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Margaret Macmillan's Women in the Raj was first published in hardback thirty years ago. It was her first book, and this new paperback edition of 2018 is testament both to the popularity of the subject, and the skilful way in which the author has handled it. British men and the women in India used to be called Anglo-Indians — the name was usurped later by the new mixed-race generation of children born to (for the most part) British men who married Indian women. Macmillan's main subject is the British women among the earlier Anglo-Indians who found themselves in an alien land where the language, customs and diets were different; but in which their men were rulers who demanded, and got, due recognition for that. In fact, the women, “most of them, were ordinary middle class women who had been put in an extraordinary situation” (20).

Macmillan, although without any strident feminist ardour, goes on to claim that women "shared in the glory of the Raj" (24) and played their part in, and should be included in, “the Raj's history” (29). One may question this basic assumption, because, of course, the women were never involved in the running of the Raj, as their husbands were: they went out to India in their roles as wives, and had no official status themselves, or indeed the qualifications that might have fitted them for formal positions. Macmillan's sources are the reminiscences and letters of such women, rather than academic books and articles. Nevertheless (or, rather, because of this), the result is a fascinating piece of social history. The women were both delighted and frightened by what they encountered in India. They found themselves in a vast country, living in spacious houses provided by their government, and enjoying many privileges, not least, an army of servants and gardeners. Together, they formed a small community in this huge landscape. They could not but feel that they were entirely different from the people around them, who, in turn, looked on these occupiers with a mixture of awe and resentment. Not everything was easy for these women: together with their families, they had to face not only the fierce Indian climate but also the particular diseases which were rampant in India.

"Goodbye to England" — Leonard Hill's sketch of a wistful-looking woman setting off on the long voyage to India.

Macmillan starts by describing the arduous journey that the British had to undertake. She quotes from the diary of one, Mrs Sherwood of children's literature fame, who wrote that “those who have not been at sea can never conceive the hundredth part of the horrors of a long voyage of a female in a sailing vessel” (33). But after a while the journey to India became more comfortable, even enjoyable, and Macmillan describes their onboard social life, and notes its connection with what lay in store for them when they arrived: it "had given them a taste of the society that they were going to meet in India, with its gregariousness, its passion for games, and its strong sense of hierarchy" (40).

Macmillan goes on to chart the lives of these women after they disembarked, in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Of course, initially, they were apprehensive about the alien land and its people, but they soon responded to the sense of privilege. They lived in areas away from what was called the "the Black Town" where the natives lived. These were spacious areas where the houses were built in conformity with the houses at "Home," though often much better. They soon got to know how much they and their way of life differed from those around them. Monica Lang, who had come to marry a planter in the 1920s, remembered her first sight of an Indian railway station. It made her think that "it would take a lifetime to get anywhere near an understanding of this strange country with its dramatic contrasts of wealth and abject poverty, beauty and squalor, intangible mysticism and downright cruelty" (50).

"Mail day is the great day of the week." As a woman reads her mail, the menfolk read theirs or the latest newspaper, with a tent in the background.

Sooner or later, Indian words and expressions became a part of their lingo. For example, they used new words like "mofussil," which denoted areas outside the big cities. Not that they stayed in any one place for long. They were always being stationed somewhere new. There was for them no place in India which they could call their home. The novelist Rumer Godden, who lived in India in the first part of the twentieth century, considered the life of the British in India to be marked by impermanence, and felt that “the impermanence of their society had a bad effect on them all." Macmillan adds: "She compared Europeans in India to 'cut flowers; that is why most of them wither and grow sterile, they cannot live without their roots, and so very few take root'" (55). Consequently, though the British lived in India, their hearts were in Britain. They were in India only because their husbands were paid more money there than they would have earned in their own country. Similarly, they too, having belonged to middle-class families in England, were pleased with their status as wives of the ruling class in the Raj. They enjoyed luxuries which they could not have imagined in the their homes in England. This was some compensation for the intense heat and the illnesses that were almost endemic in their adopted land.

The British lived in small communities where there was a strict hierarchy, and the slightest touch of foreign blood was regarded as suspicious. Men who married Indian women and stayed in India were not accepted as British, nor were they treated as belonging to the ruling class. They could not join the peculiarly Indian institution called the Club. Initially, women are not allowed to go there either, but with the passage of time, they were admitted. Curiously, as suggested earlier, Macmillan points out that the English women were recognized for their “role in supporting the Raj” (73). The word to be emphasized here is "supporting." The British women were nowhere near the position of the men of the Raj. In fact, a newly arrived woman in India was firmly told that “being clever was a flaw in a woman” (74). The majority of British women in India were therefore far behind their counterparts at home when it came to insisting on their intellectual abilities and potential for contributing to society.

"They clung around Hester where she stood like a rock in a stormy sea" (Thomas Morten's illustration for a story about the mutiny in Good Words, 1863.

