British Empire

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The Jewel In The Crown (The Raj Quartet #1) – Paul Scott

Published March 27, 2014 by bibliobeth


What’s it all about?:

The opening title of Paul Scott’s masterpiece, The Raj Quartet.

India 1942: WWII has shown that England is not invincible, and the self-rule lobby in India is growing. Against this background, Daphne Manners, a young English girl, is brutally raped in the Bibighat Gardens. The racism, brutality and hatred heaped upon her young Indian lover reveal the desperate state of Anglo-Indian relations. The rift that will eventually prise India — the jewel in the Imperial Crown — from colonial rule is beginning to gape wide.

What did I think?:

Before starting this novel, I had heard great things about Paul Scott’s The Raj Quartet, and when it was picked by a GoodReads group as part of the British Empire Challenge, I knew I had to read it. The novel opens in India 1942, where the British stationed there fear not only talks of a Japanese invasion but India’s demands for independence. You get the feeling that Paul Scott knows exactly what he is writing about, he served in the army based in India and Malaya from 1940-1946 so the story has an authentic feeling. On the night after the Indian Congress Party votes to support Ghandi, riots break out across the country and a British girl, Daphne Manners is raped by a number of young men. Scott begins the novel with the beginning of the riots, and the story of an English missionary teacher, Miss Crane then spends the rest of the novel by assessing different viewpoints of all the characters who surround Daphne or are involved in the situation in some way which was really interesting to read. I particularly enjoyed Daphne’s own journal entries where we find out her secret, and see just how destructive an Anglo-Indian rift can be, especially when an innocent man is accused of a crime he did not commit, purely because it seems impossible to some that two young people of different colours can be lovers.

There are so many fantastic characters in this book, the scene where the teacher Miss Crane is sitting by a roadside holding the hand of her Indian friend who has been bludgeoned to death by a mob while an overturned car burns in the background is a haunting and terrible image, yet one that Scott uses brilliantly as a beginning the troubles discussed in this novel. There is also Sister Ludmila, who is not actually a Sister religiously speaking, but wears the habit and trawls the city streets for the dead and seriously ill to take back to her Sanctuary and nurse them or bury them as the case may be. Scott’s poetic use of language and descriptions of India are honest and also beautiful, although I did find some parts a bit dry and difficult to get through. I persevered however because the colourful characters and back story of Daphne was just too intriguing and I had to find out the truth of what actually happened. I can definitely see why this author won the Man Booker Prize (for Staying On in 1977), and will probably pick up the rest of his Raj Quartet. My only real criticism is that I would have liked to read more about Ghandi and his thoughts and ideas, but this does in no way diminish how special and important I feel this book is as an example of our history.

Would I recommend it?:

But of course!

Star rating (out of 5):


Women of the Raj – Margaret MacMillan

Published November 16, 2013 by bibliobeth


What’s it all about?:

In the nineteenth century, at the height of colonialism, the British ruled India under a government known as the Raj. British men and women left their homes and travelled to this mysterious, beautiful country–where they attempted to replicate their own society. In this fascinating portrait, Margaret MacMillan examines the hidden lives of the women who supported their husbands’ conquests–and in turn supported the Raj, often behind the scenes and out of the history books. Enduring heartbreaking separations from their families, these women had no choice but to adapt to their strange new home, where they were treated with incredible deference by the natives but found little that was familiar. The women of the Raj learned to cope with the harsh Indian climate and ward off endemic diseases; they were forced to make their own entertainment–through games, balls, and theatrics–and quickly learned to abide by the deeply ingrained Anglo-Indian love of hierarchy.

Weaving interviews, letters, and memoirs with a stunning selection of illustrations, MacMillan presents a vivid cultural and social history of the daughters, sisters, mothers, and wives of the men at the centre of a daring imperialist experiment–and reveals India in all its richness and vitality.

What did I think?:

I read this book as part of a British Empire challenge that I’m participating in with my GoodReads group Bright Young Things, and I was fascinated to read about how British women lived and coped in India during the turbulent years of the nineteenth century. From the synopsis of this book however, I was expecting something a little different. As stated in the synopsis, the author does draw her research from a series of interviews and letters, and there are some stunning photographs and illustrations in the book from the files of her own grandmother, so that also adds the personal touch and makes the story all the more authentic. However, I was expecting the book to be entirely made up of interviews, letters etc, the evidence from the ladies who were there in their own words and what I got was more of a narrative with the occasional name and date thrown in for good measure. This wasn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it just wasn’t what I was led to believe from the synopsis.

Back to the book – the author divides it up into a number of sections which I found quite effective. Examples of which include Women in Danger, Courtship and Marriage, Children: Outposts of Empire, Housekeeping, Social Life and Amusements, and Unconventional Women which were among my favourites. What I did find fascinating (though unbelievable by todays standards) was how Britain could swan in, “lay claim” to India during the British Colonialism, and then have them serve their ladies and gentleman like they were beneath them. Sorry, just a slight issue and shame I have with my own country. Anyway, it was often seen as quite a great adventure for some ladies to come and live with their husbands in a foreign climate, (never mind what they often had to endure on the horrendous voyages over), once they arrived, things perhaps were not as exotic as they had pictured? Hotter than hot, with biting insects, the risk of disease, and we must remember the fashions of those times weren’t exactly conducive to a comfortable stay in tropical weather:

“In the nineteenth century they had insisted on crinolines and bustles. (As a result some credulous Indians believed that European women had tails.) Laugh out loud quote for me, and I couldn’t resist including it.

So now “uncomfortably” ensconced in India, the women now have to get used to the fact that they may not see their husbands that often due to work commitments, and they must get used to dealing with their household of Indian servants. Harder than it seems when you don’t know the language or the customs, and could be in danger of desperately offending someone. Social life could also be either considerably stale, with the same small communities, idle chatter and boredom or the opportunity for a bit of adultery if you were that way inclined, and as the author tells us Ethel Savi recalled “women were ready to make merry in the mountains while their husbands toiled on the plains.” There was even a regiment so renowned for their loose morals they were christened “The Fornicating Fifth.” Shocking!

There is a lot of sadness in this book however, namely when it came to bearing children which posed a hazard in itself with the reduced medical expertise available to women in labour. Minnie Blaine’s treatment for “inward piles” at the birth of her second son, ranged from leeches to hot fomentations on her stomach, from enemas of opium to “the Galvanic Battery.” I don’t even want to know! Battling through the traumas of birth, mothers then had the fight to keep their children alive. Many succumbed to common ailments such as colds, colic, dysentery, fever and sunstroke then you have the added danger of malaria and smallpox to contend with. Also, we must remember that diseases of this type and their treatment was little known about until the end of the nineteenth century so many children suffered and died early in their lives. And if they survived this, children were often sent back to England for their schooling at a certain age, so the woman had to decide whether to accompany her child and abandon her husband or vice versa.

This was definitely an intriguing and yes at points uncomfortable read for me, but I think it is important that we have books like this to show us our history and the history of other countries so we can hopefully learn from our mistakes. I think we can look on the Women of the Raj and laugh sometimes at their whims and fancies, and perhaps scold for their attitudes but they were undeniably brave to journey to a distant land with no idea what they were letting themselves in for.

Would I recommend it?:

But of course!

Star rating (out of 5)