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The Fishing Fleet: Husband-Hunting in the…

The Fishing Fleet: Husband-Hunting in the Raj. Anne de Courcy (edition 2012)

by Anne De Courcy (Author)

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Title:The Fishing Fleet: Husband-Hunting in the Raj. Anne de Courcy
Authors:Anne De Courcy (Author)
Info:George Weidenfeld & Nicholson (2012), 352 pages
Collections:Your library

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The Fishing Fleet: Husband-Hunting in the Raj by Anne de Courcy


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Subtitle: Husband-hunting in the Raj

"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...."

Maintaining the British Empire was hard. The British men doing the work of the Raj were expected to remain unmarried until they were in their 30's. Since there was a shortage of eligible women in India, the government initiated a program in which it subsidized young women to induce them to travel to India to enjoy a social season in search of a husband. Even after the government stopped subsidizing the program, the young women ("the fishing fleet") continued to arrive each year in droves, all the way through to the independence of India and its partition. This book is a social history of the movement, through time, and it covers all facets of the phenomenon, from the voyage out, to the social whirl, to the engagements and marriages (and the few who returned to Britain unmarried) to the hard and lonely postings with their new husbands deep in the wilderness of the land still so strange and hostile to them.

The women had to put up with the horrible climate, many dangers (exotic tropical diseases, contaminated water, and poisonous snakes, for example), and had to deal with the stringent social protocols to which they were subject. de Courcy depicts their experiences through examining the lives of a few dozen of these women, ranging from the upper-echelons of society (the viceroy's daughter) to its lower-fringes (Anglo-Indian women). She relies on interviews, diaries, letters, and so forth in putting together their stories.

The social protocols were quite rigorous:

"The iron rule of precedence regulated social intercourse, from whom you called on to whom you sat next to at dinner. As the position of every official and military officer was detailed in a graded list known as the 'Warrant of Precedence,' published by the Government of India, it was possible not only to seat people according to seniority but for a new arrival to deduce everyone's place in the pecking order."

Many of these women were courageous and wiling to take risks, although I did not care for the several descriptions of tiger hunts, which seemed to me barbarous, but which seemed to be de riguer for a certain class of Brit in India. The women who married the men of the Raj also had to be prepared to send their children off to England to be educated at a very tender age, and to not see them for years at a time.

Although overall I enjoyed the book, I have some serious complaints about its execution. First, de Courcy organized the book by topic, rather than chronologically or by woman. So, for example, the first section covered the voyage out. The experiences of a number of women on the voyage out were discussed. Since the voyage out in the 19th century (pre-Suez canal) was quite different that voyages in the 1940's, this creates a bit of a mish-mash. (And this observation also applies for each of the other topics covered in the book.)

This method of organization resulted in frequent instances in which a particular woman might appear in one chapter, and then we hear nothing further of her for several further chapters, if she even reappears at all. Since there were so many women whose experiences were covered, I had difficulty keeping track of who was who, what time period they were from, who they married, their social position, and so on.

Another complaint I have about the book is that a great deal of it is repetitious and frivolous. There were long and detailed descriptions of the dresses the women wore to the balls on the ship out, what they wore to the social events they attended once they arrived in India, what they wore to be introduced to the Viceroy, etc. etc.
I got tired of hearing about all the laces, ribbons, silk flowers etc. adorning their frocks. In fact, I very nearly gave up on the book early on, but I am glad I carried on, since the book does cover many interesting and substantive issues. However, much of the repetition and frivolity could have been eliminated, and this would have been a better book.

I am giving this 3 stars because the subject was fascinating (I kept referring in my mind to Paul Scott's Raj Quartet). If I rated it on execution, it would have a lower rating by a fair amount.

3 stars ( )
1 vote arubabookwoman | Apr 23, 2018 |
"In India they would be besieged by suitors...richer, with more prospects than anyone they could meet in England"
By sally tarbox on 3 September 2017
Format: Kindle Edition
An eminently readable account of the young unmarried women who went out to India in the days of the Raj to find a husband. Where men massively outnumbered women, this could be a much easier proposition than back home, where the reverse was true.
Using memoirs of some of those women, the author takes different aspects of this world in each chapter. The journey out - seasickness, sometimes romance - then the backgrounds of some of those women: some were daughters of colonials, going home after years in a British school. Others were sent out to friends in the hope of marrying them off.

Life in India could be great fun: endless parties, an exotic culture, tiger hunts, male attention, but was also far more conservative, snobbish and constrained than in Britain: "If I were asked what struck me as the chief concern of English social life in India, I should answer 'to seek Precedence and ensure it.'" noted one woman. With their own 'royalty' of the viceroy, the author observes the difference between Britain (where women and working-class men were getting into Parliament) and India, where a viceroy HAD to be a man of a certain background. Socializing with the fabulously wealthy local maharajahs took place - but these 'natives' were not permitted to join the all-White clubs. And Anglo-Indians - born of (formerly sanctioned) marriages between white men and local women, were a race apart, colonial children forbidden to mix with them.

The author looks too at the hardships these women took on: primitive housing, the heat, disease, earthquakes, skirmishes - and the sad knowledge that any children born would have to be sent to Britain for education - to attend school in India meant they were regarded as 'domiciled' and of a lower social status.
Although the ethos was always of putting up with things, I wondered if all the stories were so resolutely 'jolly hockey sticks' as the accounts given. Were there no wives who fled their husband and the privations? They seemed a uniformly tough lot!

With b/w photos this is a very interesting read. ( )
1 vote starbox | Sep 3, 2017 |
If you enjoy a certain strain of British fiction, this provides some good history and background. Me, I got a little tired of all the privilege and focus on marriage.
  revliz | Jan 7, 2017 |
Wide ranging, informative and entertaining account of young ladies in search of a husband, during the time of the Raj: a veritable fishing fleet of tales. ( )
  DramMan | Jan 26, 2016 |
This book by the well-known biographer Anne de Courcy is an interesting by product of her much weightier book on the daughters of the Viceroy Lord Curzon. It's largely anecdotal and perhaps says nothing very new, but it's interesting to reflect on the individual stories of a generation of middle and upper class women whose lives were very different from those they might have had if they had stayed in Britain. Lots of original source material has been drawn upon, most of it admittedly from trhe latter days of the Raj in the first half of the 20th century but also some from the possibly more interesting 19th century. ( )
  ponsonby | May 11, 2015 |
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From the late 19th century, when the Raj was at its height, many of Britain's best and brightest young men went out to India to work as administrators, soldiers and businessmen. With the advent of steam travel and the opening of the Suez Canal, countless young women, suffering at the lack of eligible men in Britain, followed in their wake. This amorphous band was composed of daughters returning after their English education, girls invited to stay with married sisters or friends and yet others whose declared or undeclared goal was simply to find a husband. They were known as the Fishing Fleet and this book is their story, hitherto untold.… (more)

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