The British Empire Library

Memsahibs: British Women in Colonial India

by lpshita Nath

Book Review by kind permission of Chowkidar, the journal of the British Association for Cemeteries in South Asia
Ipshita Nath, a Bengali academic, was initially caught in her understanding of the 'Memsahibs' between the 'airs and graces' implied popularly by the term in her youth and the image of the bored and supercilious character in postcolonial fiction. She determined to find the truth in a return to what British women had actually written about India.

This is a laudable ambition - but hardly new. For at least the last four decades, British women have been examined through the medium of their literary production by both popular and academic authors, particularly since travel writing became a genre within academic study. Moreover, although she examines a fairly wide span of women's writing, it is hardly exhaustive. Many writers are missing, while genres such as fiction, where women made a substantial and growing contribution from the later 19th century, are under-represented.

The author's approach to her subject is essentially descriptive, quoting her chosen writers' record of the circumstances of their life in India. This begins with the voyage out, houses, servants and the domestic environment, travel, the problems they encountered with boredom, isolation, dirt and disease, childbirth and bringing up children. Camping and sport provided entertainment, as did the hill stations like Simla which offered unsupervised frivolity. An interesting chapter presents women's experience of the 1857 uprising. The author's tone is empathetic, half way between a novelist and an academic as she attempts to feel what the memsahibs might have experienced. However, the content of her account is not shaped by an accurate historical framework. The 'colonial India' of the title is amplified in the publisher's blurb as 'Britain's largest, busiest colony'. Yet India was never a colony, which is characterised by a permanent settled population. The author also fails to convey the evolving nature of the British presence, from traders to rulers, which shaped the numbers of women coming to India, their background, and hence their experience in India. Although some of the women writers from whom she quotes date back to the beginning of the 19th century, she does not examine any earlier period, and focusses largely on the 'high noon' of empire, which had its own particular flavour and is not representative overall.

The term 'memsahib' is not used as a synonym for British women in general, but is presented as a rather vague appellation reflecting the status of the men with whom they were connected, particularly in the military and civil administration. The author suggests that there was a racist insistence on their exclusivity, and a resistance to Indian friendships or 'going native'. This may well have been true for some individuals, but it needs to be qualified. In the early period when Britain was establishing herself, there was considerable fraternisation, and interest in Indian culture, as women's writing illustrates. Many sought to establish contact with Indian women, and although this was more difficult in the Presidency towns, those who travelled in the interior were more successful.

Later involvement in Indian women's issues increased contact considerably. Contact with Indian men was another issue, but the wariness of them and their supposed sexual threat, which the author assumes, is not borne out by reading many women's accounts. Some groups of women are hardly considered. The author seems ambivalent about missionary women and their status, which is a pity as they produced a substantial literature on India. She makes the questionable claim that their reputation was somehow suspect

because they had left the confines of home to travel overseas and rub shoulders with foreign men. A similar lack of understanding of British social and cultural attitudes permeates other aspects of her study. While noting that middle and upper class women in Britain did not have paid employment outside the home, she ignores the role of philanthropy and charitable work in the life of a 'lady'. This was transposed to India, where British women from the later 19th century became involved in various welfare projects, particularly involving the health and education of Indian women - though the extent of this work goes unremarked.

On the final page of the book, having rightly commented on the multiplicity of voices in women's writing, the author concludes that 'it is only through a sustained scrutiny of the variety of their activities in the Raj that we can finally understand them'. This is a frustrating summation, since she has spent the proceeding chapters describing the memsahibs 'being' in British India, rather than their actual 'doing'. Her prologue had raised other hopes. Here she mentions women like Annette Ackroyd, a social reformer, and Sara Jeanette Duncan, a writer, who do not appear in succeeding pages. There are swathes of occupations which fail to get any analysis, let alone a proper mention. A significant number of women were published authors and journalists. Painting and drawing played an important role in many women's lives; some illustrated their own books. Many women were serious independent travellers. And then there were important interventions in the Indian world, including education, medicine, missionary work, and indeed politics, with the devoted support Madeleine Slade gave to Gandhi.

The author shows considerable enthusiasm for her subject and gives the impression of having enjoyed writing her book. If you are looking for a breezy canter round a well-established track, this book is for you. There is, however, a much more interesting story to be told, of which the author has only given glimpses.

British Empire Book
lpshita Nath
C Hurst & Co Publishers Ltd
Review Originally Published
Autumn 2022 in Journal of the British Association for Cemeteries in South Asia


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