Storytellers – Heather Rossiter, author, scientist, traveller, and for 45-years a member of BBC

We were delighted to have Heather Rossiter as our speaker for the evening. There was no ‘arm twisting’ involved with Heather as she approached the Storytelling Convenor to tell her story, an example for all!

dearboysweetlifeHeather Rossiter, author, scientist, traveller, and for 45-years a member of BBC, spoke about how she ‘met’ Jane Dieulafoy in Iran in 2001, the difficulties in researching the life and achievements of such an amazing woman, and how that material became Sweet Boy Dear Wife, Jane Dieulafoy in Persia 1881-1886, her newest book available at all bookshops and on-line.

Heather had always been fascinated by the Middle East, in particular the architecture and decoration arts from that part of the World. Her first involvement was in Yemen, not a place to go today but architecturally was fantastic. Heather was then working in England at the UK Atomic Energy Authority and lived in Oxford so went to lectures at the University to discover about the wonderful ceramics. Tired of the fog in England, Heather then moved to the USA, after being offered a job at the US Atomic Energy Commission, and managed to attend lectures at the UCLA on Islamic monuments. So what with her studies and her extensive travels through North Africa & Islamic countries there (Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, Egypt, Oman …) she had a good background when she started her book.
Interestingly enough she didn’t get to Iran until 2001. When Jane Dieulafoy first went to that part of the World in 1881 it was named Persia. It was in Susa (central to Jane’s story) where Heather’s first interest in Jane Dieulafoy was sparked. Heather, tired of some pretty gruelling travelling, was listening to a guide talking about the excavation and finds at Susa, when she quickly paid attention as the guide spoke of the site being excavated by a French women, with her husband in 1884. The more she listened the more she thought this was an intriguing person and thought that someone should tell her story. It seemed lost to the modern world but would have been big at the time.


Madame Jane Dieulafoy

Heather explained how the usual arrangement for archaeological excavations was that the country who wanted to do the excavation paid for it and got half the find, the other half going to the host of the excavation together with all precious metals found, gold, silver… The half of Jane’s find went back to Paris, such as many of the wonderful glazed brick friezes from Darius’s Palace showing lions and Persian archers are now in the Louvre. Heather started writing to the Louvre to find out more about Jane Dieulafoy and what else was there from her dig but initially had no response. Then eventually by a series of communications starting with her local MP, none other than Tony Abbott, and then to DFAT, Canberra, then the Australian Embassy, Paris, onto the desk of the Cultural Attaché who phoned the PR person at the Louvre and bingo access was granted!

It was very evident to Heather that Jane was a remarkable woman. When the Franco Russian war broke out and Marcel, her husband, said he was enlisting in the French Army and was off to fight a war, Jane only aged 19 and newly married said ‘Not without me’ and unable to enlist she went as a volunteer. Later, when her husband wanted to go to Persia to find evidence on his theory that Gothic architecture was really Middle Eastern architecture brought back in the minds and writings of the Crusaders, once again Jane said ‘if you’re thinking of going to Persia, you’re not going without me’. She spent 2 years learning Farsi, the Persian language and took a course in tropical medicine and first aid and also a course in new wet plate photography techniques. A major stumbling block was the big black garb she would be required to wear. So Jane settled for dressing as a boy. Her curls were cut off and dabbed down with grease. Everyone assumed she was her husband’s son. It was safer that way. Persia was a dangerous place for infidels.

When they got to Tehran, the Shah’s French doctor had arranged an audience for them with the Shah, she had to out herself –
‘What! That sweet boy is a woman?’ asked the Shah.
‘Indeed, your Majesty,’ replied Colonel Dieulafoy, ‘she is Madame Dieulafoy, my dear wife.’… so hence the title “Sweet Boy, Dear Wife”!!

Jane covered 6,000 kms on her first tour. There were no roads and she rode mainly on horseback. When she returned to Paris and convalesced after illness she started publishing extracts of her diary that she kept faithfully, and some of her photos. It was a sensation. Nobody had any idea of her story and her writing style was such that she was suddenly quite famous. She discovered early in her trip the beauty of Persian enamel tiles. Heather being a horse rider and love of ceramics felt she had a found a soul mate and needed to continue with her story.

The French Government decided to excavate in Persia and the job offered to Jane & Marcel Dieulafoy and she went back in 1884.

lsgeHeather also gave us a taster of her book ‘Lady Spy, Gentleman Explorer’ (the double life of Herbert Dyce Murphy). Herbert was 2nd in Command to Mawson on the Australasian Antarctic Expedition 1911 – 1914. He had quite a life and was intimately related to Miss Edith Murphy. When he was 20, he was a slight person, blond, and very late to develop any facial hair, and the British Military Intelligence thought he might solve a few problems for them and he spent nearly a year working for them as Miss Edith Murphy and would go across the continent dressed for the part.

Following Heather’s presentation, she was kind enough to answer a number of questions.

The most recent review of Sweet Boy Dear Wife can be found here.

For more about Heather Rossiter see