On “Women of the Raj”

On “Women of the Raj”

I’ve just finished reading “Women of the Raj” by Margaret MacMillan,  purchased for the bargainous price of 1p from Amazon Marketplace (this second-hand book buying thing is my token nod towards economy whilst I’m on my sabbatical;  I’m still buying just as many books as before but I’m trying to pay less for them … but the volume,  no pun intended, continues).

“Hello”,  said the postman on Wednesday morning. “Here’s your daily Amazon delivery.”

Women of the Raj

So, “Women of the Raj” continues my fascination with all things from India,  telling as it does the story of some of the British women who were part of Britain’s involvement in India over three centuries,  but particularly between 1850 and the “end of the empire” in 1947. The role of the women of the Raj was to create a replica of British society and the book,  using source material such as letters, memoirs and novels of the period looks at how this was done and how British women from all walks of life adjusted to a country in which almost everything was “foreign” – described in the book as:

“The women … press on with their daily tasks, creating homes for their men, bringing up their children, and trying always to live the life of an English gentlewoman in the midst of an alien people.”

I’ll be going to India myself next month (more to come on this in a bit) and I know that I’ll mostly be packing lightweight clothing in loose, light fabrics … so try to imagine being in 80-100 degree F heat and yet being:

 “ … expected to dress as if you are still at Home [England]. Even on the hottest days, they wore stockings and dresses, which fell, until after the First World War, in heavy folds to the ground; and, until standards were relaxed during the Second world War, they never went out with their arms bare.”

I also liked this analogy, comparing the women’s’ clothing with the infrastructure of the British presence in India:

“Underneath, they wore petticoats and camisoles and, for much of the Raj, the inevitable stays [corsets] – the iron frame for the memsahib just as the Indian Civil Service was the iron frame for British India.”

And this bit also struck me as so very true; the likenesses between the British class system and the Indian caste structure had not previously occurred to me:

“In their love of rank and complicated social rules, the British were also influenced by their surroundings.  The Indian love of ritual, the whole elaborate structure of caste with its rules that governed how you ate, how you married, even how you dresses, seeped into their collective outlook.”

As well as providing a good overview of the history of the British in India in general,  and of the associated experiences of the “women of the Raj” in particular, MacMillan also tells the stories of a few specific women. I particularly enjoyed reading about Annette Akroyd, who, in 1873, with some help from her Indian friends, opened a school for Hindu girls.

(Further reading led me to the discovery that her son, William Beveridge, was the author of the report which became the foundation of the British Welfare State in the late 1940s).

So, a recommended read;  well worth a penny of your cash and a few hours of your reading time.


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