Wednesday, November 5, 2014

My latest novel, Sophie, in Shadow, set in 1914 India, required a daunting amount of research. Since a great deal has been written about India under the Raj, a broad picture of life in British India was not difficult to find. But what I also discovered -- in the memoirs of private citizens, and in histories like Margaret MacMillan’s Women of the Raj --  were fascinating, less often recorded details of everyday life.

When the ladies of the Raj  escaped from the sweltering plains to their rented houses in the hill stations, they transported not only clothing and supplies, but a good deal of household furniture. A list of basic necessities in The Complete Indian Housekeeper and Cook (1888) includes crockery and kitchen utensils, carpets, a chest of drawers, bed linen, iron cots, three boxes of books, ornaments ,coats for the servants, an iron bath, and a great deal else -- eleven camel loads in all. (Cited by Margaret MacMillan in Women of the Raj)

Simple Menus and Recipes for Camp, Home and Nursery by Lucy Carne
(1902) suggests a suitable breakfast in camp, while touring: kidney stew, pigeon potato pie and a curry. The Complete Indian Housekeeper and Cook  provides a list of garments in which a lady might  survive the heat: undergarments of silk or flannel, corsets buttoned to a petticoat and covered by a silk camisole, and then a light woolen tea gown. Optionally, a memsahib might add a flannel cummerbund and a cork spine-protector.

"Next to the Sikh soldier, the nattiest native in India is the postman, who is dressed in a blue uniform with a blue turban of cotton or silk cloth to match, and wears a nickel number over his forehead with the insignia of the postal service, and a girdle with a highly ornamental buckle… You can mail a letter to any part of Calcutta in the morning, and if your correspondent takes the trouble, he can reach you with a reply before dinner. " (Modern India by William Eleroy Curtis, 1905)

"The Fishing Fleet was by long-established custom made up of the highly eligible, beautiful daughters of wealthy people living in India. This was the only way in which they could come out under the protection of their parents, to meet eligible young men and marry. Those who failed returned to England in the spring and were known as the "Returned Empties. " (Plain Tales from the Raj , Charles Allen, Ed.)

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