Archive for the ‘Margaret MacMillan’ Category

credit: Joan Griswold

I’m never particularly eager to make favourites lists.  I love them but it’s such a brutal process: all those wonderful books that get cut!  I read roughly 200 books in 2010 and loved so many of them.  Usually I measure my favourite books by not just the initial reading experience but my desire to reread the book.  Since most of my books come from the library, the true test of a book is whether after reading it I want to search out a copy to own.  Except my opinion changes day to day, hour to hour, making lists rather difficult to compile with any confidence.  But lists, however stressful I may find them, are still fun and it was interesting to review my year with all its ups and downs and pick the ten titles that stood out for me.  Here they are, in order:

10. The Shuttle (1906) – Frances Hodgson Burnett
My most eagerly-anticipated Persephone title, I adored this tale of the effervescent Betty and her spirited quest.  The melodramatic ending, a trademark of FHB, did grate, which is why the book didn’t place higher on this list.

9. Can Any Mother Help Me? (2007) – Jenna Bailey
A wonderful collection of letters written between the women of the Cooperate Correspondence Club, mostly from the 1930s to 1960s, begun as a way of keeping active and engaged with intelligent society despite days surrounded by toddlers and dirty dishes.

8. A Long, Long Time Ago and Essentially True (2009) – Brigid Pasulka
Part multi-generational family saga, part fairy tale, this novel set in Poland during the 1930s and 1940s as well as the early 1990s was the best kind of surprise.

7. Why We Act Like Canadians (1982) – Pierre Berton
Combining two of my great loves – books about the Canadian identity and Pierre Berton – was always going to end well but Why We Act Like Canadians truly did the best job of any book out there at explaining Canadians both for foreign and domestic audiences.  With his usual romantic flair, Berton made this book not just fascinating but beautiful to read.

6. The Rehearsal (2008) – Eleanor Catton
The story of a community reacting to an illict relationship between a teacher and student at an all-girls school provided a very unique reading experience that forced me out of my comfort zone.  I was more than rewarded for my diligence with fascinatingly complex relationships and skillfully-executed themes.  This doesn’t seem to be a book for everyone but I loved it.

5. Mariana (1940) – Monica Dickens
Surprisingly hilarious, my first Persephone novel was nothing less than an absolute success.

4. Greenery Street (1925) – Denis Mackail
Immediately after finishing this charming book about a newly married couple I said that I wanted to live in it.  Now, not even two months after reading it, I already miss Ian and Felicity and their dear little home on Greenery Street.

3. Lunch in Paris (2010) – Elizabeth Bard
I adore this book, the story of Bard’s life in Paris after falling in love with a Frenchman.  The recipes are fantastic but Bard’s engaging voice and energetic but not overly romantic attitude towards her new French life made for a delightful read.  Easily the book I recommended the most over the course of the year.

2. Women of the Raj (1988) – Margaret MacMillan
This book may have left me with a phobia of cobras falling from the ceiling but it also provided an excellent education on the British Raj and the lives of European women in India.  It’s one of those books that I want to carry around with me always, just so I can press a copy onto random strangers.

1. Mrs Tim Flies Home (1952) – D.E. Stevenson
I fell in love with both Mrs Tim and D.E. Stevenson this year.  Mrs Tim of the Regiment was an excellent introduction to my new favourite heroine but a weak second half prevented it from being a favourite.  Mrs Tim Flies Home, on the other hand, suffers from no such shortcomings and so earned its top place on this list by being simply charming and heart-warming.

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I’m not sure how rational or coherent I can be when discussing Women of the Raj by Margaret MacMillan.  Simply put, I loved it.  I was a fan of MacMillan’s beforehand (she is one of my favourite Canadian writers) and I’ve always been fascinated by British India, so when the two are combined…well, it makes for a truly excellent reading experience.  This was one of those books that I didn’t want to put down but which, at the same time, I didn’t ever want to finish.  My father, who was rather bored at the time I was reading this and was therefore a perfect victim for long, rambling conversations, was treated to daily recaps of what I had learned, down to the smallest detail and together we mused over the inconvenience of cobras dwelling in ones ceilings.  When you have a book you’re so excited about it’s wonderful to be able to gush about it to someone.  Blogging is all well and good, but nothing beats a conversation.

MacMillan has arranged the book perfectly.  Each chapter deals with a particular theme (“Voyage Out”, “Women in Danger”, “On Holiday”, to name a few) but she is also telling a history, mostly working chronologically though each section makes allusions to events throughout the history of the Raj.  MacMillan writes clearly and engagingly, as those familiar with Paris 1919 or Nixon in China will know, drawing on interviews, memoirs, and letters to paint a vivid picture of the life these women lived so far from Home.  MacMillan truly writes accessible history: you don’t need any great background knowledge in order to enjoy Women of the Raj.  Events of historical importance, such as the 1857 mutiny, are explained simply and briefly, giving the reader the necessary context but not bogging him/her down with superfluous details.  As much as I appreciated what MacMillan was doing for her readers with these explanations, I did at times become frustrated, wishing that space hadn’t been taken up discussing ballroom etiquette (such as how many dances a girl could have with one man without causing too much talk) but I also recognize that much of my reading covers this period, both in India and Europe, and my knowledge base is therefore greater than the average reader’s when it comes to such details.

