Book Review: The Fishing Fleet

cover of The Fishing Fleet showing women riding elephantThe Fishing Fleet: Husband-Hunting in the Raj may be nonfiction catnip for historical romance readers and fans of Victorian and Edwardian history. This book details the lives of women who travelled to India from England in hopes of finding a husband. The book spans about 1750 to 1940, but most of it involves Victorian and Edwardian Era marriages. It is mostly told in the third person but has a lot of quotes and excerpts from letters in which women speak for themselves.

Women who married British government and military officials during the British Occupation (the Raj) were expected to be intelligent but not too intelligent, virtuous, dedicated to upholding a British way of life, and extremely self-reliant. Women experienced a weird mix of a whirl of parties during social seasons (one woman danced “twenty-six nights in a row”) and stultifying boredom and loneliness the rest of the time. They needed to be prepared to deal with rabid dogs, rats, snakes and insects. They also needed to be ready to choose between going with their children when the children were sent to school in England, or sending the children to school alone and staying in India with their husbands.

This book is worth looking at for the descriptions of clothing. Never have I read so many lavish descriptions of outfits that were so terribly suited to climate and condition. For a long time, both men and women were supposed to wear a “cholera belt” which was a thick layer of flannel wrapped around the belly – so in addition to petticoats and stays and an actual dress, they were also wearing at least one flannel undergarment. It is not surprising that women typically spent the hottest part of the day lying on a bed in their petticoats trying not to cook themselves to death. Here are some descriptions of nighttime outfits:

1896: “She had a new dress for it, blue satin, with spangled net on the bodice and she was instructed by the dressmaker that to suit the new fashions she should wear her hair in a little bundle on her head, with a rose or small comb as ornament – only married women could wear whole coronets of flowers. Her sister Christian wore white satin trimmed with white violets.”

1929: “My new blue bathing suit is the most decent thing ever – a one-piece garment but it has kicks underneath.”

1932: “I had about a dozen evening dresses. My favorite was a gorgeous gold color one with a cowl neck that was backless – you couldn’t wear a bra but one was very firm in those days. Backless was very fashionable then.”

Other things of note: young women often gathered up their skirts in their hands and rode bicycles to dinner, sports were all the rage among men despite frequent injuries, and people often married very quickly, sometimes right after arrival. The stories of proposals are often delightful. One woman met a man in India, but he was deemed by her mother to be too young to marry (military men weren’t supposed to marry until they turned thirty). The woman went back to England and got a call from the young man six years later (they had been writing but hadn’t seen each other during the six year interval). He asked her to marry him over the phone and she said, “Certainly I will!”

On a less delightful but certainly fascinating note are tales of disease and skin ailments and lassitude brought on by the heat and by frequent illnesses. One woman survived malaria, smallpox, and the bubonic plague (she didn’t actually catch it but avoided catching it despite living through an epidemic). This same woman had two children, one of whom was delivered by a gynecologist and the other by a veterinarian (both turned out fine). Life in India was often extremely difficult for married women who had no occupation to pursue, were not encouraged or often allowed to make friends with Indian women, and were tasked with maintaining a British lifestyle in a hostile climate.

My biggest criticism of The Fishing Fleet is that it does not provide a rigorous critique of nor context about the British Empire. No Indian viewpoints are expressed and there are no major Indian characters with the exceptions of a woman who is part English and part Indian. The book is entirely about the viewpoint of the British, and British women in particular, who were very much encouraged to have minimal interaction with Indian people other than servants.

The problem with the tight focus of the book is twofold. In practical terms, it’s confusing. There’s very little information regarding how the British came to rule India, or what happened during their rule. This book covers the mid-1700s to the 1940s – almost two hundred years. Yet almost no historical events are noted. The only changes in women’s lives are clothing styles. With more context, this might be an interesting contrast to historical upheaval and a commentary on how tightly bound these women were. With no or minimal context, it loses all meaning. The implication is that nothing happened in India during all this time, which is untrue.

This leads us to the second problem, which is that the lack of context, critique, and Indian voices presents an image of the Indian people as passive and unimportant – not only to the British women profiled in this book but to history at large. I’m not an expert on the history of India, but even a few minutes of online research indicates that Indians were far from passive during British Occupation.

One way to keep the book focused on British women and their daily lives would have been to delve more deeply into the lives of the British women’s servants. Not only would this have reminded the reader that Indian women (and men) also had important lives, but it would have provided more insight into the running of the households. The book might also have provided a look at the daily lives of Indian women in villages and in cities, which would not only have been more inclusive but would also have provided a helpful contrast and comparison to the lives of British women. As it is, the book perpetrates the idea that only stories about white wealthy people matter.

I felt that this book was half of a very good book. What it offered was fascinating – a look at the lives of women who are barely known about today, with everyday details and a touch of scandal and glamour mixed with raw survival. However, because the focus was so tight, the book felt half-finished. I was left with a lot of questions about Indian history and culture, and a lot of frustration about the omission of Indian voices.

I may also have been left with an intense desire to go on an adventure, marry impetuously, and buy some new clothes. Just not a cholera belt, because, I’m sorry, but those are just silly.

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Between the Lines Book Club: Behind the Beautiful Forevers

between the lines book club logoThis month’s book club pick is Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity by Katherine Boo. You can participate in book club by leaving comments after any book club post, or by meeting in person at Arden Dimick Library in Sacramento, California. Our next meeting will be on September 24, 2016 at 10:30AM.

