- - Wednesday, June 18, 2014

By Anne de Courcy
Harper, $26.99, 335 pages, illustrated

British historian Anne de Courcy has a marvelous knack for choosing the less-trodden path to provide priceless sidelong looks into fascinating corners of history. “The Viceroy’s Daughters,” her biography of the much-written-about Lord Curzon’s offspring, showed them to be if anything even more interesting than their parents. Her studies, “Debs at War” and “1939: The Last Season” gave us looks at debutantes’ experiences that were anything but typical. Her latest book, “The Fishing Fleet,” explores the chrysalis of that much-explored phenomenon, the authoritative, capable, long-suffering but too often insufferable memsahib of the Indian Raj.

Although, as the author concedes, she exercised no real power in what was definitely a man’s world, this stock figure, so prominent in historical, biographical and fictional portraits of British India, inspired in her way as much awe and respect in their domain as the husbands did in their professional roles, military and civilian. Their discomfort in the longed-for retirement back home — or when turfed out after the Raj’s demise — was equaled only by what they engendered among family and friends back there, for they had truly undergone a metamorphosis. The author shows us just how eager so many young Englishwomen were to undergo the trials that were involved in even the most successful transformation and why. She shows the costs, what they went through, as well as the rewards; and even why there were some who undertook the arduous trip out there and returned without the husband, or at least the fiance, for whom they were deliberately fishing.

Apparently, this peculiar Anglo-Indian phenomenon was caused by the desire to escape another dreaded stock figure: the English spinster. As the author dryly puts it, “There were compelling demographic and social reasons for a girl to try her luck in this huge, exotic country.” Characteristically, her discussion of these reasons are a nice mixture of sociology and pithy description: terms in common use back then like “old maid,” “superfluous women” and “redundant women” liven up statistics that showed an alarming rise in single women in the United Kingdom with each census. Perhaps the fact that such a fate was widely considered worse than death, as the common phrase had it, explains why so many were prepared to risk dying in the attempt to avoid it.

Not just after they encountered the torments of the Indian climate, with its extremes of furnacelike dry heat and stifling humidity, and its poisonous animal and microbial life, either. When this mass enterprise was first started by the British East India Company, in the early decades of the 19th century when the subcontinent was still ruled by it under royal charter, these hapless women had to endure a terrifying voyage by sailing vessel of up to six months around the southern tip of Africa. One shipload on board the Lowther Castle ship left London on Jan. 23, 1821, and did not reach Calcutta, after many hardships of climate, wind and sea, until Aug. 25. The opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 shortened the trip, as of course did the advent of steamships. However, it and the long journey through overcrowded cities and strange rural terrain by wagon, elephant, or, eventually, train continued to be an ordeal.

Yet, as the author shows, even after the ending of the British East India Company’s original organized process of bringing prospective wives out from England for their employees, the phenomenon endured, albeit informally, almost until the very end of the Raj in 1947. The reward for those who succeeded in this odd enterprise was in some ways a life of privilege, with servants galore and an automatic high status simply from being an Englishwoman — or perhaps more significantly an Englishman’s wife — among the Indian hoi polloi. Yet, as we learn, even this entailed endless protocol and trivial concern with precedence; which other memsahibs needed to be deferred to, catered to. That was just the icing on what was at times a pretty unpalatable cake.

“These were the same girls prepared to have a baby alone in a bungalow fifty miles from the nearest doctor, to suffer the cruel deaths of sometimes several in succession of their children, to up sticks and move house for the thirtieth time in succession without a murmur . For the Fishing Fleet girls, India meant loneliness, living perhaps on an isolated plantation, the only excitement a weekly dance at the club fifteen miles away. They coped with it, as they coped with almost everything the country threw at them — the vagaries of the climate, illnesses or a perpetual feeling of being ‘below par.’”

Anne de Courcy tells her story through a mass of evocative detail and a host of memorable characters down the decades and centuries of British life in India. She can make you laugh or break your heart, but she will never bore you.

Martin Rubin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, Calif.