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.