I have always loved Anne De Courcy's biographies and books about social history of women, including the excellent The Viceroy's Daughters: The Lives of the Curzon Sisters, 1939 and Debs at War: How Wartime Changed Their Lives, 1939-1945 and I was equally delighted with her latest work, which looks at the rather bizarre subject of 'husband hunting' in the Raj. This book spans all the years of the British in India, although most of the stories are from the twentieth century.
When the British first went to India to trade and work, the men who left the country knew they would probably not return and married Indian wives or took Indian mistresses. As time went on and the East India Company and trade was replaced by government and the ruling classes, men were curtailed from doing this by various means which meant their children were punished by being unable to obtain good jobs and positions. Obviously, as men did not want either their wives or children to suffer through being married to them, gradually their only option was to marry girls from home - easier said than done as travel difficulties meant finding British brides difficult. The Company then began to pay passage to India of a number of willing women who were maintained for a year and expected to marry within that time. For young women, perhaps not pretty or rich enough to make a 'good match' at home, it was a chance to find a husband with better prospects than they could at home and women flocked to India, willing to try to make a go of it. In these early years, the demand for wives were so great that widows were even proposed to during the funeral of their husbands! Although it seems quite amazing to us, for women whose only status came through marriage in those years and who could be considered an 'Old Maid' as young as her early twenties, it was probably a last ditch attempt to avoid a life of dependence or becoming the dreaded governess or companion. These early stories abound with stories of travel difficulties, illness and the possible humiliation as being sent back as 'returned empties'...
Later in the years of the Raj, women themselves (or rather their family) paid for them to visit India either to visit family for the social experience as much as the chance of marriage. These are the years of a social whirl and a chance for young women to experience the heady delights of gala weeks and untold eligable suitors - especially after the first world war, when young men were simply not available to marry at home. Women aimed to marry men from the Indian Civil Service or Army Officers, although many men were unable to marry until they were at least thirty. However, there were plenty of males willing to escort young women to the dances, parties, polo matches and trips that were part of life at that time. De Courcy uses letters, interviews and personal memories to make that time come alive and discusses everything from the voyage out, to pitfalls awaiting the young women who visited and often stayed.
It is fair to say that life in the Raj was not all wonderful. There was inherent racism and mixing between the races was heavily censored. Although one Maharajah recevied permission to bring his discreet French mistress to India, when Maharajah Rajendar Singh wanted to marry the sister of the young Irishman who looked after his horses, the match met disapproval on terms of both race and rank and ended in tragedy. There were many other problems faced by young women: snobbishness, disapproval, the lonliness of isolated plantations or small towns, discomfort, the heat, and the loss of children through illness or because it was expected they would be sent back to England for their education - where they also often suffered, at best from being lonely, and at worst were possibly abused by unscrupulous people who mistreated them when so far away from home. However, for many it was a land of magic, beauty and opportunity and, for many, happy endings. This is a riveting read, full of wonderful personal stories and I hope you enjoy it as much as I did. Lastly, I read the kindle version of this book (I hope the author makes her other books available in this format) and the illustrations were included at the end.