The Industrial Revolution, which had made Europe so much more powerful, had its repercussions India. With the gradual dwindling of the Mughal rule and the defeat of the Sikhs in the 1840s the British felt that they were fit to rule over the Indian empire. In a way, the (as it is still widely known) Indian Mutiny came at an opportune moment in 1857. Driven by the title of her book, Macmillan entitles her main chapter on the subject, “Women in Danger.” In fact, not just women but all the British had to bear the brunt of the growing dissatisfaction around them. In the past, as Macmillan explains, the Indians had paid “as little attention to the British as any of their rulers, but the new activism alarmed them. Peasants objected to paying higher taxes, princes who had been deposed longed for their former power and wealth” (117). Moreover, the British abolished the system of giving full rights to adopted children, which the natural heirs of the princes had hitherto enjoyed. In addition, Indian soldiers were becoming restless. As is well known, the immediate cause of the outbreak of the Mutiny was the introduction of new, sophisticated cartridges which the soldiers had bite the tops from. The rumour that the cartridges contained beef and pork fat offended Hindu and Muslim soldiers alike. Indian soldiers attacked first at Meerut, close to Delhi, after which the rebellion spread throughout the north. British men, women and children there were all in danger until the British regained control, although it was the plight of the women and children that disturbed people most, and whipped the British up to the worst acts of retaliation.

Once India became a part of the British empire, better educated British men joined the newly-founded Indian Civil Service, which then became elitist. The young men who joined the service had to pass very stiff examinations. In return, they were better paid. They now became more attractive as marriage partners. Anne de Courcy's book, The Fishing Fleet: Husband-Hunting in the Raj (2012) gives a good account of British women who went to India in order to “fish” for husbands. These women looked for husbands who had proper positions and good salaries. They were also attracted by the prospect of going to exotic places where they could have spacious houses and obedient servants. The majority of them did marry well. They were prepared for the role of wives of officials of the empire. They were not highly educated, but spent their time playing tennis, practising the piano, and engaging in other such pursuits. Above all, they busied themselves bringing up their children.

In the later part of her book, Macmillan concentrates on these women's domestic and social lives. It was not easy to bring up children in a foreign land where diseases were widespread, the climate was harsh and modern medicines were difficult to obtain. There were British schools in India, but the better placed parents sent their children back to England. It is pity that in this section (Chapter 8, promisingly entitled "Children: Outposts of Empire") Macmillan deals so superficially with the schools which had sprung up in England specifically to cater for the children of the Raj. This is a lacuna here, because great efforts were made in England to educate the next generation, the children of the women of the Raj. For example, no mention is made of Haileybury School, a prominent educational institute for this purpose which was founded in Hertford in England in 1806, initially under the name of the East India College. Its pupils went to better universities and would occupy important positions in Indian expatriate society. (Even after Indian independence, Haileybury, now co-educational, continues to be a very good public school and sends a regular clutch of bright children to Oxbridge colleges every year.)

Not your typical memsahib: Annie Besant, honoured with a bust in the museum at the Red Fort, New Delhi.

Near the end of the book, Macmillan does come to another subject that begged to be covered. Chapter 12 (out of thirteen chapters) deals with the experiences of those few unconventional women who did manage to "go beyond the constraints of their time, their class and their sex in their reaction to India and the Indians" (237). Such women worked as missionaries or teachers, or, in later years, provided health care. Some also came for adventure, and a few even for opportunities to engage in politics on behalf of the subjugated. Others had married Indians, and came out without realizing how little they would count as memsahibs, and consequently how difficult their lives might be. Individually, their stories are the most interesting of all. Here for example is the writer, Flora Annie Steel, who spent more than twenty years in India from 1867-89,and "knew far more about the country than was considered necessary for a woman" (242) — and was never shy about voicing her opinions. Steel wrote the indispensable Complete Indian Housekeeper and Cook, and, something much more unusual, On the Face of the Waters (1896), a novel about the mutiny in which she aimed to show it from the Indian perspective. On the Indians' side too was Annie Besant, already known for activism in England. "A shameless political huckster" in the view of her outraged compatriots (267), Besant would eventually become the leader of the new Indian Congress party. Such women of course seemed like traitors to the Raj — and the women of the Raj were often the "loudest of all" in condemning them (268).

Since this book was first published thirty years ago, it predates more recent gender and postcolonial studies. It sounds rather comic now that Macmillan, dealing with the impact of the winding down of the Raj in her conclusion, should revert to her theme: while the men lost the empire they had ruled, she says, the memsahibs lost “the miniature empire” (170) of their homes. This gives a sheen to the performance of household duties and obligations — a sheen which, whether performed by the women of the Raj, or women anywhere, seems more than a little old-fashioned now.

Related Material


Macmillan, Margaret. Women of the Raj. New ed. London: Thames & Hudson, 2018. 320pp. £9.99. ISBN 9780500293744.

13 July 2018