Voilà une longue vie! Interview with Geneviève Fabre, spring 2016

Geneviève and Pierre Fabre

Geneviève Fabre's experience of the French diplomatic service spans four decades and as many continents. Travelling extensively with her husband, diplomat Pierre Fabre, Geneviève, like Henrietta Liston 200 years earlier, embarked on her first diplomatic journey as a newlywed. National Library of Scotland Curator Dora Petherbridge asked Geneviève about her life, and this personal account reflects on the role of the diplomatic couple and on how diplomacy has, and has not, changed since the 18th century. Geneviève now lives in south west France, where she is restoring a 16th-century castle, Chateau de Caumale. The chateau has many connections to the Caribbean.

Translated from the French.

Dora Petherbridge: Could you tell me about your life in the diplomatic service?

Geneviève Fabre (GF): Yes, a lifetime has passed since 41 years ago, as a 20-year-old newlywed, I left with Pierre for our first post in Cameroon in West Africa. After having been in Paris, Cameroon held a particular appeal — the magic and adventure of living between two tea plantations in a large colonial house, on a bay facing the sea. There were, however, certain difficulties in communication between the French and the different ethnic and linguistic groups.

With our first child we embarked for Western Canada — Calgary, Alberta — where oil had created real wealth, and there, like Henrietta Liston [see note 1], we had fascinating encounters with native groups, learning about their language, powwows, and their great ceremony in July during the Stampede. I was especially interested in the story of a priest who had spent his life on the reservations of the West.

When my husband took up his next post in Berlin, East Germany was behind the Iron Curtain. By then, we were accompanied by our three eldest children and their nanny, who had been with us for nine years. It was an extremely delicate post and our life here was quite unsettling: to go to school, the children had to cross the Berlin Wall twice a day.

I want to emphasise the importance of the group of diplomats' wives in Berlin, behind the famous Berlin Wall, where everything was restricted or forbidden.

Thanks to the strength of our group of diplomats, we were able to get doors opened in castles usually closed to the public. We followed in Voltaire's footsteps at Furstenberg Castle, knelt down to see the 'ébénistes' marks under the commodes, some of which bore the double 'V' of the Palace of Versailles. We were invited everywhere; we had the best seats at the opera and lunched at the Chinese Embassy, but were kept under close watch. My bridge partner was the 84-year-old wife of the Chinese Ambassador — I was just 26 years old and her embassy had me sign a document to attest that she was in my company between 10am and 1pm. How terrifying the lack of freedom in the twentieth century under Soviet rule or Chinese Communism.

Yet the relative freedom that our diplomatic status granted us was very exciting — meetings with local artists, evenings spent in dark places, constant surveillance of our homes, and being followed everywhere and all the time.

Two years after Berlin, Pierre was appointed to Ankara, Turkey, where we had a truly incredible life full of contact with the Embassies of Italy and Great Britain, sometimes exchanging stories of the Bosporus with our fellow diplomats. It was then I first heard of Henrietta Liston, who went to Turkey when her husband was ambassador-extraordinary to the embassy of the Sublime Porte. [see note 2]

After the birth of our fourth child, Pierre was next assigned to Alcatel Defense in Istanbul after the Gulf War, where the atmosphere was more military. Careful diplomacy was needed to deal with the situation between the various interests — those of the Americans, Russians and Turkish.

Our fifth child was born, and we soon went to Venezuela to carry out a financial audit of the Caribbean countries. It was a new exciting adventure, and we took frequent trips to Chile, the islands off Mexico, and Suriname.

Finally we arrived in Scotland, in Edinburgh, an important financial hub closely in touch with London. We were so happy to set down, at last, our many suitcases and settle our five children in this magnificent country. We enrolled my two youngest sons at school, and, although they had been speaking Turkish and Spanish, they became more Scottish than the Scots.

Five years later, we left for Denmark, then home to the Presidency of the Council of the European Union, and four years after that, for the Kingdom of Bahrain. And, in April 2016, we left our post in Bangladesh and its earthquakes to return finally to France. Voilà une longue vie!

