(My Rating: 5/5)
A fascinating subject, vividly brought to life in Margaret MacMillan’s extremely capable hands, Women of the Raj: The Mothers, Wives, and Daughters of the British Empire in India is one of the most captivating historical non-fiction books I have come across.
The book explores what life was like for the women who came to India during the British Raj either to support their men – husbands, fathers, brothers – or to find themselves a husband. It aims to uncover what they felt about everything from the harsh climate, unusual customs, mysterious country and its people, to the uncertainty, dangers and pain of being separated from their families and everything familiar; and how they coped and dealt with it all.
Right from the first page, I knew it was going to be an excellent read. Granted that the subject itself allows for some good stories – at times heartbreaking, at times amusing, at times plain outrageous, and most often courageous – but has not many an excellent topic or thought been overshadowed by mediocre, uninteresting narration?
So what has MacMillan done right in this book? In one word – everything.
Let’s begin with the meticulous research. She spent a year in India and Pakistan in the 1970’s doing research work for a thesis on the British community in India around the turn of the nineteenth century. During those twelve months MacMillan, whose grandmother, incidentally, was a memsahib of the Raj and whose mother was born in India, gathered a tremendous amount of material that also served as the groundwork for this book.
She travelled extensively in India, visiting the deserts of Rajasthan and the beloved hill stations of the British, experiencing everything from the lush greenery of Bengal to the bustle of Bombay. She got a real feel for the country and its people and saw first hand the legacy left behind by the Raj in so many places, from the unusual food served under the “European” heading of hotel menus or the customs still being followed at the ‘Clubs’ long after British rule in India had come to an end.
The ‘select bibliography’ alone is twelve pages long. Besides material from the archives at Delhi, Calcutta, Bombay and Lahore, the book reveals all forms of research from personal memoirs, letters and diaries to books, newspapers and articles. There is also a collection of lovely photographs in the book (some of them in my collage above), which transports you to another time and leaves you imagining how things must have been.
The layout of the book allows for it to read like a novel, rather than a tedious chronological account of who did what. It begins with chapters on how these women made the journey to India and what they encountered when they first reached, (The Voyage Out, First Impressions etc.) continues with how they adjusted to life in India (Children: Outposts of Empire, Housekeeping, Social Life and Amusements etc.) and concludes with chapters on unconventional women of the Raj and how the last of these women adjusted to a changing society when the time finally came for the British to leave India (Unconventional Women, Women in a Changing World etc.)
Every statement MacMillan makes is followed by actual examples, often in the very words of the women (or men) of the time. For example in the first chapter MacMillan says “Many of the captains of the East Indiamen were quite charmingly eccentric on dry land; at sea they seemed half mad and one of their more common phobias was women. Ladies were often forced to take their meals in their cabins rather than in the cuddy because the gentlemen drank and swore so dreadfully.” She then goes on to say “Mrs. Sherwood confided to her diary that “those who have not been at sea can never conceive the hundredth part of the horrors of a long voyage to a female in a sailing vessel.””
In this way, by using ‘first hand’ accounts of what happened, where the actual feelings of people are expressed, she makes the narrative more authentic, believable and really ‘takes you there’, rather than conjure up a vague image of what happened.
While the book looks at things from the perspective of the women of the Raj, MacMillan also includes the political backdrop in India against which these women were functioning and so the narrative also touches upon all the historically important events of the time.
Finally, the book is beautifully edited. I would even go so far as to say that it is one of the finest examples of good editing that I have ever come across. Not one word seems excessive or out of place, yet it is packed with information. It is very well written and reads like a page-turner.
I would describe Margaret MacMillan’s writing style in this book as “dignified”, but not to the extent that she forgets either her sense of humour or to empathise with those she is writing about – a perfect combination in my opinion for breathing life into historical non-fiction books.
(All illustrations were photographed from the book)