The 'other' Anglo women of the Raj
A new non-fiction revisits letters, memoirs and diaries to document the untold stories of the intrepid Anglo women of British India
As we read UK-based writer and historian Katie Hickman's new non-fiction, She-Merchants, Buccaneers and Gentlewomen (Hachette India), we chance upon a woman called Poll Puff, a familiar figure on the streets of Calcutta in the 1760s, who was named so, because of the light apple puffs for which she was famous. "Each day Poll would take up her position at the gateway to one of the English schools in Calcutta, an overflowing basket on her arm. She would sell her puffs for three halfpence, a trade she was to follow 'for upwards of thirty years, growing grey in the service'," Hickman writes in the book.
Poll is just one among the many enterprising British women, who braved the perilous sea voyage to India "for exactly the same reasons that men did — to carve out a better life for themselves" and who, as Hickman says, bore no resemblance to the languid Edwardian ladies. Yet, for some reason, their stories never made it to the history books or either got clubbed with the clichéd tales of "memsahibs", often blamed for the widening cultural divide between the British and Indians.
But these stereotypes and prejudices are what Hickman wanted to question in her new book, which traces the stories of Anglo women, who in India carved a life for themselves as milliners, bakers, dress-makers, actors, educationists, nurses, missionaries, doctors and more. "Clichés usually have some truth to them — but are also the result of intellectual laziness: they tend to the easiest and most superficial way of looking at a subject. The only way to counter them is to dig as deeply into the subject as you can," explains Hickman in an email interview. She adds, "Much of my work over the last 20 years has been to give women from the past a voice again, and to treat their experiences, even if they are very domestic ones, as of equal importance to that of men."
Hickman was particularly intrigued by how British women were accused of putting a stop to mixed-race marriages that were such a feature of 18th century Anglo-Indian life. "While it is true that the British came to have increasingly racist views about such liaisons, the wider picture is more interesting, and had a great deal to do with the rise of the Evangelical movement in Britain, which would eventually change the mores of the entire country — crudely put, making them much more straight-laced and 'Christian', in a proselytising way. This is a good example of how one particular group [women] came to be blamed for a mind-set that was in fact prevalent throughout society."
A major part of the narrative has been stitched together through diary entries, letters and memoirs that were meant for private reading. "The stories I tell about the first three Englishwomen to travel to India — Mrs Hudson, Mrs Towerson and Mrs [Frances] Steele — were all pieced together by reading the various letters about them (mostly very uncomplimentary) written by the English factors in India, who were horrified when they turned up in Surat in 1617. It was a long, slow process – but when I did find a reference, it was like discovering a little nugget of gold," she adds.
The story, she most enjoyed revisiting though, was that of Fanny Parkes, who travelled extensively around India in the 1820s and 30s. "She loved India so much — making many Indian friends, both men and women — and all this shines through in her diaries. She learned to play the sitar (badly), learned all she could about Indian religions, art and customs, and to her dying day wore the names of three hundred Hindu gods interwoven in silk and gold on a cord around her neck. She did travel alone and was much criticised for it: but had the strength of character not to care too much what people said about her."
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