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A "Mrs Beeton" for the Raj
on 12 January 2011
The "housekeeper" part of the title is to the fore in this work, which aims to teach the "memsahib" everything she needs to know about running a household in British India. Political correctness has no place in these pages. The first section deals with setting up a home, and has hugely detailed info on what is needed and what it will cost in the various different regions of India. However, even here we find the true obsession of the authors - the Staff. The edition in front of me (1893) predates the "servant problem" in the UK, but in British India it seems servants were a perpetual subject of anxiety, largely because of the cultural gap between employer and employed.
The authors do not betray as much obvious chauvinism as one would expect, for their day. They realise things may all come as a bit of a shock to the young wife fresh out from England and they are concerned to get their lady readers to understand how things work in India, and how to get the best from their employees. "It is a mistake" they opine "to be constantly on the worry" and to this end, they suggest ways of acheiving mutual understanding and respect, and a smooth-running establishment, as well as a firm but fair system of discipline!
The housewife's duties do not stop at the kitchen door; directions are given for running stables, laundry, cows and dairy, poultry, dogs and gardening. There are hints on camp life, and more hints to "missionaries and others in camp and jungles". There are hints for "on the hills" and "in the plains", a Table of Wages and Hints on Outfits. The housewife is told to provide blankets for the stable staff, otherwise they will (not unreasonably one might think) take them from the horses, but to make it clear that the blanket goes with the job and is not a present, or the syce may take it with him when he leaves.
Throughout many of the terms are given in the local languages, and there is much discussion of the differing names and duties of staff from region to region. This makes the book a valuable document for anyone studying the social history of the British in India at the end of the 19th century. The detail is extraordinary. For example, we are told the dirzie (tailor) "should always be supplied with a locking box for his work, a sheet for spreading on the ground, an iron and an ironing board. He is supposed to supply his own scissors and thimble".
About a third of the book is devoted to cooking. The advice is precisely tailored to the realities of the colonial kitchen and its staff. There are few real recipes as we now understand them - more just anecdotal guidelines, and the recipes are largely common versions of late Victorian standbys. If you can find an original copy, it may like mine be enlivened by comments and additional recipes scribbled in the margin by the first owner.
Buy this book for social history, not for cooking. As such, it is remarkable.
nb. This book was recently quoted, completely out of context, by Jeremy Paxman in his series on the British Empire. Don't be put off, it's not like he made it sound.