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Women of the Raj, by Margaret MacMillan.

June 5, 2014

Women of the Raj: The Mothers, Wives, and Daughters of the British Empire in India, by Margaret MacMillan. Random House, 2007. 334 pages.

A fascinating history surveying the women who were part of Britain’s colonial enterprise in India; a balanced account helping readers understand these women without overlooking their flaws.

The British women who accompanied the male administrators to India were known collectively as memsahibs or “the master’s wives.” Often they have been seen as insular, snobbish, and unduly concerned with hierarchy and rank. With more servants than they could ever have had back in England, they lived in a bubble cutting themselves off from the chaotic society in which they made their homes. Margaret MacMillan does not deny this characterization. Instead, she asks us to understand why many reacted as they did, as well as why a few sought and found lives outside the usual British circles. As she notes, “So far, most of the story of the British in India has been written in terms of the men.” The role the women played was largely limited to “nest building,” but without them, the story of colonized India would not be the same.

Many of the men and women who had lived in India published diaries, journals, observations, and novels about what they had experienced. MacMillan has read this extensive literature and quotes from it liberally, giving readers a sharp taste of individuals without losing the focus of her narrative. She conveys a sense of what changed for the memsahibs over time as the sometimes informal options of the eighteenth century became the hardened, more conservative practices.  These practices would be challenged by the Indian struggle for national independence. In addition, she provides readers new to her subject with a sense of how the British administration of India, known as the Raj, developed from a mix of direct and indirect rule into a centralized institution.

The structure of the book is not chronological, but follows the experiences of women as they came to India and coped with what they found. Most came as brides adapting to married life as well to a society unlike anything they had previously known. Separated from family and friends, the younger women were dependent on the older, higher-ranking memsahibs for advice about the exotic-seeming world in which they were expected to supervise their households. Rural and urban British communities centered around the Club and became tight communities that demanded that nothing should occur that would damage respect for the Raj, the British Rule. Attempts to create local bits of England existed alongside the need to adapt to unfamiliar facts of daily life. Contact with Indians was strictly limited to dealing with servants.

Fear was a strong force in motivating the women of the Raj, according to MacMillan. Some of those fears were justified. Intense heat and the widespread presence of diseases could kill and had to be dealt with. Children were particularly vulnerable.  For some memsahibs, India seemed to present moral dangers as well. Scantily clothed bodies and explicitly sexual religious carving were revolting to the Victorian women. And then the danger of the people of India rising up in resistance to British rule was all too real. The Mutiny of 1857 was truly horrible, and significant numbers of English women suffered. Women and children were killed. I had never read about the Mutiny, and I appreciated MacMillan’s account. In addition to its physical damage, the Mutiny continued to haunt the British women, shaping their response to living among an unfamiliar people with reasons to hate them.

MacMillan takes readers through various aspects of the memsahib’s lives. The cozy families of Victorian England were difficult to emulate in India. Emotional closeness of husband and wife was seldom possible. Courtships were often short with little time and energy to build shared experience. Men were pre-occupied with their work; Macmillan notes how much more attention many of the men give to their dogs and horses than to their wives in their autobiographies. Childbirth was dangerous and the numbers of English children who died was appalling. Children could provide a woman with a sense of involvement for a time, but the practice of sending them back to England by the time they were seven was painful for mothers.

Housekeeping in India was a demanding occupation with significant differences from English patterns. Houses were large and servants numerous. Hindu servants could only do the tasks appropriate to their caste, meaning that multipurpose individuals could not be found. Because memsahibs arrived with no ability to speak the servants’ languages, problems multiplied. Gradually most women learned a bit of vernacular, but English-speaking servants, able to listen to what was being said, were considered dangerous. Here and there a memsahib and her personal maid could become close, but generally the relationships with servants were even more problematic than in Victorian England.

With boredom an ever present danger, memsahibs engaged in numerous amusements and sports, often along with men. Some women took up hunting and killed lions and tigers. Servants were cheap and made possible lots of elaborate entertaining. Formal dinner parties were regularly held, supplemented by elaborate picnics and camping trips. In the hottest seasons, memsahibs and their children went to “hill stations” were the climate was more agreeable, and the society particularly charming.

The wives of the leading administrators came from the aristocratic elite, which was always open to a bit of eccentricity. But not all the British women who came to India were wives, of course, and Macmillan includes the stories of fascinating groups and individuals who did not live by the restrictions laid down for wives and mothers of the British communities. Single women came as governesses and maids, looking for meaning or adventure. Women missionaries were often rigid and evangelical, and few Hindus and Muslims were interested in what they had to offer. Some women used their identity as missionaries to work as doctors, nurses, and teachers. Often they became more involved and knowledgeable about India than typical memsahibs. As the Indian princes became interested in British education, some English women were welcomed into their palaces.

After World War I, life for memsahibs changed rapidly. MacMillan provides an excellent summary of the building forces for independence and for British retreat from India. Although some memsahibs refused to admit that India was shifting dramatically, others enjoyed more opportunities to make friends with Indian women educated in the British system. Yet friendships did not insulated them from the overall trend. The early Japanese victories in World War II quickly eroded the British claims of superiority. With Indian independence in 1947, the memsahibs left their adopted land.

Women of the Raj is a welcome overview. In it, MacMillan remains coherent in explaining social patterns, while inserting concrete anecdotes and quotations of individuals. Her approach is balanced, largely descriptive and convincingly presented. Specialized historians probably challenge some of her details, but that does not diminish the strength of her work.

MacMillan has excellent credentials for answering the questions she raises about the memsahibs. She is a highly respected historian. She has degrees from the University of Toronto, in Canada, and from Oxford where she serves as Warden of St. Anthony’s College. Her grandmother was a memsahib, whom MacMillan interviewed along with others. Women of the Raj is an example of history at its best, thoroughly researched and written in an engaging manner accessible to both professional and non-professional readers.

Recently I have been reading many books by and about the colonized. I was grateful to MacMillan for showing me the other side in a way that challenges white women’s notions of their own superiority without demonizing them. I was repeatedly struck with the similarities of British women’s lives in colonies in North America and Australia and, even more, how different India was for women who went there.

Women of the Raj is an important and engaging history that I enthusiastically recommend to all women and men who care about colonization and its legacy. Those of us from colonizing countries need to understand white women’s role in colonizing and their mistakes, if we are to be able to reach out to women from the colonized world.  I didn’t list this book for the South Asian Women Writers because it was written by a woman from Canada and England, but it would be interesting to anyone interested in south Asia.



3 Comments leave one →
  1. aartichapati permalink
    June 11, 2014 10:27 pm

    I have been pretty conflicted about this book. Mostly because, why spend so much time reading about British women in India when so few books are written about the Indian women of the period? And because, generally, colonialism and the way the British (and others) thought of the people in their colonies makes me so angry.

    Glad this book is a little mor balanced than I gave it credit for.

  2. June 12, 2014 10:34 am

    Thanks for your response. I thought of you as I read and share some of your anger. And Macmillan is no defender of colonialism.

    The book was important to me because as much as I hate to admit it, my roots are from the colonizers. Both of my grandmothers pioneered the American west. I have to find a way of living with that. I can’t just demonize them or blame colonization all on the men. The women’s role and what they chose to overlook was also important. Although MacMillan writes about another continent, she had found a way to deal with her own colonial ancestors with balance, distance, and “objectivity.” I needed that after reading so many anti-colonial narratives.

    I just finished and am struggling to review My Temples, Too, by Qurratulain Hyder. A truly amazing book. Have you read it?


  1. Me, you, and books

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