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I have always loved Anne De Courcy's biographies and books about social history of women, including the excellent The Viceroy's Daughters: The Lives of the Curzon Sisters (Women in History),1939: The Last Season and Debs at War: 1939-1945: 1939-45 and I was equally delighted with her latest work, which looks at the rather bizarre subject of 'husband hunting' in the Raj. This book spans all the years of the British in India, although most of the stories are from the twentieth century.

When the British first went to India to trade and work, the men who left the country knew they would probably not return and married Indian wives or took Indian mistresses. As time went on and the East India Company and trade was replaced by government and the ruling classes, men were curtailed from doing this by various means which meant their children were punished by being unable to obtain good jobs and positions. Obviously, as men did not want either their wives or children to suffer through being married to them, gradually their only option was to marry girls from home - easier said than done as travel difficulties meant finding British brides difficult. The Company then began to pay passage to India of a number of willing women who were maintained for a year and expected to marry within that time. For young women, perhaps not pretty or rich enough to make a 'good match' at home, it was a chance to find a husband with better prospects than they could at home and women flocked to India, willing to try to make a go of it. In these early years, the demand for wives were so great that widows were even proposed to during the funeral of their husbands! Although it seems quite amazing to us, for women whose only status came through marriage in those years and who could be considered an 'Old Maid' as young as her early twenties, it was probably a last ditch attempt to avoid a life of dependence or becoming the dreaded governess or companion. These early stories abound with stories of travel difficulties, illness and the possible humiliation as being sent back as 'returned empties'...

Later in the years of the Raj, women themselves (or rather their family) paid for them to visit India either to visit family for the social experience as much as the chance of marriage. These are the years of a social whirl and a chance for young women to experience the heady delights of gala weeks and untold eligable suitors - especially after the first world war, when young men were simply not available to marry at home. Women aimed to marry men from the Indian Civil Service or Army Officers, although many men were unable to marry until they were at least thirty. However, there were plenty of males willing to escort young women to the dances, parties, polo matches and trips that were part of life at that time. De Courcy uses letters, interviews and personal memories to make that time come alive and discusses everything from the voyage out, to pitfalls awaiting the young women who visited and often stayed.

It is fair to say that life in the Raj was not all wonderful. There was inherent racism and mixing between the races was heavily censored. Although one Maharajah recevied permission to bring his discreet French mistress to India, when Maharajah Rajendar Singh wanted to marry the sister of the young Irishman who looked after his horses, the match met disapproval on terms of both race and rank and ended in tragedy. There were many other problems faced by young women: snobbishness, disapproval, the lonliness of isolated plantations or small towns, discomfort, the heat, and the loss of children through illness or because it was expected they would be sent back to England for their education - where they also often suffered, at best from being lonely, and at worst were possibly abused by unscrupulous people who mistreated them when so far away from home. However, for many it was a land of magic, beauty and opportunity and, for many, happy endings. This is a riveting read, full of wonderful personal stories and I hope you enjoy it as much as I did. Lastly, I read the kindle version of this book (I hope the author makes her other books available in this format) and the illustrations were included at the end.
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on 24 October 2012
I bought this book for obvious reasons - my mother (born Ooticamund 1908, living in Ceylon with her family in the mid 20's, met & married my father who visited in an RN Warship) was one of the kind of people written about. Her own mother's family went back at least two generations in India and all met and married similar families out there. Obviously, with quite a lot of background, I found it riveting, loved the pictures and thought the style elegant and informed. I wasn't concerned about the piecemeal nature of the memoirs, and thought them well marshalled and edited.

I only forebore from giving it 5 stars because I can hear my mother's snort from beyond the grave. She was very precise about the "Fishing Fleet"; they were girls who were sent out to India from England to Indian based relatives to find a husband. As distinct from "country-born" girls, who may (by my mother's, but not in her mother's time) be sent back to England to be educated, and who then returned to live with their families. The author seemed to use the epithet for all who met and married in India, including girls from Indian based families.

It also delightfully emphasised the tremendous importance of brothers in this whole operation - my mother often told me how important it was that her brother was there to introduce her to brother officers and chaperone her.

We used to laugh that my parents were reverse fishing fleet - she lived there and my father sailed out and met her in India, although they were married in England and she never lived in India or Ceylon again after her marriage to a Naval Officer. Undoubtedly a partial review, but I loved it and will look out Anne de Courcy's other books (some of which I have heard of, but not yet read).
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on 10 November 2012
A really good read about a fascinating subject. Anne de Courcy clearly did extensive research and it has paid off. The sheer boredom of women's lives in India hadn't occured to me before and yet they managed well. The men, although very bright, seemed to be only really interested in riding, polo and tiger hunting. Class was all-important, particularly amongst the wives for whom precedence at social events was their main interest. The British class system was only matched by India's caste structure, which may be one of the reasons the Raj survived for so long. Victorian values and morals appeared to have lasted until the 1939/45 war. Strongly recommended.
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on 12 October 2012
A thoroughly enjoyable yarn, particularly if one has served in the Sub-Continent. Although a lifetime ago, this book has brought back memories, and plenty of smiles.
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on 30 May 2013
This is a beautifully written account of a facet of the Raj, which is missed by most of the histories of the period. Seen through the eyes of those who participated, Anne de Courcy has created a book of great interest that I found difficult to put down. Her diligent research shines through every chapter and gives an excellent insight of just how things were during the Raj. For me it has been hugely interesting because one of the women was the daughter of an ancestor of mine and as a result, I have been able to contact and meet the modern members of her family.
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on 6 September 2012
This beautifully written book was a real page turner, especially since my paternal grandparents fit the mould. My grandfather was in the ICS and married my grandmother in a whirlwind romance on one of his long 3 year leaves. When my father read this book he immediately ordered copies for the rest of the family so that they could understand his story. Sent back to England at the age of 5 with his younger brother he suffered enormously from the absence of his parents and was determined to do better for us. The war and the break-up of Empire broke the tradition but this wonderful book explains perfectly the price that was paid by so many.
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The "Raj" refers to the British rule in the Indian subcontinent between 1858 and 1947. The word means "rule" in Hindi. In 1858 the sway of the British East India Company was transferred to the Crown. Queen Victoria was proclaimed Empress of India in 1876. In the intervening years, until Partition in 1947, the British, along with individual rulers of some princely states, effectively governed in India.

