Christine Kelly, ed. Mrs. Duberly's War: Journal and Letters from the Crimea. New York: Oxford University Press, 2007. 416 pp. $35.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-19-920861-6.
Reviewed by Heather Streets
Published on H-Albion (September, 2008)
Commissioned by Mark Hampton
An Eyewitness Account of the Crimean War
This lovely book, edited by Christine Kelly, reads like a novel but is supported by a solid scholarly apparatus. It combines the journal and letters of Fanny Duberly, who in 1854 went out to the Crimea with her husband Henry Duberly. Henry, a Paymaster to the 8th Hussars, was ordered with his regiment to Varna at the start of the Crimean War, and Fanny insisted on accompanying him for the duration of his service. For over a year, Fanny kept a detailed journal and wrote a steady stream of letters--mostly to her sister and brother-in-law--back to England. Fanny clearly wrote the journal with an eye to publication, and in 1855 managed to publish it under the title Journal Kept During the Russian War: From the Departure of the Army From England in 1854, to the Fall of Sebastopol. The published journal was an immediate success, which resulted in the release of a second edition the next year. Until now, however, no new editions of the journal have been reprinted despite its value for understanding the hardships of the Crimean War, the lives of British soldiers, and the possibilities and limitations of life for educated, middle-class British women in the mid-nineteenth century.
That historians have not paid more attention to Fanny Duberly’s journal is unfortunate, for at the time of its publication it had an important effect on British public opinion. Along with the reports of the Times correspondent William Howard Russell, Fanny’s sympathetic accounts of the suffering endured by British regulars--and her criticism of the men who led them--helped rehabilitate the image of British soldiers even as it prompted Britons to censure the men who were responsible for waging the war. Moreover, the journal allows readers insight into the life of an extraordinary woman who was both praised and roundly criticized for going out to war with her husband. Some considered Fanny’s presence in the Crimea--not to mention her behavior as an entertainer of officers and her habit of riding with the troops--scandalous and unfitting for a lady. Indeed, Fanny was among the only middle-class women to stay with the troops throughout the campaign; most of the other women who remained with the men were the lower-class wives of regular soldiers or servants. Other observers found Fanny’s refusal to leave her husband’s side worthy of admiration. However she was seen at the time, there is no doubt that Fanny did not conform to stereotypes about middle-class Victorian women. She did not have children, she liked the company of men more than of women, she spent her days galloping across the countryside on her horse, and--when the cold and mud grew severe--she removed her petticoats and fashioned trousers to wear under her skirts. Thus, Fanny’s distinctive personality allows students of the period to better understand the gap between historical generalizations about gender roles and the multiple and varied experiences of historical individuals.
While Kelly has faithfully reprinted the original published journal here, her additions make the story far more compelling. For example, the editor’s introduction sets both Fanny’s life as well as the Crimean War in historical context, allowing the reader to better understand many of the nuances in the text. In addition, each chapter of Fanny’s journal begins with an editorial explanation that situates the events within a wider historical scope. For those with little knowledge of the Crimean War, Kelly also provides two appendices following the journal itself: “How the War Began” and “The Battle of Balaklava.” Both provide brief but thorough background on the causes of the war and on its most famous battle. The back matter also includes sections on Biographical Notes (helpful for additional information on the characters introduced in the journal), Further Reading, and Notes and Commentary (meant to elucidate obscure or confusing references in the journal itself). By far the best editorial addition, however, is the fact that Kelly chose to insert Fanny’s personal letters within the text of each journal chapter. Indeed, Fanny frequently wrote about the same events in her journal and in her letters, but there were often rather striking differences between the two. Since the journal was written with the eventual intention to publish, Fanny found it prudent to temper her honesty--particularly where criticism of the war’s leadership was concerned--with diplomacy. In her letters to her sister and brother-in-law she felt no such compunctions, and it is in those texts that her fiery temper and stinging criticisms of conditions really come through. Writing in her journal about the first few months in Varna, for example, on the 24th of July 1854, Fanny mentions only that Lord Cardigan, the general in charge of the campaign, “has been searching unsuccessfully for another camping-ground” (p. 39). In her letter of the same day, however, she wrote that “He has been worrying and harassing the men and destroying the horses by having incessant field days, parades, and marching orders every day since we have been here” (pp. 39-40). Such contrasts make Fanny’s story far more three-dimensional than the journal alone would allow.
