A Woman Unafraid of War–Florentia Sale

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Throughout history, women have seldom started wars, but it is surprising how many women have played important roles when wars come to them. Florentia Sale, for example, was a Victorian-era woman whose journal helped the British to navigate a tricky situation in Afghanistan in 1842. After that war ended, the journal became a bestselling book and it remains today an enduring record of a brave and clever woman.

Lady Florentia Sale

Florentia Sale was born in Madras, India, in 1790. into a family of British civil servants.  Like many British civil servant and army families of the time, her father  and his family spent very little time in England. At the age of 19, Florentia married a British army officer, Sir Robert Sale. Most of the rest of her life was spent in farthest reaches of the British empire. All of her ten children were born abroad and spent most of their lives outside of England. Florentia was already a grandmother when her life was changed by one of England’s most unnecessary wars—the first Anglo-Afghan War.

The British entered the Afghan War because they were afraid Russia might be planning to invade India through Afghanistan, although the Russians had no such plan. Both British and Russian leaders apparently misunderstood which ruler the Afghan people would accept, or perhaps they didn’t care, but each country pushed support for its own choice. The British Army and the British East India Company, which fought beside them, invaded Afghanistan. As usual, the armed forces were accompanied by many women and children. When the British moved into Kabul, the citizens rose against them. On November 2, 1842, Lady Sale describes in her journal “This morning early, all was in commotion in Kabul. The shops were plundered and the people all fighting.” The British decided to retreat. 

A large number of hostages, most of them women or children, were taken by the Afghans to ensure that the British would leave. Lady Sale was one of them. This group was to be marched to Kandahar. The march was long and slow and it started during a cold Afghan winter. Conditions were not comfortable, but Florentia made the best of them. The group walked for several days with only a few stops and no access to the clothes and supplies they had packed for themselves. When they finally were reunited with their belongings, Florentia describes how good it felt. “We luxuriated in dressing, although we had no clothes but those on our backs; but we enjoyed washing our faces very much, having had but one opportunity of doing so since we left Cabul. It was rather a painful process, as the cold and glare of the sun on the snow had three times peeled my face, from which the skin came off in strips.

Wars moved slowly in those days and various envoys from the British came and went from the Afghan camp, although they could do nothing to free the hostages. But Lady Sale was able to send letters including pages of her journal to her husband, to let him know where the hostages were and how they were being treated. Parts of her journal were published in London newspapers so even as she was living through the hostage crisis, she became famous. Dubbed the ‘soldier’s wife par excellence’ by The Times, Lady Sale was also known as ‘the Grenadier in Petticoats’ by her husband’s fellow officers.

Throughout her long ordeal, Lady Sale stood up for her rights and for the well-being of her fellow hostages. When the Afghans and the British forces were negotiating the terms of ransom for the hostage women and children, Lady Sale protested “against being implicated in any proceedings in which I have no vote.”

Cold weather was not the only difficulty the women had to overcome. Many of the younger women were wives of British officers and during their nine-month-long ordeal, four babies were born to add to the list of hostages. None of this seemed to bother the indominable women who coped with weather, childbirth and earthquakes without losing hope.

Even as she observed the war and bargained with soldiers, Florentia continued to pay attention to the beauty of the countryside. In April she wrote “I saw plenty of amaryllis in bloom; as also of the Persian iris (the orris of the druggists), which quite scented the air with a perfume resembling that of mingled violets and wall-flowers.”

After nine long months, the hostages were released. Nothing had been gained by the war. In 1843 British army chaplain G.R. Gleig wrote a memoir about this disastrous war. He wrote that it was “a war begun for no wise purpose, carried on with a strange mixture of rashness and timidity, brought to a close after suffering and disaster, without much glory attached either to the government which directed, or the great body of troops which waged it. Not one benefit, political or military, was acquired with this war. Our eventual evacuation of the country resembled the retreat of an army defeated”.

If you would like to read more, you can find Florentia’s journal on Amazon and in some libraries. Sale, Florentia. Lady Sale’s Afghanistan: an Indomitable Victorian Lady’s Account of the Retreat from Kabul During the First Afghan War.

Revisiting Favorite Books–May Sarton

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Now that Christmas and the other gift-giving holidays are over, it is time to look back on the gifts we received and savor them. For me, this was a very book-heavy year. One of the books I received was a collection of essays and reviews by Ursula Le Guin called Words Are My Matter: Writings on Life and Books (2016). The essays cover a wide range and reintroduced me to several writers I had read in past years but had not revisited. To start the year off, I decided to go back to some writers I remember enjoying years ago. One was May Sarton, a favorite of earlier years, who has faded from public notice since her death in 1995. She is well worth revisiting.

May Sarton

Reading Faithful Are the Wounds (1955) now is like revisiting another world. I felt as though I was watching an old movie; cigarettes are lit every few pages, people drink cocktails before meals and wine at dinner while wives uncomplainingly cook and serve meals to preoccupied academic husbands. At Harvard, where this story takes place, students revere their professors, male students humbly call for the female students at their dormitory doors, and the suicide of a literary scholar is front-page news across the country.

But behind the propriety of this quiet life, political issues are as divisive as they are today. The time is the late 1940s and the scholars are deeply involved in the postwar struggles between Russia and the West. Sarton mentions the tremendous shock to American intellectuals caused by the suspicious death of Jan Masaryk, president of Czechoslovakia. His death—which could have been either suicide or murder—led to Czechoslovakia’s fall into Russian-style communism. The disillusionment of American liberals at the country’s fall from democracy is a potent force in this story.

Jan Masaryk

A dramatic clash at a quiet meeting of the local Civil Liberties Union signals the beginning of a painful confrontation between the close-knit group at Harvard. Edward Cavan, a professor of American literature, refuses to sign a letter certifying that all the leaders of the group are free of Communist taint. His refusal leads to arguments and threatens long-standing friendships. When Cavan commits suicide, his friends and students try to discover why they could not understand his pain and were unable to help him.

Most of the story is told through conversations between friends of Cavan and his sister who comes from California to arrange his funeral. The contrast between academia and the world of successful medical doctors appears very sharp. How much does family background and childhood experiences influence Cavan’s political ideas and personal decisions? Every reader will have to decide individually. Sarton includes a postscript chapter covering the day five years after the suicide when unforeseen political changes shed new light on the feelings of Cavan’s old friends and the direction of the country.

Faithful Are the Wounds is more relevant than ever in these times of clashing political loyalties. Reading about a different but equally bitter historical period in our country helps us to understand what is going on now. Sarton wrote a story that many readers will think about long after the reading is finished.