British Women in Colonial India
A refreshing study of colonial women’s lives in British India, drawing on their writings to consider them as bold actors and overlooked historical sources.
For young Englishwomen stepping off the steamer, the sights and sounds of humid colonial India were like nothing they’d ever experienced. For many, this was the ultimate destination to find a perfect civil servant husband. For still more, however, India offered a chance to fling off the shackles of Victorian social mores.
The word ‘memsahib’ conjures up visions of silly aristocrats, well-staffed bungalows and languorous days at the club. Yet these women had sought out the uncertainties of life in Britain’s largest, busiest colony. Memsahibs introduces readers to the likes of Flora Annie Steel, Fanny Parks and Emily Eden, accompanying their husbands on expeditions, travelling solo across dangerous terrain, engaging with political questions, and recording their experiences. Yet the Raj was not all adventure. There was disease, and great risk to young women travelling alone; for colonial wives in far-flung outposts, there was little access to ‘society’. Cut off from modernity and the Western world, many women suffered terrible trauma and depression.
From the hill-stations to the capital, this is a sweeping, vividly written anthology of colonial women’s lives across British India. Their honesty and bravery, in their actions and their writings, shine fresh light on this historical world.
‘Memsahibs weren’t all monsters — some even cared about their maids’: read The Times feature on Ipshita Nath’s book here.
‘Calls into question the widespread loathing in India for the British women who lived there before independence.’ — The Times
‘[A] well-researched, well-written book.’ — Who Do You Think You Are? Magazine
‘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.’ — International Institute for Asian Studies
‘Railing against “repetitive and limiting representations” of Memsahibs, Nath champions, instead, their colourful personalities, creative output and considerable socio-cultural impact, offering a vibrant alternative lens through which to view British women in the Raj.’ — Chandrika Kaul, Professor of Modern History, University of St Andrews
‘Memsahibs shows through their own writings that British women in the Raj saw their lives as adventurous, within the confines of a colonial world ruled by gender, race and class, and themselves as heroic, surviving Indian dangers and British tedium.’ — Indira Karamcheti, postcolonial literature specialist and Associate Professor of American Studies, Wesleyan University
Ipshita Nath has a PhD in English Literature and was formerly an assistant professor at a constituent college of the University of Delhi. She is currently a postdoctoral fellow pursuing research on the history of health and medicine in colonial India at the Department of History, University of Saskatchewan. Her short story collection, The Rickshaw Reveries, was published in 2020.