June 1st, 2019

me

Review of She-Merchants, Buccaneers and Gentlewomen: British Women in India, by Katie Hickman

Pub. Virago 2019

"How much there is to delight the eye in this bright and beautiful world! Oh, the pleasure of vagabondizing through India." – Fanny Parkes

This book began as so many do: the author was researching a quite different book (about eighteenth and nineteenth-century courtesans), found someone who didn't quite fit the theme but was interesting anyway, and went off at a fascinating tangent. The life of diplomatic and Army wives in British India, not to mention the annual "fishing fleet" of young ladies hoping to become wives, has been documented in several books that draw on these women's own diaries and letters but this book goes further back than most, to the wild early days of the East India Company when sobriety was unheard-of and India was regarded as a repository for dissolute sons. Women hardly figured at all at first, and those few who did needed to be tough and resourceful characters.

It has to be said that she-merchants, though they are mentioned, do not figure nearly as much as gentlewomen (I still don't know where the buccaneers came in). The source material is heavily based on private diaries and letters, in which of course one can hear the women's voices, and I am guessing that the merchants were far too busy trading to spend much time writing letters home or keeping diaries, whereas gentlewomen, with time on their hands, did a great deal of both. But there are other sources, and ways of building up character, and it is a pity, I think, that we do not see more of entrepreneurs like Mary Cross, import-export trader with Persia, professional portrait-painters Sarah Baxter and Catherine Read, not to mention Poll Puff, who sold apple pastries in Calcutta.

What we do get is a very disparate group of women, from various social classes, and while some never settle in their strange new surroundings, most of those we meet become fascinated by India and curious to find out more about it. Henrietta Clive busily collects insects and minerals during her extensive travels; Julia Maitland is warned by other English wives in Bangalore to stay away from the "native" bazaar in the old fort; her response is "so I went the next day, of course". Biddy Timms goes further; she becomes Mrs Meer Hassan Ali and spends a decade living in her husband's zenana in Lucknow. Many of the English emigree women were intensely curious about their secluded Indian counterparts and some managed to make good friends across the cultural divide. They also managed to travel a great deal and, sometimes, to break through class barriers that were still impenetrable at home.

I do find the pre-Victorian parts of the book the most interesting. This is partly because the Victorian period has been more documented but also because life in British India was by then becoming more regulated and stuffy than in the early days of the Company. I think the author may also have avoided certain potentially interesting memorialists from this period, like Iris Portal, because they figured in Annabel Venning's "Following the Drum" (2005), about army wives. For this period Hickman leans heavily on non-army sources, like Fanny Parkes, wife of a Company official, who is admittedly a mesmerising force of nature, and the Eden women, Emily and Fanny, wife and sister of the Governor-General, whose languid cattiness can get a bit tiresome. And the 1857-and-after period feels rushed.

Nevertheless, I enjoyed this book very much. It is impossible not to become invested in what happens to women like Charlotte Hickey, London prostitute reinventing herself in Calcutta as a respectable wife, Fanny Parkes, at ease in Indian society, hopelessly out of her depth in her own (but never aware of how earnestly her hosts wish she would be going), Eliza Fay, intrepid traveller, careless alike of grammar and social barriers – E M Forster's nastily patronising dismissal of her in his introduction to her letters ("her mental equipment was that of an intelligent lady's maid") has made me think the less of him for ever. These voices come over as clear as they did when they wrote: as Eliza says, "this story must be told in my own way, or not at all".