History Hoydens


Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

18 June 2007

A Taste of India

I recently toyed with the idea of writing a book set in Regency London featuring a British heroine who had lived in India for a time. Although I've shelved the project for now, I thought I'd share a few tidbits about India I learned while exploring the idea.

It's easy to find the major timeline of the British in India, but the details of social life were a bit more difficult to unearth. Here are a few of the facts I found interesting.


The United States, still called "the Colonies" by many of the British in the early 1800s, was considered a dangerous and uncivilized land. Middle class men seeking economic opportunities were far more likely to go to India. The British East India Company was a major commercial venture; young men in the British Army also found the pay for service in India higher than average, with a cost of living far lower than that found at home.

The trip from England to India lasted anywhere from two to six months, with travelers forced to wait in Cairo until there were enough people to go on as a group (for protection against marauders on the road). In 1830, ship service from Suez to Bombay was started. The best cabins on the way to India were on the north side of the ship, avoiding the constant glare of the sun; going back to Egypt, the reverse would be the better cabin. A round-trip voyage for the saavy traveler would be booked as "port out, starboard home" -- soon truncated to the acronym "posh."


Because the British were not a part of the Indian caste system, they were considered untouchable. The Indians would not shake the hands of the British or eat at the same table with them. British women were not permitted to volunteer or "mingle" with the native Indians. The ladies tried to cling to British tradition, making morning calls and the like. Dinner parties and even garden parties were extremely formal, with place cards for the guests and full evening dress considered de rigueur.

Many of the higher class Englishwomen lived in the "hill stations" (British military settlements). Because the houses were built far back from the road, a small box was placed at the end of the road for calling cards. A small sign was left near the box when a lady was "not at home" in order to save a visitor a long, pointless climb uphill to the main house.


Labor was cheap in India. European households had a minimum of ten servants, but the middle class employed over fifty servants, and the homes of officers and highly placed officials employed hundreds.

Cultural differences between Indian servants and their British employers made for a frustrating time for all. Because Muslim cooks would not handle pork, and Hindu cooks would not touch beef, hostesses were forced to either hire two cooks, or to serve only chicken and goat to avoid the issue altogether.

British women were in short supply in India, and nearly all of them were married. In contrast, most of the British men were single, or left wives and fiancés at home -- often for years at a time. Needless to say, many British men took local Indian women as mistresses. Although some of these women were "pensioned off" when the man's service in India was completed, many of them were simply abandoned.


Tensions grew between the Indians and the resident British through the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. In 1857, tensions exploded when the ruling Governor General (the Marquess of Dalhousie) ruled that any Indian state that was not under the command of a "legal" heir would become British property. The Indians revolted with violence, resulting in a wholesale slaughter of English troops and citizens, including women and children. The few Europeans who survived were taken prisoner by the local Indian authorities. The rebellion lasted from May through November, when English troops regained control of Delhi and ended the revolt.

This whole period of British "colonization" (as some would call it) fascinates me, yet I didn't find many first-person accounts of the lives of Englishwomen in India. I'd love to hear any other tidbits of research you might have on the topic.



Blogger Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

Wow, what an interesting post. I don't know of any first person accounts, but there is a book about the various Vicereines of India, including Mary Leiter Curzon, an American who married George Curzon. I find British colonial history in India fascinating and wish there more historical romances that featured that era. The Far Pavilions was one of my favorite books as a teenager.

6:12 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

White Mugals is a great book, with a ton of information about the Anglo-Indian children who were sent back to England. Many of them (the rich ones) fared rather well, esp in the 18th century, before the idea that they were somehow "lesser" for being of mixed race took hold. The list of prominent people who are descended from these families is quite large and often surprising (it even includes Lord Liverpool!).

8:47 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm only versed in Victorian India, but google books has a lot of books on India, Burma, Ceylon,etc (forgive me for using their colonized names). I have a plot set in 1890s Ceylon/Sri Lanka so I'm planning to read into the place later on this year.

