“It’s a well-known saying that women lost us the empire,” the film director David Lean said in 1985. “It’s true.” He’d just released his acclaimed adaptation of A Passage to India, EM Forster’s novel in which a British woman’s accusation of sexual assault compromises a friendship between British and Indian men. Misogyny may not be the first prejudice associated with British imperialists, but it has proved as enduring as it was powerful. As Katie Hickman discovered when she started writing about British women in India, Lean’s view (if not Forster’s) “remains stubbornly embedded in our consciousness”. “Everyone” she talked to “knew that if it were not for the snobbery and racial prejudice of the memsahibs there would, somehow, have been far greater harmony and accord between the races”.
Her book, vivaciously written and richly descriptive, offers a rebuke to such stereotypes. She animates a cast of British women who travelled to India before the 1857 rebellion. They included “bakers, dressmakers, actresses, portrait painters, maids, shopkeepers, governesses, teachers, boarding house proprietors … missionaries, doctors, geologists, plant-collectors, writers … even traders” – and some of them might not have been out of place in a Lean epic of their own.
Hickman opens with the beginnings of East India Company trade to the subcontinent in the early 1600s, a period whose social history remains relatively under-researched. Though most British women came to India either with a husband or to find one, she turns up exceptions such as a Mrs Hudson, who had managed to get passage east in 1616 as companion to a ship captain’s wife, and left India in 1619 with a substantial cargo of goods, “making her the first of many successful she-merchants to ply her trade in India”. (Despite the title, disappointingly few others show up in this book.) In 1668 the company volunteered to pay for 20 “single women or maids, related to the soldiers or others” to travel to the nascent colony of Bombay, on the understanding that they were “not to be permitted to marry any but those of their own nation, or such as are Protestants”. Well into the 18th century it was expected that new female arrivals to company towns would host a “Setting Up Ceremony”, where they formally received every European woman in the community.
This ritual fell away by the end of the century, and, though the number of European women in India remained in the low hundreds, social life in Calcutta, especially, increasingly resembled that of metropolitan Britain. By the end of the 18th century British women kept up with European fashions, ordering items from home such as beaver riding hats adorned in ostrich feathers, and socialised at the theatre, the races and the card table. Several also left colourful accounts of their travels around India, which provide glimpses (unavailable to men) into the segregated women’s quarters (or zenanas) of Indian courts. They invariably dwelt on the marvellous oddity, to them, of Indian women’s wardrobes, jewellery and habits. A clue as to how strange the Englishwomen may have appeared in turn comes from the 1838 diary of Fanny Eden (sister of the governor-general Lord Auckland), who on concluding a visit to one zenana was startled when her hostesses “took a fit of fun and instead of quietly pouring attar of roses over our hands” – as was conventional – “took to smearing our gowns all over with it, laughing vehemently at the utter ruin they were perpetrating”.
The relative absence of European women in company enclaves coincided with the fairly widespread phenomenon of unions between European men and Indian women. Indeed, though from around 1800 these were increasingly frowned on (and mixed-race children especially stigmatised), Hickman quotes a British army officer in the early 1900s who, when the regiment was ordered home, was presented with a flurry of soi-disant “marriage certificates” with which soldiers had duped Indian women, “on coloured or printed paper such as beer-bottle labels or labels from tinned food”. “Far less well known, or documented,” Hickman rightly observes, “are the occasional liaisons between English women and Indian men.” Best known may be the milliner Biddy Timms, who in 1817 married an Indian man she’d met in England, moved with him to India, and published a positive (if patronising) account of life from within the zenana.
Hickman has a real talent for recounting the stories of individual people with sympathy, clarity and verve. The book is a genuine pleasure to read. Nearly all the figures she writes about, though, have featured in works by William Dalrymple, Linda Colley and others, while the character-driven approach can sometimes leave one craving richer context of the sort provided by Margaret MacMillan’s accessible social history Women of the Raj (1988). One also senses Hickman struggling to fit her material into a chronological structure, when several recurring topics – such as anxieties about children’s health and wellbeing, or the challenges of setting up and running a household – might benefit from thematic discussion.
She ends the book “wondering about the myriad women whose stories it has not been possible to tell”. Hickman is quite right that diaries and letters of the kinds she draws on were most often produced and preserved by educated middle- and upper-class women. But postcolonial scholars have used other sources – court documents, wills and inventories, petitions, military records – to delve into the experiences of marginalised figures to brilliant effect. And for all that the cliches about snooty memsahibs may linger, what is by now a generation’s worth of important scholarship by Mrinalini Sinha, Philippa Levine, Antoinette Burton, Indrani Chatterjee and Durba Ghosh, among others, has provided a multisided, analytically rich history of gender in colonial India.
The result is a book that, for all its good intentions, does for imperial history a bit what a package tour does for travel: it lets readers glimpse an “exotic” location without requiring them to think too much about the people who actually live there. The most moving section, on the 1857 revolt, carries the subheading: “in which uprisings convulse the north of India, and the British pay the price”. The price? Only if one doesn’t count the Mughal emperor, deposed and exiled to Burma; the thousands tortured and killed in the conflict; and the millions more subjected to increasingly racist imperial rule.
Is the answer to the charge that “women lost us the Empire” that “women helped win us the empire too”? Hickman certainly does not say so. But in the present moment, as neo-imperial fantasies flourish in certain quarters, it’s the answer that some readers may wish to draw. Of the many misapprehensions Britons have about the empire, the idea that it was “ours” to win or lose may be the most toxic of all.
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