The British Empire Library

The Astonishing Story of Mary Alice Berners

by Simon Pearce

Book Review by kind permission of Chowkidar, the journal of the British Association for Cemeteries in South Asia
Five years ago Chowkidar published the story of Mary Warwick (nee Bemers) and it was indeed astonishing. Born into a prosperous family in 1868 and unhappily married, Mary spent the last twenty-five years of her life in India as a man, having adopted a male persona and calling herself Major Michael Warwick. This engaging book came about as the result of two serendipitous events: Mary's great grandson, Anthony Spender and his wife were visiting the churchyard at St Michael's in Woolverstone when they met the author, Simon Pearce, who has lived in the small village for forty years and was familiar with the history of the Berners family , the lo cal gentry. At the same time, and five thousand miles away, Vikram Srivastava had posted on Facebook some photographs of the house near Nainital where he lives . Why was it called the Warwick Estate, he wondered? Mr and Mrs Spender travelled to India to meet him and to see where Mary Warwick had lived. A number of her possessions were still there including, incongruously, a lawn mower, kitchen scales, furniture and books, as well as the small chapel s he had built.

The central question of why Mary, at the age of 45 chose to return to India and live there as a man, has not been answered. Perhaps it never will be, but a clue might lie in the wretched behaviour of her husband Charles Warwick. He was a womanizer, a drunk and a bully , hitting his wife about the head and attempting to drown her. Some of these assaults were witnessed by the couple's Indian servants, something almost as shameful as the actual blows. Mary and Charles had married in secret and she accompanied her so ldi er hu sband on his postings abroad, including a spell in Lahore. Two children were born but the marriage was doomed and Mary obtained a judicial separation in India, a highly unusual procedure for the time. She had become a Catholic and her later life , as a man, was intensely bound up with charitable work and religion. In the last photograph, captioned Brother Michael Warwick, s he is wearing the robes of a monk. So convincing was 'Brother Warwick' that it was not until after death in April 1944 that her sex was revealed. [t really is a very strange story and the author has garnered much information, painting a vivid picture of the two very different lives li ved by his subject.

British Empire Book
Simon Pearce
The Author
978 l 80049 549 4
Author's Website
Review Originally Published
Autumn 2021 in Journal of the British Association for Cemeteries in South Asia


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