From the late 19th century, when the Raj was at its height, many of Britain's best and brightest young men went out to India to work as administrators, soldiers, and businessmen. With the advent of steam travel and the opening of the Suez Canal, countless young women, suffering at the lack of eligible men in Britain, followed in their wake. This amorphous band was composed of daughters returning after their English education, girls invited to stay with married sisters or friends, and yet others whose declared or undeclared goal was simply to find a husband.
They were known as the Fishing Fleet, and this book is their story, hitherto untold. For these young women, often away from home for the first time, one thing they could be sure of was a rollicking good time. By the early 20th century, a hectic social scene was in place, with dances, parties, amateur theatricals, picnics, tennis tournaments, cinemas, gymkhanas with perhaps a tiger shoot and a glittering dinner at a raja's palace thrown in. And, with men outnumbering women by roughly four to one, romances were conducted at alarming speed and marriages were frequent.
But after the honeymoon life often changed dramatically: Whisked off to a remote outpost with few other Europeans for company and where constant vigilance was required to guard against disease, they found it a far cry from the social whirlwind of their first arrival.
Anne de Courcy's sparkling narrative is enriched by a wealth of first-hand sources - unpublished memoirs, letters and diaries rescued from attics - which bring this forgotten era vividly to life.
Read by Greta Scacchi.
©2012 Anne de Courcy (P)2012 Orion Publishing Group
This is an excellent and interesting social history of the Raj, and so comprehensive it seems to cover every aspect of life for this privileged sub-section of English society. There are interesting quotes from letters and interviews to illustrate the various points, so it is full of life and colour and human experience. The book is true to its title, the focus stays on the Fishing Fleet women, with enough context to bring their experiences to life, but it seems strange that a book set in India has so little to say about the millions of Indians who were forced to make way and bow and scrape to the English who thought themselves superior to Indians in every way and lost no opportunity to enforce the English version of hierarchy. Indian people are there on the periphery, mostly as servants, but we learn little about the conditions of their lives when they were not waiting on their employers. My only serious criticism is that the book was just too long, despite the fact that everything in it is interesting. Perhaps there were too many family stories and anecdotes - they all started to sound the same after a while, and a lot of the preoccupations of these women who typically had no role other than wife and mother are pretty boring - balls, dinners, what to wear, and whether they would succeed in getting a good catch or be 'returned empty'. It's hard to criticise such a well-written book, but the fact is I found it too interesting to abandon but not interesting enough to make me keen to get back to it - contradictory sentiments, I know, but that's the way it was for me. Anne de Courcy's writing is excellent, as always. There is no better reader than Greta Scacchi and she is the perfect choice for this book. Her diction, pronunciation of foreign words, and beautiful voice make every word a pleasure to listen to.
"fabric artist and quilter"
I've listened to several histories relating to India and the British Raj recently and when the subtitle to this book was Husband Hunting in the Raj I had to listen to it. I wasn't disappointed.
While it focuses on how to find a husband in 1920s and 30s India it was in reality a social history of how the British lived in India - it was fascinating. Nothing was left out and its amazing that the British lasted as long as they did - the only reason I think they did was the gin, the club and the inherited stiff upper lip! Some of the stories told by actual wives to be were hysterical and totally amazing - tiger hunts and engagements, treks and ticks, dances and faux pas.
Its a fantastic snapshot of a time now long gone but for those that lived it and passed on their stories thank you for sharing it and congratulations on snagging a man. I personally feel sorry for those that didn't manage to do so going back to Britain labelled "Returned Empty". Such a sad thing to be labelled but so apt.
I highly recommended book both for the content and the delightful narration by Greta Scacchi. I shall search out other De Courcy books as she has a lovely way of telling a tale.
"Interesting Glimpse of an Unknown World"
This is border-line 3 stars overall for me, but it is well read and very detailed so I'm giving it 4. I think the reason I wanted to give 3 stars only is because of the at times, racist and cruel content. But this is reflective of its era, I know, so though it is unpleasant in places, it is accurate.
I didn't know about the phenomenon of 1000s of young British women sailing to India, looking for a husband. It seems really extraordinary now, but there we are - they flocked over to India from the mid-1800s right up to the 1940s. There were few 'suitable' women (that is, white, middle-class, young) for the British men who were busy out there ruling this part of our so-called Empire, to marry, and so a brisk trade in marriageable - generally VERY willing - young ladies began. It went on for so long, generations of women in the same family undertook the same journey. Often, the outcomes, though usually born of business-like agreements and settled within days or even hours, were reasonably happy.
It's a factual, and as far as I can tell, well researched book which follows the fortunes of a wide range of women. The human interest keeps it from feeling academic. There are so many really fascinating insights into this now past world: the voyages, the social rigours, the food, the climate, their seemingly (to us, now) bizarre values, dress-codes, vile illnesses, young deaths - all presented in a matter-of-fact way via memoirs, letters, records and a few interviews.
The often casual and deeply ingrained racism is shocking. So is the killing/hunting. I knew of it. Why is it shocking? I think because it is voiced by girls and women aged 17 - 30 just as a natural part of their lives. Few voices are raised against the treatment and exploitation of the Indian population, or the mass slaughter of the tigers and elephants. It is presented as it was: normal.
Well read too.
Very accessible social history, which I really enjoyed.
"Go east, young woman...and they did!"
I enjoyed this book but, unusually, might have preferred a print version (see below).
Some of the stories, diary extracts etc were fascinating glimpses into the lives of women in the Raj, and pointed up the striking contrasts between the physical privations and the unimaginable grandeur the yendured and witnessed.
This was my first Anne de Courcy book
I only know Greta Scacchi as an actress, but thought she was perfect for this book
See title above
As I was listening I longed to see photos etc., so am now buying the illustrated print version of this book.
"A Fascinating Account of a Different Era"
The Raj conjures up a picture of wealth and mystery to me, but this interesting book relates the lives of those who lived in India during this time. Taken from letters and documents of the time it shows the variety of experience from rich to poor, from happy to sad, from induced to deprived of those who coped with sometimes, very difficult conditions. It was not only a time of privilege and opportunity but also one of hard decisions about separation and loneliness as well as happiness and fun. I found it to be an enlightening and informative listen.
"A Different World"
So much of the content seemed so strange, that I could do with a second hearing. I have always enjoyed reading about India, and about the lives of women, and about history; this book combines all three.
Cannot think of another book quite like this
I have not heard her read before. Her voice seemed perfect for conveying the experiences of British women.
Yes, made me laugh; some of the anecdotes were very funny. Some of the incidents were incredible. Most of all I marvelled at the courage of these women, the attitudes of the British as colonists, and the exotic setting of that vast country, India.
A wonderfully thorough survey of many diaries, journals and books, with memories of life in India in previous centuries.
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