British Women Writers and India 1740-1857

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British Women Writers and India 1740-1857


September 03, 2006

They came, they saw ...

The book examines the whole body of women’s published writing on India up to 1857

Rosemary Raza sheds light on the British women writers in India whose works formed the first impression of the land in the minds of the general public in Britain

British Women Writers

How do British women fare when we look at their own record of their lives, activities, and roles in India in the early colonial period? Historical enquiry rarely produces simple answers and, in place of the sweeping popular judgments based on perceptions of women in a later age, suggests in this case different but complex conclusions. It is obvious that women no more than men present a monolithic face to the world. Within certain overarching parameters of gender, which were particularly important in India, British women experienced India in varying ways, dependent on their personal inclination, as well as the reasons for their presence there.

Moreover, although the events of 1857 were in many ways a watershed, the period before was no more homogeneous than that which succeeded it. Attitudes evolved in response to changing cultural, social, religious, and political imperatives — though the shifting agenda was not necessarily fully espoused by women who often adopted their own perspectives. Within these changing intersections there is no one stable answer.

What women tell us about themselves certainly reveals that their activities were far more varied than has generally been supposed. Numerous women rose above the indolence and lethargy of which they stand accused. Two areas of achievement stand out in particular. First was their invasion of the field of published literature, fortuitously capitalising on the perceived need for more popular accounts of India, for which the contemporary views on the inherent characteristics of female writers made them eminently suitable. As a result they played an important part in disseminating information about India.

They spoke to both men and women, and while they had a unique story to tell about Indian women, they ranged far more widely, encompassing Anglo-Indian life and Indian culture and society. As a result, it was in large part thanks to women authors that the general public in the metropolitan heartland began to understand and take an interest in its most important colony.

The other major achievement was in the field of social reform. One of the considerable gifts which British women gave to India in the early 19th century was the introduction of education for women, and the elimination of perverse customs which blighted their lives. Due recognition has not been given to this in recent decades because it was largely the achievement of missionary women. Conversion, which was their principal aim, is understandably no longer applauded as it was in earlier less culturally relativist times, and the work of missionaries has fallen in popular esteem. Yet even if equal respect is now given to all faiths, our liberal sympathies can hardly support many of the social customs which flowed from some of them in the past. Women’s right to education and participation in society is no longer in doubt — and it was British women missionaries and their supporters who opened the way to Indian women.

Their personal stories show how great was the price they paid, in isolation, loneliness, the loss of children, and often their own early deaths. But it was a price that created impressive results; once given the opportunity, Indian women themselves pushed open the door to self-development and participation in a wider society, which culminated in the election in India of one of the world’s first women prime ministers.

What of the old charge that British women divided society and erected barriers to the formerly easy relations with Indians?

What of the old charge that British women divided society and erected barriers to the formerly easy relations with Indians? The answer is not simple, nor should such blame as there is be attached to women alone. It is certainly true that British women were instrumental in creating an Anglicised scheme of domestic and social architecture incorporating both men and women, and, by exemplifying a foreign norm, defined boundaries which from the 1830s and 1840s became increasingly difficult to cross. But the responsibility for the resulting alienation, which inevitably occurred, should be shared with colonial authority.

It suited the colonial purpose to encourage women to come to India and bestow on them the authority to create an environment which buttressed colonial rule by distancing the ruled. Not all women, however, accepted the colonial agenda and its achievements, which were subjected to a wide range of scrutiny, from mockery to critical debate. Missionary women, and those supporting their cause, pursued projects which ran counter to perceived colonial interests. Both they and many of their sisters in the officer class welcomed Indians and encouraged their assimilation within the domestic and social framework of Anglo-India.

In reverse, British women invaded the world of India in a way that men never equalled. The distorting glass of the 1857 mutiny has obscured the fact that women in the preceding years of colonial rule enjoyed an ability their men folk never matched to move freely in the company of the opposite sex in Indian society. It is true this did not result in the sexual encounters enjoyed by their compatriots — but it is an over-romanticised view of the past to suggest that the unions of British men and Indian women always produced a greater understanding of India for the men, or a beneficial result for the women and children involved.

