The second Lord Redesdale, famously portrayed by his eldest daughter, Nancy Mitford, as Uncle Matthew, was an eccentric philistine, a country gentleman who never read a book and disliked Abroad. The contrast with his highly literate and widely travelled father, Algernon Bertram Mitford (known as Bertie), could hardly have been greater.
The youngest of three sons, Mitford was educated at Eton and Oxford before entering the diplomatic service. His first posting was as third secretary at the British embassy in St Petersburg. In 1866, not yet thirty, he was dispatched to the British legation in Japan to serve under the shrewd but irascible Sir Harry Parkes, Britain’s envoy extraordinary. Many years later Mitford was to publish an account of his experiences in Japan, which, while elegantly written, has little of the liveliness and immediacy of the letters he composed while there as a young man. Robert Morton, an academic who has spent a number of years in Japan, has drawn on these letters, addressed to Mitford’s father, to write this fascinating account. Morton’s familiarity with the country and its history enables him to bring this period of the past vividly to life.
In the 1860s the European presence in Japan was minimal. The British legation based in Yokohama had little contact with the secretive and ferociously protected imperial court in Kyoto. Westerners were regarded with distrust, and no foreigner was allowed even to set foot in Kyoto, let alone the palace, or