THE WIVES of British diplomats during the Victorian age were prolific writers of letters and reminiscences. Many of them are interesting but today they are mostly relegated to the top shelves of libraries in old country houses, their bindings as faded as are the photographs that illustrate them. "Happy Days at the British Embassy, 1873" is the typical caption under a picnic scene of unidentifiable persons disporting themselves against a background of domes and minarets, and inevitably there is a portrait of the author herself in full court dress and satin train, off to the palace, ostrich feather fan in hand.

A Diplomat's Wife in Japan by Mary Crawford Fraser has been rescued from dusty oblivion by Hugh Cortazzi, a present-day British ambassador to Japan. He has abridged Mrs. Fraser's two lengthy volumes into one of very readable size, and has illustrated the book with eight superb wood-block prints in color which depict everyday life in Tokyo when Mrs. Fraser was living there over 90 years ago.

The author was the daughter of Thomas Crawford, the American sculptor whose statue "Armed Freedom" still surmounts the dome of the Capitol in Washington. Crawford and his New York-born wife chose to live in Rome and bring up their family amid the pleasant, cosmopolitan Anglo-American society that then flourished there. Mary, born in 1851, remembered being taken to see the Brownings when she was nine. She had greatly looked forward to the visit, preparing herself by learning by heart a number of Elizabeth Barrett Browning's poems. Her description of the ensuing disappointment is typical of her style:

"From the blaze of the Tuscan summer noon we passed into a great dark room, so dark that it was some time before I made out a lady lying on a couch and holding out her hand to me. I felt my way to a stool on the floor and looked at her for quite an hour without daring to open my lips, while she and my mother spoke in rapturous whispers of the glorious epoch opening up for Italy. Everything was intense -- the heat, the enthusiasm, the darkness and I tried hard to get keyed up to the proper pitch. But it was of no use. The poetess was everything I did not like. She had great cavernous eyes, glowering out under two big bushes of black ringlets. . . She never laughed or even smiled, once, during the whole conversation, and through all the gloom of the shuttered room I could see that her face was hollow and ghastly pale."

Far more pleasurable than Mrs. Browning were the family friends who frequented the Crawford house. Edward Lear made funny drawings for the children and Hans Christian Andersen read fairy tales to the three little girls and their younger brother. The brother, Francis Marion Crawford, grew up to be one of the most popular novelists of his day, and the happy, close-knit tribe were the recipients of the long letters that Mary wrote when she married the young British diplomat Hugh Fraser and followed to his successive posts in Peking, Vienna, Santiago and Tokyo. Those which form this book begin in 1889 when her husband was appointed British minister to Japan (today he would have had the title of ambassador) and the couple left their two boys in school in England and sailed for Tokyo.

This was the Meiji era, a turbulent time during which, as Mrs. Fraser tells us: "Japan came of age, and assumed her full rights as a nation among the nations." There was a new constitution fashioned on European lines, the new Diet, or parliament, a new treaty to be promulgated to replace the old system of extra-territoriality under which foreigners were independent of Japanese jurisdiction. Mary Fraser had a good political mind and she describes clearly the key problems that arose during her three-year stay as a diplomat's wife, but her real strength is as a descriptive writer.

Tokyo was an enchanting town, "a city of gardens"; she could hardly believe that she was in a city at all as she looked out from her veranda at the wild-rose hedges and the pines. Even more lovely were the hilly resorts where she and her husband spent their holidays -- Atami, Miyanoshita and Karuizawa. In the last-named they built a little pavilion which they called the Palace of Peace, and there she woke early one morning to the sound of a nightingale's song: "I do not know how long I stood listening; it was one of those moments in life which mark an epoch, when time has no value and identity is forgotten. I know that all the other birds listened as silently as I until my Lord and Lady Nightingale had finished their golden matins, and that when other songs broke forth, and the sun touched the hilltops to life, I turned away satisfied with beauty, one more hour of perfect happiness added to that rich inheritance of which no future grief or privation can ever rob me."

A keen reporter, Mrs. Fraser did her own investigating of the ways of the Japanese. Her observations of street scenes, her perceptions of life among the poorer people and their children are detailed and vivid. She was close to her own servants, and a description of sitting up day after day with one of them as he died is told with dignified simplicity.

It was a period when the ruling aristocracy were friendly towards foreigners and she grew fond of the families of the great Westernizing Meiji statesmen such as Prince Sanjo and Count Saigo. She understood and admired the strong sense of duty and honor which motivated the Japanese and gives a dramatic example of it which occurred when the czarevitch, heir apparent to the throne of Russia, came on an official visit in the course of which an attemptton his life was made by a fanatical policeman. The wound was not fatal but the effect on Japanese pride was devastating. Mrs. Fraser writes: "The poor young Prince suffered a great shock . . . and yet it was such a simple story! Had it happened in Europe, it would have been looked upon as a great misfortune, but no more. No deductions would have been drawn from it; no enemies could have brandished its record in the stricken face of the nation to show that no civilised peoples should have friendship with her, that treaties were an absurdity, equality a dream. All that happened to poor Japan, smarting under the wound, to her the most bitter of all -- a wound to her honour. The Emperor's welcome guest had been betrayed."

The emperor left his isolation and rushed to Kyoto where the czarevitch lay, so did the entire government. The empress, schooled all her life to impassivity in the face of disaster, walked her lovely rooms "like a caged creature, the tears raining down her face. . . . The theatres were closed, the shops and markets abandoned . . . the little daughter of Viscount Aoki, the Minister for Foreign Affairs (she is ten years old) heard the announcement of the outrage with a stony face, and went away in silence to her room. There, for hours, she lay on the floor in an agony of grief and shame, moaning, 'I am a Japanese! I must live with this shame! I cannot -- I cannot! I cannot bear it!' "

At the Nobles Club they talked of hara-kiri, and people admired a young servant girl from Yokohama who made her way to Kyoto to cut her throat, leaving a note in which she begged those who found her to tell the emperor that she gave her life gladly, hoping that though so lowly it might wipe out the insult, and she entreated him to be comforted by her death. Mrs. Fraser wrote to her family: "I have never seen anything like it -- and you see I am learning lessons in loyalty!"

Hugh Fraser does not emerge clearly as a character from his wife's vivid letters. He appears to have been a hardworking Scottish diplomat who resignedly put aside his dispatches to join her when she summoned him to watch the sun set on the red and gold maples, and one suspects that he might have preferred to have been allowed to finish his work. Yet the editor tells us that they were a devoted couple and that Mary mourned her husband sadly when he died in Tokyo after a short illness in 1894.

We owe a debt to Hugh Cortazzi for having given us this beautifully produced book and to the warm, enthusiastic diplomat's wife who much loved the Japan in which she lived.