Deadlier than the Male – Wives of the Generals 1677-1937, Trina Beckett

Deadlier than the Male – Wives of the Generals 1677-1937, Trina Beckett

The main purpose of this book is to look at a selection of the wives of British military leaders to see if they had any influence on their husband’s careers. This rather goes against the standard academic view, which sees the wives of officers as ‘incorporated wife’, subordinated to the army with little status of their own.

One key difference between the various people studied here is if they accompanied their husbands to their posting. At the start and end of the period that clearly wasn’t common – neither Sarah Churchill or Kitty Pakenham followed their husbands to any great extent and nor did Dorothy Haig. In the middle we get the high imperial period, where women like Juana Smith and Florentia Sale made their names by sharing their husband’s postings and often much of the discomfort and danger. This makes a big difference to the sort of influence each of these women could have over their husband’s careers, with those who were based in Britain able to at least attempt to use their political or personal influence to further their husband’s careers.

Six of the seven chapters focus on a single person, with four of the looking at the wives of some of Britain’s most successful generals – John Churchill, Wellington, Douglas Haig and Monty. Juana Smith and Florentia Sale win their place because of their adventurous lives. The one exception is the capture looking at late Victorian wifes – more women are studied here than in the rest of the book combined! As a result we learn less about each of the individuals, but get a better idea of the varied experiences and influences of military wives in a particular period, with direct comparisons possible between people operating at the same time and in the same establishment.

I would say that Beckett successfully proves that many of these wives were influential in their own right, and were perfectly capable of gaining influence and respect of their own, rather than being in the shadow of their husbands. Sarah Churchill is of course the most extreme example of this, clearly having more influence with Queen Anne that her husband ever did, but Juana Smith was probably more popular in most of their postings than her husband, while Florentia Sale’s reports from the disasterous retreat from Kabul entirely overshadow her husband. In other cases there was no influence (‘Kitty’ Pakenham being the most famous example), or in the case of some of the Late Victorian Wives a negative influence, but the key here is that these women were individuals, with individual stories and levels of influence, and can’t be neatly packaged up in the academic theory of the day.

1 – Petticoat Power: Sarah Churchill
2 – ‘She Has Grown Ugly’: Catherine ‘Kitty’ Pakenham
3 – Campaign Child Bride: Juana Smith
4 – ‘The Heroine of Cabul’: Florentia Sale
5 – The Power and the Glory: Late Victorian Wives
6 – Memory and Reputation: Dorothy Haig
7 – An Altered Path: Betty Montgomery

Author: Trina Beckett
Edition: Hardcover
Publisher: Pen & Sword Military
Year: 2018

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