** The Fishing Fleet by Anne de Courcy


The Fishing Fleet: Husband-Hunting in the Raj tells the story of the British women who travelled to India during the 19th and early 20th century in search of husbands — there being many single British officers and bureaucrats stationed there, and too few eligible husbands left in Britain. The   East India company actually paid a stipend to such women early on, when the voyage around the Cape of Good Hope took months, but enterprising women continued to travel on the shorter route through the Suez canal for decades, sans stipend. The author, drawing from many diaries and letters, tells amusing stories of the boredom of the trip, the practical difficulties of laundry while on board, and the intense chaperoning required. She also describes short courtships and tough postings, for some, miles and hours away from possible companions, doctors, even grocery stores, and with the sad prospect of having to send children away to Britain for their education, for years.

The book also has weaknesses, chiefly among them extensive and soporific descriptions of dances, outfits, parties, and wedding cakes. And while the hardships of the British brides are described realistically, I found it difficult not to relate them to those of the impoverished and exploited Indians around them. It sure sounds hot inside a little house on a lonely plain, but, methinks, it must be hotter in the kitchen cooking the evening meal, not to mention toiling in the fields outside. Still, an interesting view at women’s lives a century ago.

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