The journal itself is divided into seven chronological chapters from 1854 to September 1855, including "The Voyage," "Embarkation and Encampment at Varna," "Expedition to the Crimea," "Balaklava," "The Camp," and "Fall of Sebastopol." The war actually continued until 1856, but Fanny was interested in publishing her journal while public interest in the war was still at a peak. Taken together, Fanny’s journal and letters offer particularly revealing insight into several important issues: the material conditions of nineteenth-century life, the disorganization of the war effort, and the suffering of regular soldiers during the campaign. Indeed, one of the advantages of reading first-hand accounts is that they provide a window into the details of living that books written by historians tend to overlook. From Fanny, however, readers appreciate very quickly the trials and tribulations of travel, transport, and daily discomforts experienced by those in the nineteenth century. For example, the ship Fanny and her husband boarded for the Crimea took--because of delays, accidents, and poor sailing conditions--twelve days to go a mere 300 miles. The centrality of horses to nineteenth-century life also comes through starkly. Fanny herself was an excellent rider, and was very attached to her own horses. She always noticed and commented on the horses of her friends and acquaintances, wrote about the difficulties of life for horses and well as men in the Crimea, and frequently lamented the deaths of horses in camp. Lack of adequate heat, housing, and food also recur frequently in both Fanny’s journal and in her letters.
Fanny’s account of the war is unequivocal about the incompetence of its leadership and its chaotic organization. This became clear to her early in the campaign, when she realized that there was little coordination at the highest levels about how to run the war, and that those in a position to lead seemed incapable of making decisions. In a letter home in November 1854, she wrote “What can become of us? No powder,--no ships, --and one small force? I have bet that [Lord Raglan] will go on just in the same dawdle that he has done all along--and that his army will be annihilated before spring” (p. 105). In contrast to the French, whose conduct of the war Fanny admired, British leadership seemed pitiful indeed. In the journal, she recorded that one French officer remarked, “The English are very good soldiers, but they don’t know how to make war.” In the same passage, she lamented that in contrast to the French, “how have our resources been wasted!--our horses killed!--our men invalided; while over it all broods the most culpable indifference!” (p. 128).
In contrast to her stinging criticisms of British leadership, Fanny’s accounts of the courage of British regulars amidst enormous physical suffering were heartfelt and moving. Fanny was certainly aware that although she and her husband also suffered discomforts due to cold, sickness, and privation, these paled in comparison to regular soldiers who had none of the advantages of officers. In December 1854, she wrote home in a letter that “We are on board ship moored close to the shore in a harbor that often stinks so from the vast numbers of sick and wounded that it makes me retch--dead bodies only recognizable from a thigh bone or an arm floating round the ship, a sight so horrible that it seems to stop the current of one’s blood” (p. 115). Later the same month she wrote that in spite of such suffering and death, not one case of insubordination had been reported among British regulars. Moreover, in contrast to the sickness and lack of comforts she regularly detailed in the journal, she depicted the battle conduct of the soldiers--which she often watched personally from a distance--in glowing terms. During the battle of Balaklava, she reported the staunchness of the 93rd and 42nd Highland infantry being charged by the Russian Cavalry: “what could that little wall of men do against such numbers and such speed? There they stood.... They waited until the horsemen were within range, then poured a volley” (p. 93). But for the incompetent leadership of the war, Fanny believed British regulars would have won the war quickly.
For those interested in the Crimean War or in the history of the British army, this book provides eyewitness information and insights. Readers will be particularly struck by the deplorable conditions soldiers were expected to endure. In addition, Fanny’s account provides a very personal account of many of the characters--from generals to regulars to servants--involved in the war. Finally, the journals and letters here reveal a complicated, unusual woman who comes across as a flawed, strong, energetic, and eminently likeable person who found military life both horrendous as well as strangely liberating. In fact, Fanny’s adventures were far from over: after the Crimea, she went with her husband first to Ireland and then to India during the Great Indian Rebellion of 1857. She died in Britain at age 71. One only wishes her journals and letters would have continued until then.
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Heather Streets. Review of Kelly, Christine, ed., Mrs. Duberly's War: Journal and Letters from the Crimea.
H-Albion, H-Net Reviews.
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