Belle of the battlefield who flirted amid shot and shell

Mrs Duberly's War
March 9, 2007

The Crimean War (1854-56) was the first war for which the British public had ringside seats. It saw the coming of the war correspondent with the reports of William Howard Russell of The Times . The postal service enabled hundreds of letters to be sent home from soldiers of all ranks telling of their experiences, and many were published in local and national newspapers. Increased literacy and wider reading of newspapers made these reports influential in shaping opinion.

In October 1855, after the fall of Sebastopol, Roger Fenton's photographs were exhibited in London, giving people at home a glimpse of the deprivations and hardships suffered by the Army. One of Fenton's photographs is unusual. It is of Mrs Henry Duberly on her horse, Bob, with her bearded husband standing beside her. What was she doing in the Crimea? The world was soon to be told.

In December, there was a sensation, the publication of the journal of Mrs Duberly, wife of the paymaster of the 8th Royal Irish Hussars and the only officer's wife to have been present during the entire campaign. The initial reception was positive and the book sold well, but a hostile review in The Examiner and a mocking pastiche in Punch made it clear that the author had, for many, transgressed the rules of ladylike conduct by being in the war zone at all.

What sort of woman was Fanny Duberly? Was she a Becky Sharp, an adventuress come to enjoy a man's world with the chance to flirt, or worse, with junior and senior officers? Was she there for the excitement and exhilaration of danger, even an unwomanly sadist who enjoyed being surrounded by death and anguish? Perhaps she was an early female war correspondent, or simply a loyal and tenacious wife who could not bear to allow her husband to face danger alone.

Duberly fascinated and sometimes horrified contemporaries, and posterity has tended to view her as an adventuress. The 1968 film The Charge of the Light Brigade portrayed her as Lord Cardigan's mistress, comfortably ensconced on the general's yacht, while her docile husband was with his regiment; in George MacDonald Fraser's novel Flash for Freedom , the ever-randy Flashman's attempt to seduce her meets little resistance and is only just averted.

Christine Kelly, an expert on the Crimean War, comes to the aid of Duberly in this, the third, edition of her journal and the first since 1856. She provides a splendid introduction that considers the woman in the context of her time and interpolates the journal with extracts from Duberly's letters home, which are often more spontaneous and less self-conscious than the journal itself, which was always intended for publication.

The woman who emerges can best be described as brave, loyal, feisty and imprudent. She strode and rode in trousers worn under her riding habit; she revelled in the admiration of young officers and did not disdain to flirt with elderly generals, including Cardigan, though she secretly thought him a "pitiable old creature"; she was a bit of a social climber; and she enjoyed danger. She describes her excitement as shot and shell came hissing over from the enemy lines. "It was indeed a moment worth a hundred years of everyday existence" and, she wrote to her sister, "this life is full of charm for me. You have an adventure, a danger, an excitement, every hour".

Victorian ladies were not supposed to think like this. She dreaded returning to England: "I shall be a sort of Bashi-Basouk when I get home - defiant of all laws conventional or fashionable - and then how the women will fall upon me..."

Whether she had affairs with some of the young officers who surrounded her in the hell that was the siege of Sebastopol is uncertain and not that important. Her presence at the battlefield was contrived by determination and deception. Once there, she was far from callous, but she was excited and invigorated by war. The vivid depiction of the conflict by the woman Fenton described as the "Belle of the Crimea" constitutes one of the most unusual and fascinating accounts of the Crimean campaign.

A. W. Purdue is visiting senior lecturer in history at the Open University.

Mrs Duberly's War: Journal and Letters from the Crimea, 1854-1856

Editor - Christine Kelly
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Pages - 406
Price - £16.99
ISBN - 0 19 920861 1

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