Reviewed by: Joanna Bourke
Author: Anne de Courcy
Publisher: Weidenfeld & Nicolson
Price (RRP): £20
Don’t be dismayed: this book may be entitled The Fishing Fleet but no one gets entangled in fishing line and ‘tackle’ refers to something other than hooks and weights. Anne de Courcy is not interested in the kinds of fishing fleets that are endangering whales.
Instead, her book is an entertaining and insightful romp into a world where young British women were bundled into ships and eventually deposited in India, where (if everything went according to plan) they would find husbands. Fishing for husbands was a very earnest business.
Finding minor fault is an easy game. I wanted more hard facts, for instance, and was disappointed that so many explanations simply came down to “societal attitudes”. De Courcy also has a tendency to use throwaway lines (“Getting engaged in the Raj was sometimes a bit like speed dating”).
But this would be carping (so to speak). De Courcy has a remarkable talent for analysing subtle questions about Victorian and Edwardian femininity, politics, the empire, love and the nature of marriage. She is convincing, entrancing even. Quite simply, she is a wonderful storyteller.
She begins by telling us why young women were willing to leave their families and friends to travel for many months in cramped and often unsanitary conditions to reach India. De Courcy relates that, in the second half of the 19th century, approximately one in every three women between the ages of 25 and 35 were unmarried. Spinsterhood would have been the fate of around 750,000 women in 1851 and twice that many by 1861. In India, there were three white men to every white woman. In a world in which women were unable to vote, employment was limited and status was dependent upon signs of respectability, marriage and raising a family were profoundly attractive propositions.
The real heart of de Courcy’s history, though, is the lived experiences of these women. They wore flannel underwear because they thought that it absorbed sweat more efficiently; they believed unwaveringly that their health was dependent upon wearing the topi (a lightweight helmet covered in khaki cloth). They attended glamorous parties and fell passionately in love. Betsy Anderson danced with a handsome young man from the Royal Artillery: the garden was “filled with the intoxicating scents of jasmine and frangipani,” she recalled. “I felt as if I was going to swoon.” She later discovered that her gunner was engaged to another.
Many women subsequently wondered whether it had been worth it. De Courcy uncovers the anguish of those who, after marrying into the Raj and bearing children, found themselves lonely and secluded. In arrogance, they had isolated themselves from their surrounding culture; their children were sent back to England to be educated. In the end, India was not the “brightest jewel in England’s crown” as they had dreamt. They were discarded.
Professor Joanna Bourke, Birkbeck College