The seclusion of Indian women gave British women a privileged role in relation to Indian society; and although it is evident that few women from an official background were in the early years able to make intimate contact with upper-class Indian women, those who did so through force of circumstance, interest or persistence had a unique story to tell. Missionary women and their sympathisers, and those who supported more secular reform, had even more reason to penetrate the society of Indian women, among whom their mission principally lay.

As popularisers of India through their published work, women bore a responsibility for the impression of India they created in the mind of the general public in Britain. One of the most remarkable features of women’s writing on India is how very varied, inconsistent and contradictory its tone was. The generous and enthusiastic spirit of enquiry which was marked up to the early decades of the 19th century began to peter out as a parallel discourse developed which was increasingly critical of Indian culture and achievement.

Women were deeply implicated in this shift of emphasis, since the status of Indian women was a key point of criticism of India, and it was British women alone who could investigate their lives and introduce change. But the criticism of Indian women which was implicit in attempts to introduce reform was only one element in the strand of influence which produced the often unpleasant and denigratory tone apparent in women’s writing as the mid century approached. Politicians and administrators, utilitarians and evangelicals all combined to underline difference rather than similarity, and to establish distance between India and the British. Women constituted one line among many running to the same point.

A study of women’s writing from the 1820s makes the sepoy rebellion of 1857 appear inevitable — not only because many women warned of the dangers of British attitudes to India and Indians, but because others participated in and reflected the declining sympathy and rising intolerance of Anglo-India.

The rebellion was a huge shock to the British psyche in India from which it took decades to recover. Attitudes towards Indians changed, undermining the easy relationship between British women and Indian men which had previously been possible. Anne Wilson, the wife of a civilian administrator, reported in 1889 that “some Europeans of the old school would not allow a lady to accept an Indian gentleman’s proffered hospitality ... They would ... prefer her to be as wholly absent from every kind of Indian society as are inmates of zenanas.” How times had changed. In other ways, however, women’s lives remained much the same and the patterns of interest and occupation in the later 19th century are a development of those established in the earlier years.

Women from a leisured background continued to investigate and record India. Fanny Parks and Julia Harvey were followed by many others who narrated their travels, such as Christina Bremner, whose A Month in a Dandi: A Woman’s Wanderings in Northern India appeared in 1891. Enthusiastic and talented artists maintained and developed old traditions, like Constance Gordon-Cumming, who travelled round India painting its scenery and people in the decade following the rebellion, or Lady Harris and Lady Wenlock, Anglo-Indian amateurs of the later 19th century.

As their predecessors had done, women also illustrated books. Lady Lawley’s paintings embellished Southern India, a popular account published in 1914 by Fanny Penny, who along with many other women continued to introduce a general readership to different aspects of Indian life and culture.

Many women wrote accounts of their lives in India, often based, as in the past, on journals and letters, like Lady Wilson in her letters from India of 1911. The interest of writers such as Marianne Postans in retelling Indian tales was amplified as concern with folk literature grew. In the post-mutiny years, Mary Frere and Flora Annie Steel both published collections of Indian stories. The continuing role of British women was indeed epitomised in the forceful and ebullient personality of Mrs Steel, who arrived in India in 1868.

The large number of novels on India which she also wrote is indicative of the huge expansion of women writers in this field in the later 19th and early 20th centuries. She followed in the footsteps of earlier writers in providing guides to life in India, her compendium of household management, written with a woman friend, being for long the mainstay of novice housekeepers.

Her achievements in the field of social reform, particularly education, amplified the interest and work of earlier women like Mary Sherwood and Lady Loudon, and are indicative of the areas into which women from the official world of Anglo-India continued to expand.

British Women Writers2

Most significant for the future, however, were the achievements of missionary women and their secular supporters from the early decades of the 19th century. As a result of their activities, India was drawn within the ambit of women in Britain to provide occupations which were not matched at home for independent, professional, and often single, women.

