I love to read histories and memoirs about life in British India so as soon I as heard that The Fishing Fleet by Anne de Courcy was coming out, I rushed to place a library hold. And as soon as it arrived at my library branch, I picked it up and read it. I thought a book about the women who went husband-hunting in the Raj by de Courcy, whose previous books I had enjoyed so much, would be a delightful one to spend an afternoon with. And in many ways it was. It just wasn’t quite as good as I had hoped it would be.
De Courcy looks at the women who went to India looking for husbands during the time of the British Raj, from the mid-19th Century to 1947. She does an excellent job of explaining why they were needed and what motivated them to come but fails to provide any real detail on how the women experienced and (hopefully) adjusted to life there. The book is a composite of intriguing accounts culled from the letters, diaries, and memoirs of the women of the Fishing Fleet but there is very little attempt to tie the different accounts together. Individually they were fascinating. Combined they were a bit of a mess, albeit a well-written and, with a number of photographs included, well-illustrated one.
De Courcy’s explanations of the norms of Anglo-Indian society were useful, though (like most topics in this book) much more ably covered in Margaret MacMillan’s superlative Women of the Raj. She points out that most British men in India were there in service to some master or another – government or military – and were not generally allowed to marry until they were around thirty, by which point they were in a hurry to find a mate after years of loneliness. She reminds readers that the British in India were decidedly middle-class (the wealthy having no need to make their fortunes in India and the poor serving no purpose in a land where servants were easy to come by) and that social conventions were rigidly observed and generally more strict that at “Home”. She does do a particularly excellent job of describing the bureaucratic process by which Indian wives and mixed-race children were, over some years, stigmatized (having been the norm through the 17th and 18th Centuries), thereby guiding British men to seek British wives. And she also very ably explains why British women would risk coming all the way to India in order to find a spouse. Middle-class men left Britain to make their fortunes in the outposts of the empire but, in doing so, left a female population sadly short of potential husbands. In Victorian England, when marriage was the most desirable ambition for a woman, this created a problem:
From 1851 to 1911 approximately one in three of all women aged twenty-five to thirty-five was unmarried; and between fifteen and 19 per cent of women aged thirty-five to forty-five were unmarried.
The focus is on the hunt for a husband rather than the marriage that follows and for me that was the main problem with this book. Girl arrives off ship, finds herself with a three-to-one male-female ratio and, generally without too much fuss, finds herself besieged by suitors. It all happened very quickly:
Getting engaged in the Raj was sometimes a bit like speed dating. Often, minds were made up and a lifelong commitment to another human being promised after only a few meetings and without the aphrodisiac bait of great wealth, a large and splendid estate, or huge personal prestige to account for such rapidity.
To me, what would be fascinating is to know what happens after those hasty marriages. How did the new brides adjust to their husbands and their new, frequently remote, surroundings? There are two chapters near the end devoted to “The First Home” and “Up Country” by they are brief and not particularly informative. Most of the accounts de Courcy shares end with the engagement or the marriage, the “happy ending”. (Only in one case are we told that the marriage was unhappy.)
Everything is dealt with very quickly and with very little depth. Chapters are short and jump from one topic to another, sometimes interspersed with a chapter devoted to one or another of the women. The topics are interesting but with chapters that never exceed twenty pages de Courcy never has the room to expand on any descriptions or themes. If possible, she used too many examples and never has time between different women’s stories to build up a detailed portrait of their experiences or to reflect on their significance to the country. When de Courcy poses that question in the epilogue, asking “Did the Fishing Fleet girls have any real influence on the conduct of affairs in this vast country…?” it was a shock to me since nowhere in the book had she spent time reflecting on that. Everything felt just a little too shallow.
It is a fun book to read because of the specific stories de Courcy shares from the women who went “fishing” but I think it could have been so much better