Initially, the British men married or lived with local women. However in time this became frowned upon. Women were naturally in great demand, so for various reasons any young women arriving in India were greatly sought after. This wonderful book tells the stories of many.

There were of course incredible hardships and privations, from the very real danger of death by disease, to plagues of insects, plentiful wild animals, occasional upsurges of the locals, to separations from loved ones when children were sent back to England to boarding schools at a tender age, some never to really know their parent again.

Interspersed with periods of interminable boredom and stultifying protocol there were also wonderful times, dining with Maharajas and Nawabs, hunting, balls, flirting with admirers. Some of the descriptions of the scenery, flowers and wildlife, made me want to pack up and rush off to Shimla.

The women were undoubtedly incredibly courageous and determined. The photos in the book are a wonderful addition to "put a face to a name." The latter portion of the book I enjoyed more as the author stays more on one personality, so we can hear her entire story, rather than abruptly switching about which I found irritating in the first half.

Some of the book is hilarious, I loved the story of the man who gave his gardener a wonderful reference: Has been with me 15 years. I have no garden, I have never lacked flowers and he has never had a conviction.

Another book is begging to be written in response: the British seen from the perspective of their often loyal servants, who, as the author points out, were suddenly earning money they had never dreamt of - however, being governed by force and in some cases being forced to grow cash crops instead of vital, life sustaining food.
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on 24 January 2015
One of many interesting facts and historical records in this book for me was a quote from Maud Driver, written in 1909 in The Englishwoman in India " early or late the cruel wrench must come - the crueller the longer deferred. One after one the babies grow into companionale children; one after one England claims them, till the mother's heart and home are left unto her desolate". This quote struck a chord with me because I went to boarding school myself (in the late 1950s- 60s). It is very rare to read about such honest feelings from a mother. My parents never told me they missed me, and I rarely hear of other parents who would admit missing their children, let alone express it in the way Maud Driver has in this quote. I am very pleased Anne de Courcy saw the importance of this quote, as so often we are just told children of the Raj were sent home to he 'educated' and nothing about the pain involved, although Rudyard Kipling does write about the pain and homesickness he experienced as a child being sent back to England. This was a cruel and heartless aspect of the British Raj. As a child, I may have been home in the holidays, unlike the unfortunate children of the Raj, but nonetheless I found boarding school a damaging experience. I wish people would stop sending their children to boarding school today. This magnificent quote from Maud Driver says it all. Whether in India in 1909 or the UK in 2015, over a hundred years later, the cruel wrench is still felt. Its time we all learnt from history.
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on 26 June 2014
This book fascinated me so much I decided to read more on the subject. I started with one of my favourite novels, Olivia by O. Douglas (Thos. Nelson & Son, first published 1913 as "Olivia in India.") Everything in it seemed to confirm de Courcy's view of India under the Raj. Then I reached a description of the ritual of calling cards and thought, "this sounds exactly as de Courcy described it." Reaching for de Courcy, I looked up "calling cards" in the index and was directed to pp.94-96 where I was astonished to find O. Douglas quoted almost verbatim. Which would be fine if the quotation was attributed to her and her novel. However, de Courcy describes it thus: "When Olive Douglas paid calls in 1913 she went out with a list in her hand...As she wrote, 'if the lady is not receiving, etc....'".
Now, there was no such person as Olive Douglas. Olivia was a character in a novel and her surname is never mentioned. O. Douglas was the pen name of Anna Buchan, sister of John Buchan and a popular novelist in her own right. The events described in "Olivia" are accepted as being autobiographical for Anna Buchan paid just such a visit to India as she makes Olivia do. This explanation would have been much more convincing than inventing a supposedly real person called Olive Douglas. I wonder now how many other characters she invented for the sake of the story. O. Douglas's book is not even mentioned in the bibliography. A creditable researcher and scholar would acknowledge her sources truthfully. This has shaken my faith in the accuracy of de Courcy's writing.
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on 17 September 2012
Anne de Courcy's book details some of the most unpleasant features of the British Empire, in terms of the segregation and rigid class system that was encouraged in the later stages of the Empire in India.However,it is easy to forget that the British'caste system' possibly in some sense overlaid and reflected the underlying caste system that had been prevalent amongst the native peoples in India for centuries.
This book also illustrates some of the difficulties of life in India for an alien species such as British men and women,who were vulnerable to disease and lacked the medical equipment to resist the numerous microbes flourishing in the tropics which were not found in their native land.'Alive at dinner,dead by breakfast'was not an uncommon occurrence,and child mortality was particularly high.The lack of social interaction with native peoples and isolation into a narrow, privileged and almost theatrical community of foreigners whose life involved so much outward display could not be sustained.Why then,did women undertake to go to India for husbands?
Lack of education and female employment opportunities, a shortage of young men-especially after the First World War-all these factors feature in a world that changed forever after the Second World War,the independence of India,and the loss of the British Empire.The book succeeds in showing how it was;if it has a weakness it is that it perhaps lacks a cohesive flow as a history of its time-seeming to move from person to person in a butterfly fashion.
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