The Queen’s Ambassador to the Sultan: Memoirs of Sir Henry A. Layard’s Constantinople Embassy, 1877-1880

(The Isis Press: Istanbul, 2009), pp. 721 (incl. index), ISBN 978-975-428-395-2. Sinan Kuneralp (ed.), Twixt Pera and Therapia: The Constantinople Diaries of Lady Layard (The Isis Press: Istanbul, 2010), pp. 279 (incl. index), ISBN 978-975-428-398-3.

Once more students of Ottoman diplomatic history are in debt to the scholar-publisher, Sinan Kuneralp, for Sir Henry Layard was one of the most remarkable and controversial of British ambassadors to Turkey in the nineteenth century and served there during the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-8 – and yet the volumes of his memoirs dealing with this period have hitherto languished unpublished in the British Library, in part perhaps because of their size. (Layard admits himself to having been ‘somewhat minute, perhaps a great deal too much so’, p. 692.) They are here published almost in their entirety, the only exclusions being repetitive parts and some official despatches inserted into the text by Layard. The editor has also added numerous sub-headings to aid the selective reader and provided a very sharp, warts-and-all introduction to the ambassador’s apologia for his embassy to Constantinople. An otherwise excellent production is let down – as so often happens these days – only by its index, which is too short, and unaccountably divided by themes, persons and places. It also appears to have been devised by a computer: for example, the entry on Sir Alfred Sandison, the Anglo-Levantine chief dragoman of the embassy, refers the reader to twenty-one different pages but only three of them contain information on the subject of any significance.

Sir Henry Layard was a notable archaeologist and politician but as a diplomat he was also remarkable. As the editor of his Constantinople memoirs says, he was ‘probably one of the last if not the last British ambassador to have wielded some influence in the Ottoman capital’, and ‘probably one of the first Westerners to talk about double standards when Turkey is concerned’. He was unceremoniously recalled by the incoming Gladstone administration in 1880, largely because of this latter attitude but whether he was also remarkable in the professionalized diplomatic service, as Layard says himself in his bitter concluding pages, by virtue of being dismissed ‘without a cause assigned and before he had completed the terms required to entitle him to a pension’ (p. 680), I am not sure – but he was probably right. Layard was not a perfect diplomat (he was too hot-tempered and too inclined to speak his mind) but he is the more attractive for this reason; in any case he had many other diplomatic virtues and was a genuine liberal. He was also an elegant and trenchant writer, and a perceptive judge of character – not least that of the Sultan, Abdulhamid II. These memoirs are strongly recommended. Those with no prior knowledge of Sir Henry Layard and his extraordinary career before taking up diplomacy might also consult the excellent essay on him by Jonathan Parry in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.

The Constantinople diaries of Layard’s wife, Enid, who was only half her husband’s age, are also valuable, although in a very different way. Twixt Pera [where the British embassy was located in winter] and Therapia [the home of the summer embassy] is more revealing of life – especially the social life – of the embassy, than of high politics and diplomacy. As it happens, Lady Layard’s complete journal has been available in searchable form on the internet since 2004 but the editor of the Isis Press edition was probably right to bring out this copy in book form. As he says, students of nineteenth century Ottoman diplomatic history would be unlikely to stumble on it on the particular website where it is to be found (the present writer is a case in point!) and he has provided annotations not available in the online edition. Besides, Enid’s diaries perfectly complement the larger book containing Sir Henry’s memoirs.

Lady Layard’s diary entries tend to be rather formulaic, it is disappointing that she only rarely tells us what she thought of the many interesting personalities she met as opposed to describing their physical appearance and what they were wearing, the logging of her frequent headaches gets rather wearying, and the long lists of dinner guests are at best tantalising. The index is only a name index. Nevertheless, the entries have their compensations. For example, ‘embassy dined with us as usual’ is a frequent one, and on one occasion she records a ‘serious conversation’ with Sandison ‘on the subject of the imprudent marriage his mother was afraid lest he should make’ – all of which leads me to conclude that the family embassy survived for rather longer in Constantinople than I had thought. The entries usually record the arrival and departure of the Queen’s Messengers, thereby confirming that the service was at least fortnightly and, it seems, sometimes even more frequent. We also have further confirmation that the ambassadress was sometimes enlisted to copy the ambassador’s despatches and other documents, especially when – as we know from his own memoirs (p. 398) – it was necessary on Lord Salisbury’s insistence to keep them secret from the chancery. Those with different interests from mine will find other nuggets in these diaries.

Enid Layard was obviously a first-rate ambassadress and had charitable instincts that were strongly aroused by the appalling sufferings inflicted on the Turks by the unsought war with Russia which broke out within days of the arrival of the couple in Constantinople, and dominated the first years of their embassy. I wish that I had read her diaries before completing my history of the British embassy in Turkey.

2017-02-15T19:19:07+00:00 March 10th, 2010|Tags: |