- The Washington Times - Friday, June 4, 2010

By F.A. Steel and G. Gardiner
Edited by Ralph Crane and Anna Johnston
Oxford University Press, $27.95
400 pages

In their imperial heyday, the British were famously insular, nay xenophobic, leading to such sayings as, “Foreigners begin at Calais.” Sometimes this could be downright ludicrous, as in the banner headline: “Fog in English Channel - Continent Isolated.” But when this island people set out to rule an empire that at its height covered one-sixth of Earth’s landmass, they showed that they were made of pretty stern stuff, harnessing even their narrowness of outlook to exert their way of life over alien territories.

Perhaps more than anywhere else among their domains, this had to be true of India, the celebrated jewel in the British crown, with its hostile climate and all that came with it, from strange customs to frightening forms of wildlife. East of Suez, it was said, the Englishwoman on her way out to help her husband govern the empire at once became the authoritative, formidable, sometimes even fearsome, Anglo-Indian memsahib.

Just how did these ladies from the cities and shires of Britain transform themselves - today we might say reinvent themselves - into this crucial species of empire builder? Certainly, on-the-job training and tips passed on from the experienced to the neophyte played their part in this process. But apparently there was an actual primer to guide their way, and now, thanks to its recent republication, we have access to this fascinating, immensely detailed how-to book.

Its editors, academics in Tasmania - itself once one of the southernmost outposts of the British Empire - tell us that at least 10 editions of Steel and Gardiner’s “Complete Indian Housekeeper and Cook” were published between 1888 and 1921. They have chosen the 1898 edition to reproduce for 21st-century readers because it was “the first full, revised version of the text that then served as the basis of later editions.”

But 1898 also was the year after Queen Victoria’s diamond jubilee, a time generally regarded as the apogee of British imperial rule, and so, as professors Crane and Johnston write, “The 1898 edition represents the culmination of Steel and Gardiner’s high imperial experience of the nineteenth-century British Empire, and as such provides a fascinating snapshot of the daily lives of Anglo-Indians under the Raj at its height.”

Does it ever. For this book contains multitudinous examples of adjustments to life in India, all the while adhering to ironclad standards of propriety in everything from food to clothing, coping with disease and the hazards of insects and serpents, to say nothing of rabid dogs. And so we find tips for using lighter materials and dispensing with corsets to make the voluminous garments of the era more tolerable in extreme heat. And recipes for those heavy dishes that made up the multicourse meals expected by Victorian diners, everything from hot soups, roasted or stewed meat and game to those stodgy steamed suet puddings that seem to us the last thing one would want to eat in a hot climate.

As the editors note, “One searches with little success for Indian ingredients and influences.” Rather, the point was to instruct the lady of the house (or to use that Anglo-Indian word, bungalow, which has passed into our language) in Indian “household management” and so “give knowledge to the new memsahib by demystifying the Anglo-Indian household, which in turn gave her power over her servants.” The assumption of a convincing air of authority is built on multitudes of ways of doing things the right way - most, if not all, to be found in these pages, which are usefully annotated for the modern American reader with footnotes and glossary explaining many an arcane term.

Most striking about the actual text is its common-sense attitude. For example, this advice on communication with servants:

“The first duty of a mistress is, of course, to be able to give intelligible orders to her servants; therefore it is necessary that she should learn to speak Hindustani* (: a mixture of Hindi and Urdu used across much of northern India and favoured by the Anglo-Indians). No sane Englishwoman would dream of living, say, for twenty years, in Germany, Italy, or France, without making the ATTEMPT, at any rate, to learn the language. She would, in fact, feel that by neglecting to do so she would write herself down an ass. It would be well, therefore, if ladies in India were to ask themselves if a difference in longitude increases the latitude allowed in judging of a woman’s intellect.”

Without fooling around with any notions of multiculturalism, practicality ruled the day and proved apparently to be an admirable guide to success. And the language itself, that ponderous Victorian circumlocution interlarded with the surprising plainness of a word here and there, gives the reader a priceless insight into the mindset and even the character of those women out there, imposing their will and their ways amid the “alien corn” surrounding them.

The editors quote a historian of the Indian Raj as saying that these memsahibs “attempted to keep Britain alive in the midst of India,” and they go on to comment, “To do this they devised a complicated set of social customs … that both distanced them from the culture shock of India and provided a level of comfort through … dull routines.”

True enough, but once you have read through - or even dipped into - “The Complete Indian Housekeeper and Cook,” you see clearly that what these women also did was create an authentically unique subculture of their own on that vast, sometimes hostile, subcontinent.

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

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