THERE was no reason why Bee Rowlatt and May Witwit should ever have met, let alone become friends whose email correspondence ended up in a Penguin paperback.

At the time of their first encounter, Bee, who grew up in York, was a journalist working for the BBC World Service and a mother of two young children, with another on the way. May was living 2,500 miles away in troubled and war-torn Iraq.

The differences between the two women were great.

Bee, now 38, was wrapped up in her professional and domestic life, while May was fearing for her very existence in Iraq, while also having to endure the hostility aroused by her marriage to a younger man, a union considered unsuitable by their families.

One day five years ago, Bee, who attended Haxby Road Primary School, Huntington School and then The Mount School, was working as a producer at the World Service when she had to put in some calls to Iraq.

“I was phoning around at work trying to find Iraqis who would speak on the radio programme I was working on. It was January, 2005, and they wanted to talk to ordinary Iraqis who could speak English,” says Bee.

“Most of them didn’t want to talk to me because they were angry – with the British and with the BBC. But one person said she had a friend who would talk and it was May. And she just wouldn’t stop talking. She was also very funny and we just hit it off.”

After that, the two women began an email correspondence that forms their newly-published book, Talking About Jane Austen In Baghdad (Penguin, £8.99).

The power of the book comes from seeing two women who have never met become like sisters as the emails progress, and from the sharp differences in their circumstances. One is a tough-talking Iraqi lecturer in English (hence the Jane Austen allusion in the book’s title) in a taboo-testing marriage to a younger man; the other is a BBC radio producer having to cope with the usual domestic ups and downs.

May lives in fear of her life, while Bee navigates the daily chores and difficulties, leavened with trips to Yorkshire to stay with her mother (the co-owner of a shop in York) and her partner, holidays, a very muddy trek to Glastonbury, and weekends in Dorset.

May is more or less under house arrest, while Bee is experiencing a different sort of confinement, at home on maternity leave awaiting the birth of her third child.

Such was the contrast between their lives that Bee was conscious of seeming superficial.

“Sometimes I did feel really trite when I was saying ‘I have just made a nice cake’ and she told me that her neighbour had been beheaded,” she says.

Yet it is the very domesticity of Bee’s day-to-day life with her children and her husband – Justin Rowlatt, Newsnight’s business correspondent – that sustains May in strife-torn Baghdad.

May draws strength from learning about this family she has never met, and loves hearing about Bee’s children. “She would say, ‘tell me about the girls, tell me about the girls’,” says Bee. “I became self-conscious wittering on about the kids, because normally you don’t want to talk about your children all the time. But they brought sanity into her life.”

The narrative comes from the emails –“It was pretty much as it happened” – so the reader learns about things at the same time as the two women. We get to know them as they get to know each other. “It’s written in real time,” says Bee.

Much had to be cut out in the editing process. “We had to take things out that became repetitive,” says Bee. “May went on and on about the power-cuts because they were driving her mad, but we had to take that out or people would have died of boredom.”

Part of the drive in the book – the “what-happens-next?” element – lies in May and her husband, Ali, attempting to flee from Iraq and come to England as immigrants.

The story is protracted, as Bee offers encouragement, sends money and advice, but also becomes bad- tempered on occasions, believing that May does not appreciate the difficulties coming to England could raise.

That part of the story has a happy ending, as May now lives in Luton with her husband, Ali. “So we don’t email now so much, but we do speak to each other,” says Bee. “But they’ve been to us for both the Christmases since they arrived here, to be with us and the kids.”

And now the pair have a book to promote, and they have been doing the rounds together.

“The reception has been tremendous. We’ve been on GMTV, Sky, the BBC, in the Sunday newspapers, in Grazia and all the glossies,” says Bee. “We think a lot of the interest is because of the Chilcot inquiry, which has brought Iraq back into the public consciousness.”

Whatever the reason, two women who might never have met have become firm friends, and Bee’s children have a “new” auntie.