The British Empire Library

Letters from Far Away Places

Grace McDonald Sitwell

Courtesy of OSPA

Review by Anthony Kirk-Greene (N Nigeria 1950-66)
In 1923 Grace McDonald, who was born in Canada, married O. R. Sitwell of the Ugandan Administrative Service. To mark their diamond wedding, their children arranged to have printed a selection of Grace Sitwell's letters written home from East Africa between 1924 and 1939, the end of their fifth tour. By then, Sitwell was D.C. Kampala. The volume is embellished by half a dozen linocuts from the family's Ugandan photograph album.

To the Service historian the value of these letters is their totally unpretentious simplicity of style. Factual, personal and innocent of all self-conscious analysis, they effectively convey the contrasting excitements (small as well as big) and wretched boredom which so often made up the daily routine of station life, especially for the wives of colonial officialdom. Too often (for my purposes) names have here been reduced to initials, but with a Ugandan Staff List to hand it should not be too hard identifying Mr. S., the D.C. ("he is hossy, she is a great gardener and nice"), the police officer Captain W. ("she is oldish and a dreadful gossip") or Dr. N. ("our very efficient medical officer), and on occasion all reticence is helpfully thrown to the wind: the Bourdillons characteristically charm everyone, so do the Athlones ("they made it so easy for us"), while Mr. Weatherhead, P.C., "is a PERFECTLY SPLENDID MAN". Ugandaphiles, of course, will derive nostalgic pleasure from the descriptions of Jinja in 1924, Masaka in 1923 or Arua in 1934.

Whatever we may ourselves retrospectively think or pretend with hindsight, this is - for better or for worse - the kind of simple, wondering, chit-chat letters so many of us wrote home, at least in our early tours. Literature, no; a contribution to history, yes. Here is the sort of stuff without which the full story of the British abroad cannot be written.

British Empire Book
Grace McDonald Sitwell


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