Lead book review

Not all British memsahibs were racist snobs

4 May 2019

9:00 AM

4 May 2019

9:00 AM

Despite efforts to prevent them, British women formed a part of the Indian empire almost from the start. Although the East India Company warned them off, citing difficulties of climate, disease, morality, religion and culture, a few managed to travel there all the same. By the late 18th century their numbers had increased considerably, making women some of the most interesting witnesses to the British Raj.

In this way, the white Christian woman became a significant face of imperial rule. She would usually be caricatured as one who, having failed to find a husband in London, cast her lot in with the ‘fishing fleet’ in Bombay; or portrayed (by E.M. Forster, for example) as the atrocious memsahib who could speak to Indian women in their own language, but whose only verbs were imperatives. Such women were a vulnerable presence. What were they doing there, and what are we to make of their behaviour?

Katie Hickman’s book about British women in India is a breathless, quite interesting, account, with two large, obvious gaps in its narrative. It doesn’t examine how Indian observers viewed these new arrivals; no non-English sources are quoted, though Indians were extremely curious about Europeans. Nor is Hickman interested in the ways Indian culture itself wanted to advance the status of women. She writes about women in relation to the 1857 mutiny but makes no reference to the iconic status of the freedom-fighting Rani of Jhansi. Bengal, too, was not much behind Britain in pushing the education of women from the late 19th century onwards, and that great feminist classic, Sultana’s Dream, about a world beneficially run by women, was published (in Bengali) in 1905. It seems odd to write about women in British India without any mention of the experience and heroism of Indian women.

Still, there are plenty of enjoyable life stories here. The first British woman we know of in India was the wife of James I’s ambassador to Jahangir’s court in 1613, but in subsequent decades the East India Company explicitly forbade the presence of women. When the regulations were changed in 1668, the company clearly had in mind the duty of women to tempt bachelors away from nautch dancing girls.


Women in the great imperial capitals of Madras, Calcutta and Bombay were, by the end of the 18th century, largely defined by their opportunism and lack of clear social status back in Europe. This was even true of Warren Hastings’s wife Marian, the ex-wife of a dubious German count (they amiably divorced after she set up with Hastings in Calcutta). Though she ended life as a millionaire’s widow, dripping with jewels, it seems unlikely that she could have ascended to anything like that position had she stayed at home. An emerald seal of hers engraved ‘the one who has the magnificence of Bilqis’ was sold last October at Bonhams for £181,000.

There were many others who took their chances. William Hickey’s mistress, a London prostitute, was accepted everywhere in Calcutta. Although this could be achieved in London, as Edward VII’s friend ‘Skittles’ (Catherine Walters) was to show, it was a great deal easier in Calcutta before the telegraph could supply inconvenient information from home.

The question of how ‘ladylike’ someone was became rather academic in India. When the wives of the grandest maharajahs deigned to display themselves, their splendour was much greater than even the most magnificent European royalties. (Many of Britain’s Crown jewels today, including the Koh-i-Noor, were acquired from Indians.) In this world, all sorts of optimistic people, including ambitious women, turned up in India hoping to make money. Mildred Archer’s study of Georgian painters in India (not quoted by Hickman) points to a number of often unsuccessful London artists, including women, who, from the 1770s, boarded the boat to Calcutta and made a fortune. Of course, gifted painters also made the journey, such as Tilly Kettle and Zoffany, whose ‘Last Supper’ is, Hickman strangely tells us, ‘said to be still in St John’s Church, Calcutta’. It is one of the cherished treasures of Kolkata (as it is called these days); the church warden, if you visit, is very proud of it.

As the 19th century progressed, social structures began to harden and align with London rules. The Indian Warrant of Precedence dictated the status of everyone, from the viceroy down. Emily Eden, the sister of Lord Auckland, governor general in the 1830s, and the author of the bestselling memoir Up the Country, complains a good deal about the pushy behaviour of vulgarians who seemed to think that the rules of English caste did not apply in India. The insight of David Cannadine in Ornamentalism (not referred to by Hickman) that class distinctions were much less permeable than racial ones — allowing, for instance, easier friendships between viceroy and maharajah than between viceroy and subaltern — is never more true than among the women.

Whether English women understood, or had any interest in, questions of real caste is a moot point. It is rather touching to read about the bafflement of an English woman in the 1790s when an Indian servant of a particular status refused to move her furniture: she had clearly never attended to those intricate cultural rules, even in the most general terms. But some English women did show an interest in Indian culture. Fanny Parkes, the subject of such snobbish amusement to Emily Eden, rhapsodised about ‘the ruins of Delhi’ and even learnt to play the sitar, ‘which I could not persuade [English friends] to admire’.

What women could do, and who they could see, were questions they themselves often found worth pondering. Hickman might have investigated a little more the women whose experiences were worth recording. I was surprised to find she makes no mention of Florentia, Lady Sale, whose appalling sufferings during the first Afghan War sent such shockwaves through British India, and are well documented. Indeed, there were many famous English women in India who don’t seem to have crossed Hickman’s path; the most celebrated epitaph of a young woman in English verse, Landor’s stanzas for Rose Aylmer, may still be read in that most heartbreaking of cemeteries, South Park Street in Kolkata — but not in this book.

To view the Raj through the experience of women is an interesting exercise, and She-Merchants, Buccaneers & Gentlewomen addresses its subject with a good deal of enthusiasm. Another couple of years’ work, including research in the Kolkata archives and conversations with Indian scholars of the subject, would have produced something memorable.

You might disagree with half of it, but you’ll enjoy reading all of it. Try your first 10 weeks for just $10


Show comments
Close