India books, REVIEWS

A suitable sahib

Reviewed by Catherine Anderson

Cover of The Fishing Fleet by Anne de Courcy

Nice cover, shame about the typo… the cover of the paperback edition of The Fishing Fleet contains a rather glaring error.

The women who populate the richly redolent pages of Anne de Courcy’s The Fishing Fleet: Husband-Hunting in the Raj had, we are led to understand, one overpowering goal, and one alone: to hook, and marry, an eligible bachelor. This apparently was the aim of any self-respecting Victorian miss who, if still unmarried at 22, was considered a redundant old maid and relegated to the shelf by her despairing family. Conveniently, a market of countless marriageable bachelors existed abroad for those women “neither pretty, nor rich enough” to make a decent match at home. And so a vast number took to the sea, undertaking long and often arduous voyages to ensnare husbands employed by the British Empire abroad. In particular, these were the civil servants, military men, planters, and traders busy administering—and exploiting—the jewel in the colonial crown: India. The women were known as the Fishing Fleet, their destination a marital hunting ground. And while the author consistently reminds us that women were mere commodities—“a wife, a helpmeet, a mother”—the 21st-century miss would recognise that the men were commodities, too: there to pull Plain Janes from a drab existence (probably as that most dull of creatures, a governess) into a social scene that was more glamorous, more snobbish, more fiercely regimented than anything at home. As Kipling pointed out: “..marriage in India does not concern the individual, but the Government he serves.”

Women today also travel to India with a vague notion of searching for something—more often than not, as the hideous cliché goes, for ‘themselves’. Today, we arrive Birkenstock-shod with bulging backpacks, and soon adopt the floaty attire and beaded wrists of a subcontinental traveller. Then, a Fishing Fleet memsahib would arrive tightly-corseted over heavy flannel undergarments, solar topi in hand (bought at Port Said, the “behavioural Mason-Dixon line” of the voyage out), trailing numerous trunks, but with no such romantic preoccupations about Eastern mysticism. At least the Fishing Fleet ladies had firm ambitions in mind, although they could be similarly overwhelmed on arrival. These were women who may already have connections to India, returning from an English schooling; good-time girls looking to ‘be seen’; those dispatched for behavioural reasons; or, even, adventuresses. The marriages parallelled the arranged marriages of the subcontinent itself, drawn along strict lines of age, social standing, breeding and finance; a mere two weeks could pass from first meeting, to engagement, to wedlock.

Anne de Courcy’s India is thin on historical context, but thick on breathless, overblown prose: it is a swirling mass of humanity, the saris “shrill pink against dark skins”, the betel-juice “like blood”, its “spices, jewels and tiger skins breathing an exotic glamour”. A relief, then, that from the mass of primary sources that de Courcy uses to tell her tale—diaries, letters, articles and memoirs—some of the writing is astonishingly evocative and detailed about an India “always dazzling, and familiar”. It is the writing of the women themselves which breathes life into these pages, describing an existence so extraordinary, and yet so identifiable: where childhood smells were of roasting gram, and the first monsoon rains soaking the earth; where native women were observed to be inimitably graceful and poised; where twisted banyans secreted stone shrines, and dark deodars marched up the mountainside to the snowline. These are descriptions of a place clearly loved and revered, which on leaving could provoke feelings similar to bereavement.

The potential of these women was, one feels, cruelly foreshortened by their immersion into married life in a society where brains were considered disadvantageous. One newly-wed wife is avoided by her military husband’s colleagues because she is known to read poetry, while another successful Fishing Fleet girl went on to advise her own daughters: “If you are unfortunate enough to be born clever, for heaven’s sake, be clever enough to hide it!” De Courcy does little to counteract the idea that these women were weak, susceptible and whimsical, happily dependent on their menfolk—themselves often described in dull two-dimension. An ambition was to have, at marriage, a waist measurement no greater than their age. They are assumed to have been incapable of travelling independently, and de Courcy pigeonholes those who mixed with Indians simply as “liberal”. Certainly, many seem uncommonly obsessed with the fabric of their dresses and the relative merits of polka dots. But what of the so-called adventuresses?

Katherine Welford, at 19, saw a trip to India as an opportunity to travel and have some fun—and returned home unmarried; Cecile Stanley Clarke fantasises about being in a maharajah’s harem, on condition that she could be Wife Number One; Violet Hanson openly rails against the tedium of a day with few books and a husband absent on military duty; several hint at the Indians they want to, but cannot, know. These are tantalising glimpses of an interior hidden by a whirlwind of amusements: mornings at the club, flannel dances, amateur theatricals, gymkhanas, fancy dress extravaganzas, dinner parties on the lawn, chota pegs on the verandah, tiger shikars… It is a shallow, glittering existence that de Courcy revels in, spending only one brief chapter on the travails of the more resourceful memsahibs who went to live with their ‘jungly’ husbands upcountry in the mofussil (remote) areas.

Dramatic though the backdrop of Empire and the great subcontinent may be, the reader may soon hanker after the unwritten tales of these adventuresses. Marriage may have been the ultimate trophy, but I imagine these accounts might describe the most enduring love affair of all: with India itself. For one Fishing Fleet girl, “I was one of the lucky few on whom India lays a dark, jewelled hand, the warmth of whose touch never grows cold to those who have felt it.” And this, at least, must have been some considerable consolation prize.

Anne de Courcy, The Fishing Fleet: Husband-Hunting in the Raj 

Weidenfeld & Nicolson, London

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About moonpeak

Moonpeak is an online and print magazine published in McLeodganj, Dharamshala, Himachal Pradesh, India. It features articles and interviews about travel, photography and books, with a focus on South Asia and Tibet. The magazine is based at Moonpeak cafe, restaurant and gallery on Temple Road, McLeodganj.

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