9:10 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Fascinating, Diane! My mom and I wrote a book ("Dark Angel") with a half-Indian hero (son of a British soldier and an Indian woman) who had lived in India as a child. The book was set in 1813 when it was becoming more difficult for those of mixed race than it had been in the 18th century as Kalen mentions. Coincidentally, I just last night posted an update on my website were I talk about Regency-era books set in other parts of the world and then added a new letter to my Fraser Correspondence on the site, this one dealing with the debate in 1813 over the renewal of the East India Company's Charter (which I had orginally researched for another of my mom's and my books, "A Touch of Scandal").

9:56 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

You know, it just occurred to me that the hero of my second book, LORD SCANDAL, sort of fits this post. He's half Turkish (but raised in England). I didn't put a lot of emphasis on his Turkishness, because it wasn't that big a deal in the 18th century (to anyone except the heroine’s asshat of a brother, anyway). Maybe I’ll make him a wee bit more Turkish when I go through the copy edits . . . I just really wanted to avoid the cliché of the Anglo-Turkish pasha with his Arab robes and water pipe.

12:49 PM  
Blogger Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

Mary Jo Putney had a character in one of her books who was Anglo-Indian who married an Englishwoman. What I love about the the colonial period is you have this contrast between the sort of exoticism of an alien culture brushing up against the Imperialism of the British empire, and the conflicts that arise from it. I know that most children who were born in India were immediately sent as soon they were old enough to school in the UK, presumably to give them enough of an English education so that they could mix in polite society. Libba Bray's YA novels have a heroine who was brought up in India until her mother is killed.

1:04 PM  
Blogger Doreen DeSalvo said...

Thanks for the insightful comments. I'm glad I'm not the only person interested in this slice of British history. I did find accounts of those who went to live in the UK, but very little about the English women who lived in India during the Regency or even early Victorian years. I thought that was interesting because it seems like such an unusual thing -- I thought many of those women, uprooted from home, would have written letters home or kept journals.

Tracy, thanks for reminding me about the books with Regency connections. I had "Touch of Scandal" on my keeper shelf until just last month, when mold demolished it past any hope of readability. Do you think publishers were more open to unusual settings years ago than they are today?

Gigi, your book sounds fascinating. I often wonder about the Victorians who left home to go on expeditions around the world (from my own admittedly biased perspective, I can't help wondering if some of them were rebels looking for more cultural freedom than they found at home). I'd love to hear more.

Bliss to all,

1:17 PM  
Blogger Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...


If you are interested in reading about women of the Victorian age who left home, you might be interested in Gertrude Bell. Also, in the 18th century, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu traveled a great deal with her husband and left accounts of her travels. Also, Lady Jane Digby was quite the Regency rebel ending up living in the desert with her much younger Bedouin lover.

1:25 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

In one of those collections of intrepid women traveler books I remember reading a letter from one woman advising her sister to bring several pairs of stays, as once there you tended to sweat so much that the whale bones dissolved! Yuck. That’s a lot of sweat.

1:30 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Kalen, I really liked the half-Turkish character in "Lord Sin"--I'm excited that he's the hero of "Lord Scandal"!

Doreen, I think publishers were more open to a lot of things a few years ago than they are now. Although, Gaelen Foley's new trilogiy begins in Regency-era India and focuses on three siblings who grew up there so it can be done (I haven't read the books yet--only the first one's out--but they sound very ineresting). Btw, if you'd like a replacement copy of "A Touch of Scandal' send me an email.

1:58 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

I'm glad you liked him, Tracy. I'm pretty fond of him myself. LOL! He's based on my best friend in a lot of ways (half Turkish, half American, and an extreme sensualist, LOL!). It was easy to know how the guy would look. He’d look like Kamal and his brother!

3:30 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home

Free Web Site Counter
Kennedy Western University Online