A lot has been written about India during the Raj: about the East India Company and the complicated politics and the men who ran things and fought for and against it. But there are few books out there about the women who went to India and accompanied those men to the cities and far-flung outposts and plantations, bringing with them a little bit of Britain and a lot of British can-do just-get-on-with-it spirit. The Fishing Fleet is about those women.
Ostensibly, it’s a history of the ladies who, having struck out on the marriage market in Britain, boarded ship in England and headed out to India, where the high men-to-women ratio pretty much guaranteed a proposal within months, if not weeks (the ladies were collectively known as ‘the Fishing Fleet’, since they were seen to be fishing for husbands). But Anne De Courcy’s social history is about much more than that: it’s also about what life—specifically, domestic and social life—was like for the British of the Raj. As it trips nimbly along from the travails of the voyage out through courtship and marriage, the book vividly illustrates, via first-hand reports, everything from elaborate tiger hunting expeditions with bejewelled maharajas to the loneliness and hardship of life ‘up-country’, where neighbours were few and far between and conditions primitive, to say the least.
De Courcy, who clearly admires these women (rightly—most of them had to be pretty tough), covers a lot of ground, even diving into the complex (and racist) social structure that existed in India at the time. Chapters covering a broad range of Fishing Fleet girls are broken up by a few that highlight the romances of specific women: the ultra-privileged daughter of a Viceroy, a woman who spent her whole life hiding her Eurasian ancestry, and a true daughter of the Raj who returned to her Indian birthplace after an English education and promptly fell in love.
Bottom Line: I found this one to be highly addictive, even though I’ve never been particularly interested in Raj history before (I have been long interested in women’s social history, though, so that certainly helped). It’s a lively, entertaining, detailed look at life in India from the women’s perspective. If there’s one quibble, it’s that the focus is almost entirely on middle and upper-class women (particularly the upper middle class), so if you’re hoping for a book that covers all of society (or the lives of Indian women), this isn’t necessarily the one for you.