The Museum of Extraordinary Things
By Alice Hoffman
PASSAGES TO INDIA
In 1671, the East India Company sent 20 single women to Bombay, each supplied with an allowance of £300, a new set of clothing and a simple directive - to find a company-approved mate within a year. “In those early days,” Anne de Courcy remarks, “marriage was often undertaken with the sort of rapidity usually confined to spotting a business opportunity and pouncing on it.” But as she follows the long history of what came to be known as the fishing fleet, which supplied a steady cargo of potential brides to generations of expats, it seems clear that the official coupling of a man and a woman in British India, despite an often hastily applied gloss of romance, continued to be conducted in distinctly commercial style. By the 19th century, potential wives were paying a bond of £200 for the privilege of sailing off to a strange land to ally themselves with a virtual stranger. And pity the poor soul who - despite a ratio of three or four men to every woman, inspiring tales of proposals offered at funerals and engagements announced as husbands lay dying - failed to drag the humblest prospect to the altar. Put on a ship back to England, she would now be dismissed as one of the “Returned Empties.”
De Courcy has done a good deal of fishing herself, trolling for stories in sources that date from the early days of the company in the 17th century through the mid-19th-century transfer of power to the Raj, then on to the end of British rule after World War II. But the bulk of her material is from the late 19th and early 20th centuries - perhaps simply because there’s more of it and perhaps because this seems to be her own favorite stalking ground. (What else would you expect from the author of “The Viceroy’s Daughters” and “Debs at War”?) So as the chapters of “The Fishing Fleet” proceed to document “The Voyage Out,” “Courtship,”“Marriage” and “The First Home,” there are pauses for breathless considerations of “The Social Whirl” and “Maharajahs,” as well as gossipy visits to hill stations like Simla, where escape from the heat of the plains often included escape from certain social strictures (or, as that chapter’s epigraph puts it, “Every Jack has someone else’s Jill”).
Since both the military and the Indian Civil Service discouraged men from marrying before the age of 30 (the point at which support of a family was deemed feasible) and since most available mates were considerably younger, it was only natural that the paternalism of the Raj - dominated by an “us and them” vision of its Indian subjects and a hierarchy of precedence that bound the British almost as rigidly as the Hindu caste system - should also have characterized relations on the domestic front. Wives were discouraged from being “clever” (one bride traced a lack of visitors to her rumored fondness for poetry) and were constantly reminded that their place in the community depended on the status of their husbands. The highly ranked could claim everything from special seating at the club to first use of the lavatory after dinner. Women were expected to have the right attire (all the way down to a flannel item known as a cholera belt) and the right demeanor (even the aristocratic Lady Canning had to maintain her composure while cockroaches “big as mice” scuttled across her bedroom floor “like pairs of coach horses”).
And what of the men? They must have seemed as mysterious as the country in which these new wives now found themselves. In an era of rigorously maintained sexual innocence, the wedding night could be a real shocker. “A kiss was about the summit of fantasy for most girls,” de Courcy notes, “if only because many of them had no clear vision of what could happen next.” And well-meaning attempts at reassurance were apt to cause even more confusion. “Whatever Ralph may do tonight,” one previously clueless woman was told by her brother-in-law just before taking her vows, “remember it’s all right.” This was, she added, “all the preparation I had for married life. I wondered what on earth he could mean.”
For most of the women of the British Raj, life after the wedding turned out to be a precarious blend of luxury and hardship. Servants were so plentiful that the lady of the house was often left with nothing to do, marooned in sometimes crushing loneliness in her own home and yet never really alone. Travel could be difficult and dangerous (in the late 19th century, coffins were held in readiness at every train station in case, de Courcy explains, “a passenger died en route”) while staying put might be just as chancy, with rabid pi dogs infesting the streets and strange fevers descending without warning, turning the apparently healthy person you met one night into a corpse by morning. And for every amusing exotic adventure - camel-riding in full evening dress; receiving a proposal on top of an elephant during a tiger shoot - there’s an unsettling counterpoint. That nocturnal clanking in the garden? It’s just the chains of a gang of prisoners grooming the shrubbery. And don’t mind Daddy at the dinner table: He’s inclined to pull out his revolver and blast away if a rat should creep into view.
The contrasts are irresistibly melodramatic, the characters colorful yet tantalizingly repressed. And the costumes! It’s enough to make you wonder why Julian Fellowes hasn’t sent a few more members of the “Downton Abbey” cast on the heels of Miss O’Brien, seeking their fortunes in Delhi and beyond.
© The New York Times 2014See all Reviews from The New York Times