|How timely! Ribbons among the Rajahs fits perfectly the new 'Me
Too' movement ensuring women are recognized and put on a closer to
equal footing with men. The lives of British men during the East India
Company's presence and through the early years of the British Raj are
closely documented. But, asks the author, what about the women? His
trenchant, humorous account of the women's experiences in India
covers the period up to 1858. Quoting from his extensive research,
mostly from journals and letters, he doesn't mince words describing a
voyage from England that could last five months in a ship no bigger
than the Isle of Wight ferry. Passengers, close-quartered with minimal
privacy, suffered inadequate cabins separated by canvas and crammed
with clothes, bed covers, kitchenware, perhaps even a piano or harp.
Adventurous women, drawn by a quest for a husband, escape from
boredom or simply independence were greeted as the 'fishing fleet,'
young men mingling with the porters to watch prospective brides come
ashore. New arrivals settled mostly in the Presidencies, Madras,
Bombay, and up the east coast to Calcutta, while others were more
isolated in the mofussil, the small towns or rural areas up country.
Chapters blend easily into each other, describing the households and
the society in which the women and their families lived, English
traditions and lifestyles mingled with the exotic. Social life was
codified by rank, occupation, salary and position, and the less formal
but equally rigid division of 'gentlewomen or ordinary women' with
familiar snobbery reaching from the distant shore. Wheeler explored
the treasure trove of letters and journals, a source vanishing in our
email age, written by affluent women whose experiences were
comfortable, by contemporary standards, to those almost struggling
financially, who nonetheless had plenty to write home about. They
reveal details about their lifestyles and were as gossipy as they pleased.
At unimaginably large dinner parties, the hosts were obliged to tolerate
acquaintances who were 'under-bred and overdressed' while they 'all
sit round in the middle of the great gallery-like rooms talking in
whispers and scratch their mosquito bites'.
In spite of the correspondence about daily life, whether cheerful or
complaining, all was overshadowed by the unrelenting threat of death
that came often without warning. An invitation to lunch might become
a funeral the same evening, children and adults succumbing quickly.
Widows must cope, returning to England or finding a way to support
themselves - not easy options. Surely there were nightmares deciding
about the well-being of children, wrenched from mothers to escape early death, to receive an English education, or maybe to retain-their
'Britishness'. A number of the women ran schools in India, often for
the poor and mixed-race orphans. Others ran vast households that were
questionably simplified by the number of servants. Day to day the
women gardened (or instructed their gardeners on how to grow
preferred vegetables), played cards, collected curiosities to display to
friends, and organized 'fancy fairs,' the precursor of boot sales.
Despite the apathetic teenager who professed 'I have no curiosity'
when offered a book, reading was popular, and when ships brought in
newspapers and magazine several months old, women fell upon them
for fashion updates, recreating the styles with imported or local fabrics.
To keep their pale skin, women used as a base a toxic white lead-based
cosmetic that caused the 'loss of eyebrows and a receding hairline,'
well garnished with 'a theatrical variety of potions'. The book is a
delight to read and has a double bonus. Patrick Wheeler, who is also a
physician, describes diseases and the unhealthy surroundings that took
lives so early. Further, he has chosen marvellous photographs to
complement the narrative and show the vitality and fortitude of the
British women in India.