Drawing on diaries, memoirs, recollections, and family anecdotes, de Courcy charts the British in India from Victorian times to just before independence. She writes in a very engaging novelistic style, and it's easy reading. The tales are often funny, occasionally heart-warming, and sometimes shocking.
I was fascinated by the book, not least because there were family resonances here. My Great-Uncle John went out to India just after the First World War and married Betty Young, the widow of an overseer of a jute mill. Betty was old school Memsahib, and, I suspect, was a "fishing fleet" girl herself, and it was fascinating to see what life would have been like from Betty's perspective. But it was also around this perspective that I started to feel immense irritation.
Courageous, sassy and sometimes downright potty many of de Courcy's subjects may have been, but most were also extraordinarily privileged. This was largely the world of the upper and the upper middle class - public schoolboys and debutantes fresh from the pages of The Tatler, and The Lady. The moans about their lack of money didn't endear them to me, little money to me means the poverty of the South Wales Valleys during the Great Depression, not insufficient funds to buy a polo pony, or pay the fees for the tennis club subscription.
My other source of irritation is that I know that the British India that de Courcy portrays is not entirely accurate. She tries to be non-judgemental but in doing so comes down firmly on the side of the rulers, not the ruled. For example there is a comment in which one of the subjects is referred to as a "Memsahib", de Courcy explains that this is the female equivalent of the standard Indian term for Sir. But actually, in a British India context there is rather more going on here, although de Courcy chooses to ignore this. A stereotypical Memsahib was typically a snobbish product of British prejudices of the time, and would make this fairly clear to her (native) servants. Being non-judgemental in this context fails to appreciate the subtext of this particular comment.
Also the Upper / Upper Middle Class nature of the Raj portrayed here was not entirely a true reflection. Not everyone who was in British Indian society was from this background. There were people within it who came of very different stock, but in de Courcy's book, fascinating as it is, they are largely airbrushed out, turning British India into a land ruled by ex-Public School boys, all frantically playing sports, having cold showers and marrying manipulative females who spend most of their life on the party circuit.
My great-uncle, for example, rose to prominence in Calcutta society. He was an electrical engineer working for Balmer Lawrie, and finished his time in India in a high rank in the company. He belonged to the best clubs, and was accepted as one of the Calcutta "in" crowd. Public school boy? Lots of money? No, he was born the son of a labourer. At the age of 10, he was scavenging under the cotton looms in the mills of Manchester. He went to night classes because he was fascinated by electricity. After qualifying he worked in Ireland, where he fell in love with sailing and started to design yachts for friends. And then came India. It certainly must have helped marrying someone who was already part of that closed society, the fact that she had money, and my uncle had charm and brains probably also helped, but he was not de Courcy's stereotypical worker for the Raj. Neither was my father, the son of a miner who lost his job during the General Strike.
Dad joined the RAF at the start of the Second World War, served in Burma and India, and was offered the post of a political officer (after reading Kim I delightedly told my father that he had nearly become a spy!). I think this was largely because Dad besides having great charm, like his uncle, also like his uncle, spoke several Indian languages fluently. He loved the country and the people, and if there was a hint of the stiff-upper-lip Brit about him, there was none of the snobbery or racism.
Perhaps most irritating is the re-modelling of the history of the Raj after Kipling. A fantastical country of tiger shoots, exoticism, sudden death, snake charmers, and non-stop dances. What the Indians thought about it all is not mentioned. In casual asides de Courcy will tell you that Indian princes were not admitted to certain British clubs, but there is no follow-through to this, it is written as though this is in some way acceptable. I wanted to shout at the book "It was their country". And, sadly, occasionally, the attitude that the British had towards the natives of the Raj comes through in some of the memoires. The Indians are treated like unruly wayward children unable to govern their land or their lives for themselves.
Writing this review I found the book so frustrating. I think part of my frustration is that after my childhood immersion in stories of the Raj from my Great-Uncle and Father, I long for the fantastical country, while as an adult I recognise its faults. The fishing fleet is compulsively readable, often fascinating, but so many of these people lived incredibly frivolous lives against a background of cruelty and poverty. History Today's review said "Anne de Courcy's entertaining book...may prove perhaps to be the last of a kind, a nostalgic, non-judgemental look back". I think that is a very fair comment.