DP: In her journals Henrietta Liston writes about welcomes and farewells — the pleasure of making new friends and the sadness of leaving them. What are the rhythms or patterns of diplomatic life?

GF: Entering a new diplomatic post is quite superb; one arrives with little luggage but clothes for every occasion. On leaving the plane, my husband is immediately invited to breakfast with the most senior European diplomats, followed by lunch and official dinners with the entire diplomatic corps stationed in the country. The informal arrival tour lasts about one month. I, too, am received — by the diplomats' wives, usually in clubs or private residences during the day. Nearly every evening there are cocktails between 6 and 7 o'clock followed by dinner in one of the embassies, hotels or private clubs, not to mention events on all the national holidays. On opening the door of our new house we immediately find a mountain of invitation cards, in addition to those awaiting my husband at his office from the acquaintances he makes at the embassy.

My house is sometimes partially furnished, as in Edinburgh, where it was the state residence where all the economic counsellors from France lived and entertained during their time in Scotland. Often, however, the furniture won't arrive for some weeks, but nevertheless we must begin to present ourselves in society by entertaining.

The diplomats' wives clubs are there to help us and it's lovely to immediately find oneself in a perfectly international group — all there at the same moment for a short time. Relationships are forged more quickly than in one's home country. There are conventions and codes — diplomatic codes of behaviour are strict, but if one shows kindness and takes an interest you are immediately accepted and begin a fascinating life discovering the country accompanied by women from around the world.

We visit one another and support our husbands by introducing them to the wives of public figures and to the country’s intelligentsia whom we’ve met through games of golf, bridge, or Mahjong, or at daytime receptions while our husbands are shut up in their offices or meeting rooms. These social connections are important in facilitating diplomatic relations too: in Turkey I was friends with women in former President İnönü’s family, as well as the wives of more recent politicians, who immediately invited us to see them.

French is the language of diplomacy, which has been a great advantage in my making contact with the local intelligencia, who are proud to be received at the French Embassy.

In Caracas I met the spouses of some of the oldest planters and bankers who had become presidents, some of the country's filmmakers, and antique dealers working for Christie’s in South America. I worked as a volunteer in a museum of colonial art and organised a charity concert to help promote the French Embassy, and above all, I spent five interesting, wonderful years, and made really good friendships.

Having to leave a place is a very difficult moment. Two months before departure the stream of invitations starts again. Everyone invites and entertains you and there are gifts, tears, memories. This life is so distinctive. One has to keep oneself informed about so many things, and so it’s difficult to find time to work, to love.

In the whirlwind of diplomatic life there is no time for regrets. Everything begins all at once when one reports to a new post. One has to travel with crockery, with glasses and silverware in order to receive guests right away, often managing it all on one’s own, trying all the while to be as elegant as possible.

On top of this, one has to be prepared to move quickly in case of revolutions, earthquakes or hurricanes, to be prepared to manage the situation, help your embassy to organise, and to be seen to be present. Achieving all of this whilst raising five children requires a certain level of fitness!

When we arrived in Caracas, for instance, and were received by the Embassy upon disembarking from the plane, my fifth child, who was one at the time, was burning with fever. The road into the city wound through the mountains, the heat was oppressive, and I was increasingly worried about finding a doctor for my son as quickly as possible. In spite of this, and in spite of the difficulty of managing all five children after long hours on a plane, I had to maintain a cool demeanour.

Our arrival in Western Canada, on the other hand, was marked by a surprise birth and no crib for the baby. In short, it is quite an active life!

DP: The Listons hosted social occasions and built friendships to win the trust and loyalty of diplomats and politicians. In your view is there anything particularly effective about a husband and wife working together in diplomacy?

