Memsahibs: British Women in Colonial India

Paul M. M. Doolan

Ipshita Nath’s readable new book, Memsahibs: British Women in Colonial India (Hurst & Company, 2022) is an admirable attempt to view British India though a new lens, shifting our attention towards the experiences of British women as described in their own words. Nath argues that postcolonial studies of British women in India have produced misreadings that, in turn, have led to “misrepresentations and fallacies” (p. xxvi). Her objective is to rescue these women from postcolonial “stereotypes and clichés” by “reviving and reiterating” their own narratives (p. xxviii). I enjoyed the book, but ultimately, I was not convinced by her thesis.

Nath provides a helpful, four-page timeline that references the scores of women upon which she has based her account, stretching from the 1700s until 1947. We are then treated to a well-paced descriptive narrative of British women’s experiences in India, often told in their own words through generous quotations from their published works. Through a series of vivid vignettes, we learn of their exciting and often perilous sea voyages to India. Nothing, Nath informs us, had really prepared them for the scenes of “Asiatic life” that they beheld upon arrival, because “India was a world like no other” (p. 22). Once arrived in India, the women had to deal with loneliness, boredom, heat, earthquakes and floods, all sorts of creepy crawlies, surly domestic servants, lack of household cleanliness, and complex social dynamics, not to mention the dangers of travel, the presence of disease and sickness, and the risks involved with pregnancy and childbirth. One chapter deals with the particular suffering that women endured during the Indian Rebellion of 1857.

In a lively section about life in the summer hill stations, Nath is at pains to counter the representations that have led to colonial women being “ridiculed so widely in popular culture” (p. 178). Yet, what follows did not change my mind regarding the privileged and trivial lifestyle of European colonials. Nath herself admits that life in the hill stations consisted of “fun, adventure, and flirtations” (p. 181) and she describes the “flurry of dinners and dances” as “party fever” (p. 186), admitting that “Memsahibs were completely drawn into a life of fun and frolic in the hills” (p. 189). Is she really rescuing women from postcolonial clichés when she uses them herself?

Nath foregrounds the experience of women and resuscitates the voices of some who have been ignored. However, aspects of her book left me distinctly uncomfortable. She claims that she does not glamourise the empire or downplay the complicity of British women in running that empire. She admits that they colluded in a system that, ultimately, was racist. Nevertheless, she aims to complicate what she considers to be the one-dimensional simplifications of postcolonial accounts, by demonstrating the diversity of experiences of British women. Yet what struck me, is the enormous number of generalizations that punctuate Nath’s account, usually beginning with the word (never satisfactorily defined) ‘Memsahibs’. I randomly choose one passage (pp. 42-43): “Memsahibs could be smothered by thousands of white ants… memsahibs would be disgusted when they saw [lizards] crawling all over the walls… memsahibs would be dismayed to find their lovely dresses eaten away to shreds… Memsahibs used leaves of a plant … to drive insects away… memsahibs had to make a thorough inspection [for leeches] every time they went for a bath.”

Despite the book’s title, Nath mixes the word ‘British’ with the word ‘English’, as if they are synonyms. Sometimes this happens within the same sentence. In an otherwise well written discussion of the racialized sexual politics of Raj society, she informs us that the white population always struggled to hold onto their “Englishness” (p. 96), never mind that many of them were Irish, Scottish, and Welsh.

Which brings me to other peculiarities in English usage. Nath tells us that on the voyage out to India, some passengers were in danger of being thrown “off board” (no hyphen) by winds (p. 11) while livestock were in danger of being washed “off-board” (with hyphen) by crashing waves (p. 12). Surely, the correct expression is thrown or washed “over-board.” She discusses the controversial relationship between Jawaharlal Nehru and Edwina Mountbatten, wife of the last British Viceroy, Lord Mountbatten. In words that seem to glamourise empire and even betray a certain sense of imperial nostalgia, she describes the relationship as “one of the most compelling romances of the empire” (p. 192). In language that could have been lifted straight from a Victorian Memsahib, Nath describes the relationship as “tender yet wildly romantic” and she speculates that “they may have lain together” (p. 192-193).

In the final chapter, Nath writes that photography became a popular pastime of many colonials and that they left innumerable photos of themselves. Yet, the one and only photograph in the book is the one on the cover, which is a pity. She also claims that the colonials made many family videos of themselves, and she discusses a wedding video from 1936. This surprised me because I believed that video film was invented in the 1950s and became commercially available only in the 1970s. Surely, Nath means motion picture film.

It might seem unfair to judge a book for what is not included. However, can an account of British women in colonial India entirely ignore Annie Besant, President of the Theosophical Society, co-founder of Benares Hindu University and President of the India National Congress? And why no mention of Margaret Cousins, member of the Indian Women’s University, co-founder of the Women’s Indian Association and a member of the Flag Presentation Committee at Indian independence in August 1947? In the prologue, Nath devotes nearly a page to Margaret Noble, otherwise known as Sister Nivedita, and refers to her as “an icon of British women in India” (p. xxxvii). Indeed few will dispute that Nivedita’s influential writings, especially her studies of Kali, invoked a primordial Hindu nationalism that resonates in Indian sectarian politics today. All the more incomprehensible than that, praised in the prologue, Nivedita is never mentioned again.

Perhaps the greatest weakness in Nath’s work is the lack of a historical framework. Her account deals with the period from the late 1700s to the mid-1900s as if it was one chunk of time. We get no sense of change over time or the developing nature of British rule. The term ‘Victorian’ is often used, but on the same page we will find an anecdote from the early 19th century followed by a reference to the 1940s. This reinforces the stereotype that Asia is a place stuck in time, where no change happens.

Nath labels British women who went to India, especially those who were looking for a husband, as “the ultimate risk-takers of the empire” (p. 31). Here, she once again falls for the colonial cliché. For surely, the ultimate risk-takers of the empire were women like Akua, an enslaved African woman who was executed for leading a revolt in Jamaica in 1760, or Constance Markievicz, the Irish nationalist, sentenced to death for her role in the Easter Rebellion of 1916, or Muthoni wa Kirima, the female leader of the Mau Mau Rebellion in Kenya, or Rani Velu Nachiyar, the Tamil queen who fought the British in the 18th century.