India during the time of the Raj had much stricter social rules governing the small ex-pat community compared with England (‘Home’) during the same period.  Rules are always meant to create order in any civilization but in a country where you’re vastly outnumbered by those you rule and are not just civil servants, soldiers, and businessmen but representatives of Empire, such rules are doubly important.  The first and foremost obligation of the British in India was “loyalty to the community.”  It was a responsibility most took very seriously, believing “that the fate of their rule in India – the Raj – rested on the solidarity and will of that tiny elite” (p. 8).  ‘Going native’ was to be avoided at all costs and so the exiles did their best to keep their homes, their institutions, and themselves as British as possible:

Their wanderings made the British all the more conscious of the need to stick together…Sociability was part of belonging to the ruling race.  The British felt that any weakening of the team spirit would lead to a weakening of the Raj itself, and so they clung to each other with determination. (P. 45)

But, try as they may to keep the spirit of Home alive in this foreign environment, the Raj was always an “incomplete society” (p. 46).  It was, with a few exceptions, a solidly middle-class society: men went to India to make their fortunes.  The poor had no means of getting to India and would have found no suitable employment in the exile community once landed.  While at Home they might act as servants, native labour was so cheap in India that it was possible, and indeed, given the conditions, necessary, to keep double the number of servants one might have had at Home.  The wealthy upper classes had no need of the small fortunes that could be made in the Indian Civil Service (in the ex-pat’s rigid society rankings, those holding the top posts in the ICS were considered the elite) or as plantation owners.  A second son might be posted out to India briefly with his regiment but, for the most part, the exile community was staunchly middle class and middle class morality reigned supreme.  As Lord Lytton remarked during a visit in the late 1870s, “I wish I could report that our Empire is as well defended as our piety” (p. 197).  

But there was something else missing from India, as from the rich and the poor.  It was not just a middle class but also a middle aged society:

It had few old people because its members came to India to work and retired back to Britain.  It had young children but those in their teens were usually off in schools at Home.  The result, in the words of an old civil servant, was ‘a hard, practical, rather uniform society, uninspired by the imagination of youth nor softened by the sentiment of old age. (P. 46)

It’s difficult to imagine how surreal that must have been.  I posted a passage last week that discussed how families were separated when the children returned Home to school, with mothers having to decide between staying with their husbands in India or returning to England with their children.  Either way, for most of the Raj period, it meant a separation of at least a year.  For the children, even when accompanied by their mothers, the removal to England was a traumatic event:

For the children, being sent away was the greatest shock of their early lives.  It was one from which some of them never really recovered; is it surprising that they found it so difficult to trust anyone ever again?  They went from a world that was rich in colour and emotions to one that was cold and cramped.  In India, they were spoiled and made much of; in Victorian and Edwardian England, they were thrust into a society where children were seen and not heard.  They went to schools where India was to be driven out of their systems and Britain drummed in.  Unless their mothers stayed to supervise the process, it was hard for the children not to feel abandoned.  Sometimes they reacted by hating their parents, sometimes India; to this day, there are men and women who blame that country for separating them from their parents. (P. 140)

There were some absolutely fascinating comments on the master-servant relationships and of the preference/ranking of Indians according to religious affiliations in the chapter devoted to housekeeping.  English-language skills were not necessarily preferred; indeed, most memsahibs would rather learned enough of the local language to communicate on household matters rather than have servants who could eavesdrop and spread family secrets.  Hindus considered the British to be untouchables, which made for some rather creative solutions when mistresses had to tend to sick Hindu servants. 

I loved this book and cannot recommend it highly enough.  For those like me who are already fascinated by the region and the era, it’s delightful but I think it would be equally valuable for those who view the Raj from a wary distance.  There’s been a lot of over-simplification of colonial activities and influence and it has become easy to condemn the sahibs and memsahibs without knowing much of what they actually did or how they interacted with the natives.  Or, as MacMillan concludes:

Today they tend to be remembered as dim, comic figures or vicious harridans who poisoned relations between the Indians and the British.  Neither memory does them justice.  They were living women, with worries, happinesses, and sorrows like anyone else.  Their world has gone now with its insular little community and its glory reflected from the Raj.  They probably would not have worried much about how posterity regards them.  They had a duty to do and they did it to the best of their abilities.  Most of all, they simply got on with living.  (P. 236)

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