Monday, April 27, 2009

Women Of the Raj - Margaret MacMillan

Women Of The Raj
Margaret MacMillan
Penguin Books
Copyright: 1988
9780143052616

From the cover of the book:

From the author of Paris 1919, Women of the Raj offers a fascinating portrait of the British women who were at once fearful of and mesmerized by the beauty and strangeness of India.

In the nineteenth century, British men and women embarked on a journey to a far and sometimes alien place to uphold British rule-the Raj-and replicate British society in India. The women often came to India not for India's sake but to fulfill their duties as wives. Women of the Raj considers how these women adjusted, if at all, to a strange land surrounded by people whose language, customs and religion were different from their own, to life in bungalows with teams of servants, to repeated moves and heartbreaking separations from their families, to the heat, illness, loneliness and boredom, to holidays in hill-stations and to the unforgettable Indian landscapes.

Margaret MacMillan, using interviews, letters and memoirs, describes the women and their society, and how in the end, India touched their lives and souls forever. Complemented by a wide-ranging selection of illustrations, Women of the Raj vividly brings to life their experiences-exotic, jolly, humdrum, tragic-for contemporary readers.


Margaret MacMillan has written a number of bestselling books including The Uses And Abuses Of History, and Paris 1919 and, reading this one, I can see why. She has a way of making the daily details interesting and amusing to read. It was absolutely fascinating, looking at the lives that British women in India were living under the British Empire. The book is written with anecdotes, quotes, letters and the like from the women themselves. It is also lavishly illustrated with four sets of photographic inserts.

Women of the Raj discusses the social life, fashions/clothing, education, health and families of the women who lived in India in this period. She starts with the experiences of a woman traveling out by boat, what it was like as time passed, and what the first sight of India was like.

From there MacMillan progresses to the structures of the houses and their amenities (or lack of), the servants, the familial expectations and the daily lives, including fighting against the weather and the native life (not always majestic and spectacular. India was apparently rife with pests). She also goes into problems with transport - from food and required things, to the risks involved with transporting furniture.

Life wasn't always fun, games and parties either. Women of the Raj points out the dangers of the natives as well, such as the Mutiny of 1857, and some of the cults such as the Thugee.

For someone like me, who's only ever read novels such as The Far Pavilions and Shadows of the Moon by M.M. Kaye, this was an absolutely fascinating read, and it has inspired me to look further into this period of history.

What's more, I'd guessed that The Blue Sword was based on life in India, but I hadn't realized how closely that was the case. Certainly the Homelander characters were closely modeled on the types described by MacMillan here, as was the scenery.
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