The Editor - August 2nd, 2012
Anne de Courcy brings to life the trials of women who were sent to India in the 19th Century in search of a suitable husband in her new book THE FISHING FLEET. It has already been getting brilliant reviews, with THE TIMES saying; ‘She combines the perseverance of a historian with the panache of a novelist.’ It has also been twice picked as a SUNDAY TIMES best read.
Here, Anne, imagines how she herself might fare if she were part of the Fishing Fleet…
For me, one of the most stringent rules of biography is: never judge the past by the mindset of today. But that does not preclude one from daydreaming oneself into that distant time, or wondering, ‘How would I have behaved, in those circumstances, if I’d lived then?’
Sometimes, empathizing is easy enough. Toe-curling embarrassment was so often my part at the age of seventeen that, when writing my biography of Edith Lady Londonerry, I felt a pang of sympathy for the young woman who thoughtlessly ground out her cigarette on the base of a white marble statue during a ball at Londonderry House, only to see the formidable marchioness silence the band with one imperious wave and then, the coruscating Londonderry diamonds flashing on her impressive frontage, walk through the silent crowd of dancers to the cringing girl to enquire icily, ‘May I offer you an ash tray?’
In my new book, The Fishing Fleet: Husband-Hunting in the Raj, there are numerous heroines. I call them heroines because that is what many of them undoubtedly were, coping unflustered with anything from an outbreak of bubonic plague to years of loneliness.
Could I have been one of them, if I had lived a hundred years ago? I don’t think so.
For starters, there was the journey out. Gifted with possibly the worst sea legs in the history of any maritime nation, I would have been a moaning wreck long before we left port.
And as for the voyage itself… in the days of sail, when ships of only a few hundred tons – cockleshells to us now – made the perilous five-month journey first across the notoriously choppy Bay of Biscay and then round the Cape of Good Hope, with its tumultuous, stormy seas. The ships were laden not only with passengers but a floating farmyard to feed them – and, in one case, several hunters and a pack of foxhounds that the captain hoped to sell at the end of the trip. Add in the shortage of water so that washing soon became a distant luxury… Well, conditions can only be imagined.
Even when sail gave way to steam, the size of the early ships meant that seasickness was of a virulence and duration unknown today. Despite the romantic potential of these autumn sailings to India (October was a popular month both for Fishing Fleet girls and bachelors returning from home leave after an unsuccessful search for a wife) there would have been no love on the boat deck for me. What good is a full moon making a silvery path of the liner’s wake, strains of the latest dance hit wafting from the saloon or even the attractive man at your side if your stomach is saying ‘No!’ in tones that cannot be denied?
Arriving in India would have presented other dilemmas – though not the social whirl, that’s for sure. I would have enjoyed the parties, the paper chases, the moonlit picnics, the polo-watching and all the fit, fun people. No, what would eventually have jarred, when it had finally sunk in, was the complete lack of autonomy suffered by the women of the Raj, which was far greater than that of their contemporaries at home.
To anyone brought up, as we are today, to believe in female education and independence, the entirely subordinate role of the Raj wife would have come as a rude shock. For the Raj was a patriarchy, served by men, and only men, from top to bottom. Wives – though indispensable as helpmeets, lovers and companions – were basically adjuncts. Falling in love with one of these men – all too easy in the glamorously exotic surrounding that greeted most girls – would mean taking on not only his status in the community (there was even something called the Warrant of Precedence hat listed the exact pecking order from the Viceroy down to the last Sub-Deputy Opium Collector), but accepting the fact that, though legally wedded to you, his real wife was his job.
Of course, much about the Raj life would have appealed. Never having to do housework (my particular bugbear), plenty of travel, the wonderful sights, sounds and smells of this amazing country, from marble palaces and the sight of graceful saris of emerald, scarlet and shocking pink to the Art Deco plumage of hoopoes and the flocks of grass-green parakeets flying home at dusk. As one woman put it: ‘I was one of the lucky few on whom India lays a jewelled hand, the warmth of whose touch never grows cold to those who have felt it.’
It is with a jolt, however, that I remember that during the eighty-nine years of the Raj there were none of the things we take for granted today in a hot country where lethal diseases are rife – antibiotics, air conditioning, SPF 50 and refrigeration. Faced with the prospect of flannel next to the skin as a cholera preventer, sola topis and wet sheets hung over windows in the hope of catching a breeze, I think perhaps I’ll stay in the present after all.
THE FISHING FLEET by Anne de Courcy is out now.
‘This book is highly evocative… De Courcy takes the reader through an enchanted world.’ THE GUARDIAN
‘A seasoned social historian, Anne de Courcy brilliantly evokes the era, often by allowing her heroines to do the talking. We hear vivid contemporary descriptions of everything from tiger hunts and tea dances to the agonies of prickly heat… the women who married into the Raj were true adventurers. de Courcy’s book restores their proper reputation: as brave, sometimes batty, irredeemably British heroines.’ THE DAILY MAIL
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