Below the Peacock Fan: First Ladies in the Raj, by Marian Fowler (Viking, £12.95).
ALTHOUGH so much has been written about it, British India throughout the 19th century is almost unimaginable today. In an age when women had no role, except as supports to husbands, brothers, fathers or children, their idleness was nowhere more striking than at the top levels of the Raj.
And it was not even a restful idleness. Life in the heat was intensely social and immensely formal. In fact, by the end of the last century, top-level life in India was regal in its grandeur. The home life of the royal family in England was far less elaborate.
Marian Fowler, who is a Canadian, has taken four women at the pinnacle of AngloIndian life, to see what they made of it and what it made of them. Three were wives, one was a sister, of men at the very top. Their years in India cover the Victorian age almost exactly: the first arrived in 1836, the last in 1898. Marian Fowler is particularly interested in the difficulties of women brought up to expect a certain way of life and code of behaviour, and then thrown into a totally unexpected milieu, "some radically different setting in which their regular patterns of conduct were either inappropriate or impossible," as she puts it.
When Emily Eden went out to support her brother Lord Auckland, Governor General of India, things were less rigid and more human than they later became. Miss Eden kept diaries in India which were later published with great success; and afterwards she wrote novels. She perhaps suffered most from the loss of her life at home: "cut off from real living, suffering particularly from the superfluity of servants, who deprived her of her privacy, and of many of her practical, day-to-day English activities . . . Like all British women in India, Emily was suffering severely from having 'nothing to do'."
Charlotte Canning (known as Char) went out to India in 1856 with her husband Charles (known as Carlo), Lord Canning, also GovernorGeneral. Char was much more "Victorian" than Emily Eden, keener on good works and enlightenment and her duty. British India too had become more sanctimonious, more conscious of the need to improve everything around it. The Mutiny, with its unspeakable, unfaceable horrors, took place during her time in India, with the bloodbath of British vengeance that followed.
By the time Edith Lytton went out to India in 1876, it was no longer the Governor-General but the Viceroy she accompanied. Robert, Lord Lytton, a very bad poet, was the son of Edward Bulwer-Lytton the novelist (The Last Days of Pompeii and many more), and the new Viceroy, a last choice after several refusals from more promising candidates. He was openly unfaithful to Edith, who turned a blind eye as far as she could and called it "flirting".
During their time there Queen Victoria was declared Empress of India, with what now seems incredible pomp. Lytton went wild with celebrations. 2000 coolies levelled the ground for weeks where a Great Assemblage was to be held; huge tents and pavilions arose ("A kind of thing that outdoes the Crystal Palace in hideosity," cried the official artist who painted it. ". . . ornament on ornament, colour on colour . . . a gigantic circus"). Lytton's rule was not a success, but Queen Victoria — mainly, it would seem, to spite Gladstone, whom she disliked — gave him an earldom.
The last Viceroy in the story was Lord Curzon (remembered mainly from the rhyme about his being "a most superior person"), whose wife was an American heiress from Chicago, extremely beautiful and usefully rich.
This is a mixture of history, social history and biography, for those who like all three and particularly for those who, like so many of us, enjoy reading about the heyday of the Raj.