I’ve enjoyed Anne de Courcy’s previous social histories and biographies, so when I saw her latest book was about India, I was keen to read it. As usual, her subject is posh English people, circa 1850 – 1950, but this time she has focussed on the young English women who sailed to India to find themselves husbands. The first such ‘Fishing Fleet’ arrived in Bombay in 1671, the women having been paid generous allowances by the East India Company. However, by the middle of the nineteenth century, there was no need to provide incentives to prospective brides. The only respectable career for a Victorian ‘gentlewoman’ was that of wife and mother, but there were far more unmarried women than eligible bachelors in England. Women who were neither rich nor pretty enough to snare a husband knew they’d have a much better chance in India, where white men outnumbered white women by four to one and were forbidden (by their terms of employment and social custom) from marrying females with any tinge of ‘native blood’.
Anne de Courcy uses memoirs, letters, diaries and interviews to provide fascinating details of these ‘husband-hunters’. First, there was the arduous sailing trip (all the way around Africa before the Suez Canal opened in 1869), the poor women having to contend with cramped living space, sea sickness, limited fresh food and other inconveniences:
“Fresh water for washing clothes was in such short supply that many women who knew they were going to travel saved their most worn underwear and then discarded it overboard on the voyage, leaving, one imagines, a trail of dirty, threadbare nightdresses across the Indian Ocean.”
Arriving in Bombay or Calcutta, the young woman was often overwhelmed by the heat, the dust, the smells, the “teeming mass of people”. She was then flung into India’s version of ‘the Season’, attending (depending on her social rank) Viceregal balls and banquets, dinner parties, tea dances, picnics, tennis parties and tiger-hunts. Couples often became engaged after only one or two brief meetings, the men desperate for companionship after years of celibacy, the women anxious to avoid the mortification of being sent home as a ‘Returned Empty’ (that is, a failed husband-hunter). Most military and Indian Civil Service men weren’t permitted to marry until they were at least thirty, which meant bridegrooms were often several decades older than their teenage brides and could be unwilling or unable to change their bachelor lifestyles. One beautiful and cosseted young woman, who wed in 1932, found herself living on a remote tea plantation, miles from her nearest white neighbour, with no transportation, no electricity and nothing to do. Her much older husband spent all his time working or hunting with his hounds and horses and forgot her twenty-first birthday, and her child was delivered by the local vet because there was no doctor available. Still, “Sheila was a true daughter of the Raj, brave and uncomplaining” and later told her daughter that she always dressed in an evening gown for dinner because “it was felt that one must keep up standards and not let oneself go native.”
Actually, Sheila had it relatively easy. Other women were shot at by mutinous ‘natives’, while some were caught in avalanches and earthquakes. Women died of cholera, smallpox, malaria and even bubonic plague. Infants were particularly vulnerable to diseases, and those who survived were routinely sent off to boarding school in England from the age of six, so their mothers had the agonising choice of being separated for years at a time from either their husband or their small children. And then there was the wildlife – panthers that snatched pet dogs from gardens and golf courses, snakes that slithered up through drainage holes into bathrooms, scorpions hidden in shoes, rats under the bed and monkeys that stole silver spoons from the table. One young woman awoke to find a civet cat drinking from her bedside glass of milk.
What I found most interesting was how British India was far more patriarchal and snobbish than Britain itself. By the twentieth century, it was possible for a working-class man with a great deal of intelligence, talent and luck to rise as high as Prime Minister, and for a well-born woman to become a Member of Parliament. This was impossible in India, where women had no status at all and “the hierarchy of the Raj position was fixed, according to service, rank and seniority in an unalterable grading . . . within which there was room for petty nuances that could be painful and damaging.”
Everyone was obsessed with their own and everyone else’s social precedence, and in a small society where nothing was private, it was thought essential to ‘keep up with the Joneses’. Those who could barely afford it still kept polo ponies, paid expensive subscriptions to clubs and held elaborate dinner parties, and there was little tolerance for those regarded as ‘intellectuals’.
The stories in this book are mostly of upper-class British women, rather than, say, the women who went to India as teachers, nurses and missionaries. There are also few mentions of Indians, apart from some anonymous, silent servants and the Maharajah of Patiala, who married Miss Florence Bryan in 18931. The author clearly feels that Britain’s colonisation of India was a very good thing – after all, most of the Indian rulers prior to colonisation were cruel despots (true, but so were the rulers of most countries in the eighteenth century) and the British “left India, after independence, with an enviable infrastructure, a democratic Government and a common language”. (The book makes only passing mention of the terrible famines that resulted from the British forcing Indian farmers to grow jute and cotton, rather than food2, and of the violent suppression of pro-independence Indians3.)
Despite these reservations, the book is recommended for those interested in reading about British women’s experiences in India. But I think novels can be just as useful for this purpose, so here are some of my favourites:
– Heat and Dust by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala
– A Passage to India by E. M. Forster
– The Jewel in the Crown and other novels in the Raj Quartet by Paul Scott
– Black Narcissus by Rumer Godden4
– Coromandel Sea Change by Rumer Godden
(Actually, read all of Rumer Godden’s India books, because she’s brilliant. Anne Chisholm also wrote an excellent biography, Rumer Godden: A Storyteller’s Life.)
– And for a slightly different look at Europeans in India, there’s also Baumgartner’s Bombay by Anita Desai.
- It was a “brief and unhappy” marriage. She was shunned by both Indians and Europeans, her infant son was poisoned, and she died of pneumonia three years later. ↩
- Up to ten million Indians died in the famine of 1876-8, and a similar number in 1899-1900. ↩
- For example, hundreds died at Amritsar in 1919, when British troops fired on unarmed protesters. ↩
- Black Narcissus was made into a hilariously bad film in 1947. In one memorable scene, the mad nun flees through a Himalayan ‘jungle’ inhabited by kookaburras. ↩