The female imperative of India meant, for example, that it was easier for British women doctors to practise in the later 19th century in India than Britain, where men maintained a tight hold over the profession. By then, missionary women’s programmes of teaching and medical support for Indian women had been drawn into the mainstream of official policy. British women, however, continued to court controversy. Seizing once more the opportunity created by Britain’s colonial presence to intervene in Indian society, a new generation of British female activists in the late 19th and early 20th centuries espoused the cause of Indian nationalism in the face of official opposition and hostility.

Ironically, however, despite the achievements of early missionary women, leadership in reform passed from British women in India to their fellow countrywomen at home. The appeal for assistance to women in Britain from the 1820s, and more vociferously from the 1830s, created a body of interest and informed opinion which in the second half of the 19th century integrated the needs of Indian women in the discussion of metropolitan social reform, feminism and imperial duty.

Moreover, Indian reformers such as Rammohun Roy in the early 1830s, and later Keshub Chunder Sen, found their most receptive adherents among women in Britain like Sophia Dobson Collett and Mary Carpenter, who propagated their ideas and, in the latter case, travelled to India in the 1860s to implement reform.

Though the number of missionary women increased considerably in the second half of the century, much of the impetus for building on the foundations they had laid in education and, very tentatively, in medical work, and for extending intervention to other areas of female reform, came from secular women philanthropists in Britain.

The changing circumstances of the early colonial period in India produce a mixed verdict on women. One would like to think that the liberal and enthusiastic writers of the earlier decades, such as Maria Graham, Marianne Postans, Emma Roberts, and Fanny Parks, exemplified the lives and views of their fellow countrywomen, and overlook some of the mean-spirited and parochial authors who followed them. Nevertheless, the wide variety of experience puts paid to the imposition of sweeping generalisations whether for this early period, or probably indeed the later 19th century, which, in terms of women’s experience, built on patterns which had already been established.

Throughout, however, one remarkable fact is the centrality of women to the colonial experience in India. The part women played in the downfall of the mighty Raj — the charge levelled at them from the late 19th and early 20th centuries — remains open to question.

Yet looking back to an earlier period, one can see the germ of the idea: British men brought them to India, permitted them to create Anglo-Indian domesticity, subscribed to their social and cultural authority, involved the feminine in their judgment of India, incorporated women in the path to secular reform and religious change — and finally encouraged their participation in the project to popularize India via the printed word. Women’s published work has a remarkable story to tell.

Excerpted with permission from

In Their Own Words: British Women Writers and India 1740-1857

By Rosemary Raza OUP, New Delhi. Available with Oxford University Press, Plot # 38, Sector 15, Korangi Industrial Area, Karachi.

Tel: 111-693-673



ISBN 0-19-567708-0

289pp. Rs976

Rosemary Raza, a researcher and writer, has lived in Pakistan for many years. She has edited and written the introduction to Marianne Postans’ Travels, Tales and Encounters in Sindh and Balochistan. She has also contributed to the Oxford New Dictionary of National Biography

British Women Writers and India 1740-1857 II


July 01, 2007

REVIEWS: Ladies first

Reviewed by Zahrah Nasir

British Women Writers

The diverse roles played by memsahibs in British India has come under intense scrutiny in the rather scholarly tome titled In Their Own Words: British Women Writers and India 1740-1857 by Rosemary Raza, a former member of the British diplomatic service who is married to a Pakistani national and was until recently settled in Pakistan.

This hardcover publication, adapted from material used for a doctoral thesis, examines the quality of life as experienced by British women, from various levels of society, who resided in the subcontinent during the period specified. Making extensive use of the published writings of 90 such women, Raza sets out to prove that the popular stereotype of brittle, bored and imperial females as widely portrayed in films and books is in fact true for only a small percentage of otherwise very enterprising individuals. Nonetheless, it is still true to say that the ‘benevolence’ bestowed by many of them on the ‘natives’ of the country in which they found themselves was largely to blame for the unenviable reputation they quickly acquired and which, sadly, lingers to the present day.

