The Fishing Fleet: Husband Hunting in the Raj
by Anne de Courcy
To know me is to know that I am somewhat obsessed with Victorian England. I picked up a copy of A Christmas Carol at age 7, was mesmerized by the imagery and language and characters, and never looked back.
Since then, I’ve worked my way through Dickens, Trollope, Thomas Hardy, Frances Hodgson Burnett, and Robert Louis Stevenson. I’ve dabbled with Elizabeth Gaskell and George MacDonald. On the American side, I devoured Louisa May Alcott because her books seemed such close kin to their British counterparts. I’ve also read my way through numerous non-fiction titles about the period, especially those focusing on Victorian domestic life and the lives of women.
So Anne de Courcy’s The Fishing Fleet: Husband Hunting in the Raj was a natural choice for my book list. It promised to cover my favorite topics – domesticity and women’s lives – and to fill a gap in my knowledge. While India and Empire had always loomed large in the background of the Victorian stories I read (especially Trollope’s and Burnett’s), I hadn’t read much that directly covered life under the Raj.
In the event, I learned much more than I expected. Though the book focuses primarily on the 1880s-1920s, when the Raj was at its peak, de Courcy covers marriage customs all the way from the late 1700s to Indian independence in the 1940s.
The book’s title refers to the late 19th- and early 20th-century custom of sending droves of young women to India to hunt for husbands. Empire had greatly reduced the stock of eligible young men at home: many had been killed in Empire-building wars, and still more had been sent to police and administer England’s holdings overseas. So pragmatic middle- and upper-class parents simply packed up their daughters and sent them where the men were.
The practice was oxymoronic. Young middle- and upper-class women were not educated or equipped to handle life on their own – a typical well-bred girl ended her academic education in her early teens and was not taught how to look after herself or earn a living. Yet these same girls were sent off on months-long (sometimes harrowing) sea voyages to an unfamiliar country, where the climate, local population, and simple circumstances of life presented tremendous obstacles to their physical and mental health.
These were young women who had been conditioned to be weak and dependent. Society told them they were always on the verge of hysterics, incapable of functioning without the guidance and protection of a father or husband. But they rose to the occasion with aplomb.
Many turned the trip into a grand adventure. Most did get married, but they were more likely to do so on their own terms. They handled disease, natural disaster, and encounters with wild animals with admirable presence of mind. While their husbands went off on campaigns for months at a time, they took household matters in hand and sometimes traveled thousands of miles through hostile landscapes with just a servant to assist them.
England’s rule of India was far from unblemished. But there is no denying the spirit of women who were bred to be shrinking violets, yet made themselves strong as oaks. The lives they made for themselves helped me realize that, sometimes, victory comes by degrees. A step outside the box is still a step – it doesn’t lose all value simply because it’s not a leap. And it’s inspiration to do what we can with the resources we have, both around us and within ourselves.
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