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
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
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.