The Jewel in the Crown, or Women in British India

The Complete Indian Housekeeper and Cook, by Flora Annie Webster Steel and Grace GardinerNineteenth-century readers were fascinated by India, and large numbers of books were published on all aspects of the sub-continent. These fall broadly into categories – scholarly works on history, language and antiquities; books aimed at the armchair traveller, who possibly has family serving in India in some capacity, and wishes to know more about the county; instructional works, aimed at preparing those planning to sail to India; and often didactic reports, particularly on missionary activities and social conditions, aimed at colonial government officials.

The Cambridge Library Collection is reissuing items from all of these categories, which help to build up a fascinating picture of the British Raj, and shed light on the good and bad sides of colonialism.

A book intended for those going to India, but fascinating for those who, like me, had family serving in the Indian Army and Civil Service in the early twentieth century, is Flora Steel and Grace Gardiner’s The Complete Indian Housekeeper and Cook of 1890. Based on their experience of living in India for over twenty years, it was intended as a Mrs Beeton for Englishwomen in India, aimed at newly married women who arrive in India with little experience of running a household in Britain, let alone in an exotic far-away country. It is far more than a cookery book – the first part contains advice on every aspect of life in India, beginning with coping with native servants. Contrary to popular views on the linguistic laziness of the English abroad, the authors urge the reader as a priority to learn to speak Hindustani. They explain Indian weights and measures and give the names for common items which a well equipped storeroom should contain. They advise on wages and the duties of different types of servants, which vary depending on where you are. (Bombay was clearly the most expensive place to live.)

The section on illnesses and first aid reminds one how risky travel could be without modern antibiotics and other medical procedures. Snake bites, rabid dogs, cholera and dysentery are all mentioned. Young children were particularly vulnerable, and they advise vaccination whenever possible, and careful supervision of ayahs (nursemaids). The recipes are mostly English, or adaptations of English food, rather than Indian, although chutneys and curried vegetables do appear.

Despite the drawbacks of climate, insects, illnesses and a constant battle with cleanliness, life could obviously be quite comfortable if a woman was an efficient housekeeper with good servants. The book describes camping trips, with tents with bow- windows, bathrooms and specially purchased folding furniture, and instructions on how to pack the china and silverware. It also includes advice on catering for tennis parties and afternoon teas, and the description of what clothes a lady should take with her include morning-, afternoon-, tea-, riding-, tennis- and evening-dresses, indicating the importance of the unwritten rules of social life, especially if one’s husband was a senior official.

Another, earlier, work which brings nineteenth-century India to life is Emma RobertsScenes and Characteristics of Hindostan, with Sketches of Anglo-Indian Society (1835). These ‘sketches’ were first published in the Asiatic Journal, and widely read both in India and in England. Roberts came from a military family, and went to India with her sister and brother-in-law, an army officer, in 1828, returning to England in 1832. She wrote that the position of a third party with a married couple was not a happy one, and advised against it: ‘There cannot be a more wretched situation than that of a young woman in India who has been induced to follow the fortunes of her married sister under the delusive expectation that she will exchange the privations attached to limited means in England for the far-famed luxuries of the East.’ After her sister died in 1830, Emma moved to Calcutta and began writing for newspapers and journals. Her descriptions of Indian life and society are vivid, and generally sympathetic to the Indian people. She covers a wide range of topics, including marriages customs, murders, domestic arrangements, military operations, religion, shopping, architecture, education and gardening. Other sections are on notable figures in India, such as the Begum Sumroo and Tippoo Sahib. She became very interested in the position of women in Indian society, returning to India in 1839 and becoming involved in schemes for the education and employment of women, but sadly fell ill and died the following year, aged 49.

Other books by women about India we are reprinting include Anne Elwood’s Narrative of a Journey Overland … to India, Including a Residence There, and Voyage Home, in the Years 1825, 26, 27, and 28, Frances Duberly’s Campaigning Experiences in Rajpootana and Central India During the Suppression of the Mutiny, 1857-1858 (forthcoming, spring 2011) and The Journal of Mrs Fenton, who lived in Calcutta with her army husband in the 1820s, before moving to Tasmania.


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1 Response to The Jewel in the Crown, or Women in British India

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