These women, married and unmarried, housewives, missionaries, travellers and some entrepreneurs arrived in India largely unprepared for the rigours of an existence so dissimilar to the comparatively narrow confines of the lives they previously led back at ‘home’. Initially out of their depth in the climatic, cultural, religious, culinary and linguistic cauldron which enveloped them from the very moment they stepped ashore, it soon became apparent that they must either “sink or swim”. These women were, unlike other foreign females, made to carry the can for what was an empire already facing the pressure of disintegration caused, not by housewives trying to recreate the standard of life which they were comfortable with, but by the John Company’s interference and exploitation of a subject realm and its indigenous peoples.

Raza begins her book with a very detailed introduction to the controversial ladies under discussion, out of necessity using more of her own words than theirs to present an historical guide to the socio-cultural and religio-political complexities existing at the time. In the first of eight meticulously researched chapters, Raza delves into the varied reasons for, and styles of, writing which first emerged from the pens of some truly historical characters. “You know how female authors are looked down upon.

The women fear and hate; the men ridicule and dislike them,” wrote Elizabeth Hamilton (1756-1816) who was initially wary of pursuing a literary career but who, nevertheless, went on to have an excellent one as a novelist after the publication of Letters of a Hindoo Rajah in 1796. Such women authors of the period played a major role in portraying life and times in India to eager readers in Britain although their views and opinions were often completely out of sync with “officialdom”.

These women were made to carry the can for what was an empire already facing the pressure of this integration caused by the John Company’s interference and exploitation of a subject realm and its indigenous peoples

The following two chapters, ‘The growing Anglo-Indian family’ and ‘Moulding society’ explore domestic life and the problems faced on a daily basis, the rituals of courtship and marriage in a community where men vastly outnumbered available women; ‘Motherhood and Children’ and the basic circumstances of a family life in which, all to often, children were sent back to Britain for a reasonable education.

‘The Outward Show’ makes for quite an interesting chapter but is vastly outclassed by the astonishing contents of ‘Beyond Domesticity: The Challenge of India’ in which the reader learns of an amazing lady, Mrs Hall, the wife of ‘a respectable barrister in Madras’ who actually took ‘command of a battalion in the service of the Nizam of Hyderabad’ as was reported by prolific writer and artist Marianne Postans (1811- 1897). ‘She was handsome and courageous, and dressed in the Moslem fashion, with full trowsers, a flowing vest, having a Damascus sword, and a plumed helmet, and was well spoken of, and liked’ reported Postans who was one of the most informed ladies of her time in regard to all matters Indian.

Women travelers such as Fanny Parks (1794-1875) and Julia Harvey (1825- ?) openly flouted convention by exploring the length and breath of India and adjacent countries such as Tibet, China and Kashmir minus the presence of the socially required acceptable British male attendant and, in Harvey’s case, obtained quite a deplorable reputation due to her unchaperoned association with a string of officers.

Chapter six ‘Crossing boundaries’ deals with the relationship between British and Indian ladies, and the lack of understanding on both sides which was further complicated by the class and caste systems. This is followed by the chapter ‘Depicting India’ in which it becomes clear that a large percentage of British women there longed for ‘home’ and in the final chapter, ‘British Women and Colonial Authority’ Raza presents contrasting accounts of the status held by women, of how some of them ultimately rebelled against circumstances and spoke out against the military administration and even the British Empire as a whole, going as far as saying that the Mutiny of 1857 was inevitable.

In Their Own Words: British Women Writers and India 1740-1857 makes for interesting though in certain places, rather heavy and tedious reading. It seems to be more suitable for historians and ‘feminists’ rather than the general reader. This is not to say that the work isn’t worth studying.

The groundbreaking Biographical Index of women writers in particular serves to encourage the dedicated reader to search for reprints of original books which would really be ‘In Their Own Words’ minus the overload of well-intentioned scholarly observations.

In their Own Words: British Women Writers and India 1740-1857

By Rosemary Raza

OUP, New Delhi. Available with Oxford University Press,

Plot # 38, Sector 15, Korangi Industrial Area, Karachi

Tel: 111-693-673

ISBN 0-19-567708-0

289pp. Rs976

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