diplomatic party in Kazakhstan. She had just arrived, was a doctor but had found out she could not practice and was desperately homesick.  By then the author was in her sixties and was asked ‘you have been doing this for many years. It it worth it or should I leave my husband and go home and back to my job immediately?’

And that is the dilemma.  Bridget Keenan was a writer and a journalist so she was in a position to be able to do freelance work and carry on with her career, albeit at a distance, but this young woman was in a different position entirely. The author realised she could not give an honest answer but it made her decide to write this book to see if this would help her do so.

I am in two minds about this book. Yes, it is engaging and witty and written in a marvellously humorous style but I am not sure that it really gives a clear view of life in the diplomatic service for a ‘Wife’. This book is a re-issue, the first publication was in 2015 and one hopes that there are more support services now and more understanding of the sacrifices facing women in diplomatic circles.

My own daughter, Helen McCarthy, has written a book about diplomatic wives, Women of the World, (reviewed by Victoria, here), and the Keenan book was in her bibliography, which is when I first heard of it.  I know I am blowing my daughter’s trumpet here, but it is well worth reading and is a history of women in the diplomatic service, not just as wives but as diplomats in their own right.

Bridget Keenan observes that friends and acquaintances seemed to think that diplomatic wives drink a lot of gin, have a great time and probably have numerous affairs. She also points out that nobody wants to hear about her life when she comes home.

None of your friends are remotely interested. […] I remember telling someone how worried we were in Syria about the collapse of peace talks with Israel and she interrupted to say ‘well I can’t get worried about that I have a book to finish before Christmas.

Once I stupidly blurted out to some close women friends at lunch that I didn’t know what to do because my butler was leaving. […] I don’t know how I ever lived that down.

And somehow that little anecdote summed up my feelings about this book.  No matter how funny the writing, the amusing anecdotes about dealing with inefficient servants and eccentric cooks, there is a patronising feeling, very slight I admit, in the narrative that makes me feel a bit uncomfortable.

But I leave it up to you to see how you feel because it IS very funny, very well written and did make me laugh.

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Elaine blogs at Random Jottings.

Brigid Keenan, Diplomatic Baggage (Bloomsbury, 2022). 978-1526654915, 310pp., paperback.

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