Behind the Beautiful Forevers  is a non-fiction book about a slum (Annawadi) on the edge of Mumbai, India. The author, Katherine Boo, is an American woman who lived in Mumbai with her Indian husband for several years. She spent over three years following the lives of Annawadi’s residents. By keeping the focus on the lives of specific characters, she gives the book the feeling of a novel with the rigor of a peice of journalism.

Next week I’ll be providing links to some interviews with Katherine Boo. In the meantine, I have reading to do!

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History’s Hidden Heroes: Nilakantha Somayaji

illustration of children holding hands around the worldThe first step in educating yourself is to admit ignorance – and I am woefully, horribly ignorant.  This was made abundantly clear to me today when I was googling stuff and came across the name, “Nilakantha Somayaji, Indian Astronomer”.

It was then that I realized that, although if pressed I would probably assume that there must have been astronomers in India’s extremely lengthy history, I could not name a single one.  This is embarrassing.  However, I hate to waste a good case of embarrassment when I can turn it to a greater good, so watch for this blog’s new monthly feature on scientists and others who were been neglected by my Californian high school text-book.  I’m calling this feature “History’s Hidden Heroes”, but I’m aware that just because a person’s history isn’t well-known in the United States doesn’t mean it’s not well-known elsewhere.  It’s been hidden from me, specifically, and I want to un-hide it.

So, who was Nilakantha Somayaji?  He was born on this date, in 1444, and he seems to have lived about a hundred years – impressive!  He was a mathematician and astronomer of the Kerala School of Mathematics and Astronomy.  As the name suggests, this school was located in Kerala, India, and was at its greatest between the 14th and 16th centuries.  Nilakantha Somayaji wrote a treatise on astronomy called Tantrasamgraha.  This treatise also contains many of his mathematical equations.  A more detailed description of the contents of Tantrasamgraha can be found at this article by J.J. O’Connor and E.F. Robertson.

As a layperson and as someone who is math-phobic, it’s difficult for me to grasp or sum up the work that Nilakantha Somayaji was doing, but I think I can safely describe him as having done considerable work towards deepening understanding of how the solar system was organized and how it moved.  He also made significant contributions to algebra, geometry, and calculus.  Certainly his life shows us what amazing intellectual work was being done in India during his lifetime.

Who shall we talk about next month?  Got a favorite hidden hero?

Review: The Drowning Girl, by Caitlin R. Kiernan

Cover of Drowning girlMy Nebula Review Series continues with The Drowning Girl, by Caitlín R. Kiernan.

The Drowning Girl is certainly not a romance, and yet within its pages a quite touching romance unfolds, almost without the reader noticing it.  The overall tone is one of menace and confusion and dread, but the resolution involves healing and love, and healing because of love (and a lot of therapy and medication and art and research – there’s nothing trite about the story).

The plot is hard to describe because a lot of the story is ambiguous.  India, also known as Imp, is a writer and painter who is living with schizophrenia.  She is able to control her symptoms with a complicated regimen of medications and therapy.  One night Imp sees a naked woman walking down the side of the road, and she picks her up and takes her home.  This woman’s name is Eva, and she becomes an object of obsession for Imp.

As Imp goes on and off and on her meds, she doubts her own perceptions of what is happening.  In one version of her story, Eva comes to her in July, and her function is that of a siren.  In another, Eva arrives in November, and her function is that of a wolf.  How many Evas there are, and whether they are mermaid or wolf, and what they want from Imp, are mysteries Imp struggles to solve as she wrestles with her mental illness.

The two most important technical components of this book are voice and imagery.  Imp is the book’s narrator.  Listen to this incredible passage, from a period when Imp is deeply obsessed with Eva and has stopped taking her medication:

All our thoughts are mustard seeds.  Oh, many days now.  Many days.  Many days of mustard seeds.  India Phelps, daughter of madwomen, granddaughter, who doesn’t want to say a word and ergo can’t stop talking.  Here is a sad, sad tale, woebegone story of the girl who stopped for two strangers who would not, could not stop for me.  She, she who is me, and I creep around the edges of my own life afraid to screw off the mayonnaise lid and spill the mustard seeds.

And here’s a more lucid passage, in which she talks about the fairy tale Little Red Riding Hood:

 Anyway, even with the happy ending, the story terrified me.  For one thing, I never pictured the wolf as a real wolf, but as something that walked upright on two legs, and looked a lot more like a man than a wolf.  So I suppose I saw it as a werewolf.  When I was older, and saw a National Geographic documentary, I realized that the way I’d seen the wolf, in my mind’s eye, made the story truer, because men are much more dangerous than wolves.  Especially if you’re a wolf, or a little girl.

I read Drowning because it’s nominated for a Nebula Award for best novel.  I expected something dark and scary, not anything romantic.  So it was a delightful surprise to find that the love affair between India and Abalyn is quite beautiful and vital to the rest of the story.  Abalyn is Imp’s lover and roommate.  In a story in which characters are always changing their identity, Abalyn is the only character who seems completely sure of who she is.  Abalyn is a male to female transsexual, and despite the altering of her physical form, she is very clear that she didn’t “change her sex” – she was always female.  Abalyn is also Imp’s link to the rest of the world and her tether to sanity.  Even though the focus is on other things, I grew to adore Abalyn, and her relationship with Imp is what allows Imp to move through the obsession with Eva and heal.

I recommend Drowning Girl to anyone who has an interest in revisionist fairy tales, in psychological horror, or in books with a strong narrative voice and an unreliable narrator.  It’s prose was lovely and horrifying, and although neither I nor imp is completely sure of what happened, it’s nice to know that love, as well as a very good therapist, helped things get to some sort of a happy ending.