By Dr R Balashankar
Invisible Empress of the Raj: Unraveling the Lives of the Vicereines of India, Penny and Roger Beaumont, Jaico Publishing House, Pp 388 (PB), Rs 395
The wives of the British viceroys who ruled India, the Vicereines, one would imagine, must have lived here a life of utter comfort and luxury, unimaginable to them in their own native country. And yet, the truth, according to authors Penny and Roger Beaumont is that, most of them were miserable when they were in India, separated from children and parents, and surrounded by people whose lifestyle and customs bewildered them.
In an absorbing book Invisible Empress of the Raj: Unraveling the Lives of the Vicereines of India, Penny and Roger write about the women who were one of the most powerful persons in British Raj by virtue of the official positions of their husbands. Some Vicereines slipped into the role with stoicism, some even getting to enjoy the stay here, along with the pomp and splendour that went with it. But for several women it was harrowing time, as revealed by the diary entries kept by them. But no one gave a comprehensive look at the lives of the Vicereines through the 90 years of the Raj.
“Most vicereines’ unpublished diaries, journals, and correspondence provide details of their experience… While each viewed India from a unique perspective, some common themes are visible” the authors say. Some of the common points are that they were all at once fascinated by the exotic environment, filled with palaces and bejewelled princes and maharajahs, “horrified by the glimpses of the “real” India and its pervasive eroticism, and confused by the unique blend of violence, poverty, ugliness, gross wealth, and sublime beauty.”
Most British officers’ wives who came with their husbands to India left their children behind, separated by months of travel and weeks of communication. Till the telephones came, which was rather late during Raj, the only mode of communication was letters. Sometimes, they learnt of the death of their dear ones months later. Letters from children asking ‘when will you come home mummy,’ added emotional stress to these women who had to maintain social stiff upper lip and could not open their heart to anyone. Added to it was the heat and rain they were not used to, the tropical insects and diseases that claimed lives. As Lady Lytton (Edith) put it while leaving India that she was “looking forward eagerly to a life with “no flies, no glare, and no biting things.”
Penny Beaumont retired from Texas A&M University and is presently president of the Board of Directors for the Foundation of Women, and Roger Beaumont is Professor of History, Texas A&M University. The book is interesting as it reveals the mind of reaction of the women who played a significant role in the British Raj. Very few of them till now have been discussed, with exceptions like Edwina Mountbatten, because of her proximity with Nehru. A highly readable book.
(Jaico Publishing House, A-2 Jash Chambers, 7-A Sir Phirozshah Mehta Road, Fort, Mumbai – 400 001,)