BELOW THE PEACOCK FAN: First Ladies of the Raj by Marian Fowler

BELOW THE PEACOCK FAN: First Ladies of the Raj

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Engaging, fully developed close-ups of four Victorian women who adapted to the frontier conditions and increasingly arrogant Raj of 19th-century india. Readers who enjoyed A Passage to India and The Jewel in the Crown will find that some of this territory is familiar--tensions arising from British rule, the varieties of Indian experience; but this focuses on First Ladies (one sister and three wives of the Governor-General or Viceroy), and Fowler uses their journals and letters home, as well as other eyewitness documentation, to reconstruct their sojourns in elaborate, sometimes arresting detail. Arriving in 1836, Emily Eden expected to find a lush, romantic scene; instead she observed that the climate and insects conspired to destroy everything and the cost of Empire was high: unlike the other three, she would connect the ideal of commercial gain to the economic misery outside. Twenty years later, Charlotte Canning would devote herself to good works and the consolations of convention: continuing to paint while rebellions spread across the country, she was nevertheless revered among the British as a model of self-sacrifice, dignity, and charm. Edith Lytton managed to counter-balance her husband's image as ""The Great Ornamental"" with her own more substantial one; warm and responsive, she serenely participated in his tinsel extravaganza for Queen Victoria at which even the British were dismayed by his prodigality and some of the native guests ate the Pears soap. Mary Curzon, an American heiress married to a man whose words were ""a size too big for his thoughts,"" arrived with a wardrobe of Worth dresses and a thirst for pageantry; within a few years she was burned out by the demands of her position, by illness and extremes of weather, yet her more serious work--establishing a midwifery fund for Indian women--did endure. Fowler observes these observers with insight and a ready wit, quoting selectively, noting contrasts, following important issues through the 69-year period. Her impressive work is both entertaining and well researched.

Pub Date: Nov. 6th, 1987
Publisher: Viking