The British Empire Library

Voices and Echoes: Tales from Colonial Women

by Joan Alexander

Courtesy of OSPA

Review by Anthony Kirk-Greene (N Nigeria 1950-66)
It is no disservice to either brilliant feats of memory-recall to say that Joan Alexander has done essentially for the women of the colonial period what Charles Allen has done mainly for the men (and some women) of the Colonial Service in his Tales from the Dark Continent and now his Tales from the South China Seas. Both writers, accomplished authors in their own right, have successfully set out to project the images of the British overseas through the device of oral history. Joan Alexander is more catholic in her territory, more kaleidoscopic in her focus, and consciously and valuably brings in herself and some of her own experiences as a happily honorary 'one of us' (e.g.. when she and Denis first met the 'Feet' in Cyprus). Drawing on over a hundred interviews, she has skilfully stitched the threads of personal memory, nostalgic reminiscence and oral history into an intricate tapestry of stunning colours and fabulous patterns. Nobody has expressed the essence of being one of her colonial women better than Joan Alexander herself: "In marrying into the Service a woman married a job. a way of life, a privilege, and a deprivation." All too often it was. to cite the title of one of her chapters, a case of "Women and children last"

Readers (or their children) too young to remember just how much of the school atlas was coloured red will find evidence here as Joan Alexander moves from West Africa to the West Indies, from the East to East Africa, and home through the Pacific, the South Atlantic, the Caribbean and the Mediterranean - 'colonial' women everywhere, save those in India and the Dominions. Photographs, a too short reading list and a welcomely larger index of personal names, round off a splendid publication, though even on the second happy reading this reviewer remains puzzled by the primacy of the surely atypical Betty.

If the reaction of some readers follows the standard kind of response to this genre of historical writers, i.e., either "But I could have told her more (scilicet "it better")!" or else "Super - please give us morel", then the answer to both reactions, in the opinion of a reviewer and admirer who is also Director of a colonial records preservation project, is - "Please hurry up and do so!".

British Empire Book
Joan Alexander
Quartet Books


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