GF: Yes, it is absolutely crucial to have this group of diplomats accompanied by their wives — the couple, the duo, is a great force. We have to stay abreast of all the goings on — transfers, visits, special occasions. We really do assist our husbands, and important politicians will always be happier to welcome a couple, will speak more freely around a dinner table than in an office — something the French diplomat Talleyrand [see note 3] capitalised on: he threw lavish parties and charmed his guests in the hopes of gleaning information he would later use to destroy them. I know that Henrietta did not like him much, it's true, but he was a real diplomat. [see note 4]

How lucky to be a diplomat in the 18th and early 19th centuries, when the couple played a pivotal role within the diplomatic field, an established role. Madame was charming, listened well, entertained, travelled, and above all inspired confidence, while her husband worked: a perfect balance in this closed world.

Today our diplomats are often alone, and with media oversaturation and a press that thinks it is well informed, we are far from the diplomacy of Talleyrand. Real contact is difficult to establish, and worse, diplomats sometimes work two posts … How can one really get to know a place under these circumstances? At the end of the week a man or woman alone, in South America, in Turkey, in Scotland or the Persian Gulf won’t be invited anywhere; it is the family that inspires the most confidence. In the 18th or 19th centuries diplomats would have explored, received invitations for some weeks, and would have had real encounters.

Henrietta was important in the story of Philadelphia and it was her interest in America, her curiosity and her intelligence that led to her relationship with George Washington and the strengthening of the ties between countries. Henrietta and her husband succeeded because they worked together as a couple, and it's really interesting to follow this through her journals and letters.

DP: What importance do women of the past have for you? You mentioned that Henrietta was lucky to live during the late 18th century. Do you feel this era is particularly interesting for women in society or politics?

GF: I think that in the 18th century not many European women travelled, and rarely would wives go with their husbands to a military or diplomatic posting, so Henrietta Liston was quite exceptional in that regard. Only the wives of planters travelled as often as Henrietta did. In those days, these voyages were full of dangers: they were travelling, in a very real sense, into the unknown. At this time, the aristocracy was pioneering in that respect — their curiosity overcame their fear and timidity.

The Americans, Canadians and the Turks would have been honoured and curious to meet a diplomatic couple representing the King and Queen of Great Britain. A very prestigious aura would have surrounded them. Imagine how delighted citizens of these other places would have been to show them the very best their countries had to offer, to solicit their advice, to create strong links with such a country as Great Britain.

We hear so much about fur traders and gold prospectors, but diplomats are just as interesting and so little known; people imagine cocktail receptions and dinners, but there’s so much more to it — it's a subtle world, as with Henrietta …

Henrietta was indeed terribly lucky to live at the end of 18th century: she was free, free to visit the harem of the Sultan in Constantinople, to talk with women so different, she was terribly energetic and curious, a good strategist. Henrietta's is an epic story of a woman living in turbulent times, manoeuvring skilfully through the world of politics, one half of an extraordinary couple.


Note 1

The Listons visited Canada in August 1800; the trip is described in Henrietta Liston’s journal 'Journey to Lower Canada, 1800'. [MS.5703]. The Listons visited the native settlements Loretteville and Kanesatake Lands.

Note 2

Robert Liston, Ambassador-Extraordinary to the Embassy of the Sublime Porte in Constantinople from 1794-1795, in 1811 at the age of 69 was reappointed to the position. Henrietta describes her time in Constantinople in several journals, [MSS.5707-5712]. The objects of Liston's second embassy to Constantinople were to build up good relations between Turkey and Russia, and to frustrate any prospect of an alliance between Turkey and France. Robert Liston's official and personal papers relating to Constantinople chiefly deal with Turkey's relations with Britain, France and Russia and Turkish politics, personalities, and domestic troubles, [MSS.5570-82, MSS.5625-63].

Note 3

Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord (1754–1838), French statesman. Talleyrand served as Foreign Minister under the Directory from 1797.

Note 4

Writing to her uncle, James Jackson, on 11 June 1798, Henrietta Liston described Talleyrand as a 'scoundrel' [MS.5591, f.57], and also described him as 'that cloven footed Devil'.

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