Katie Hickman on on her book about fearless memsahibs

Records show that the first Englishwomen to arrive in India did so in the mid-1600s. That’s at least 200 years before the East India Company’s rule started. In her eighth (and most recent) book, She-Merchants, Buccaneers and Gentlewomen, author Katie Hickman storifies the colourful lives of these women, drawing from the many accounts, diaries and letters they left behind.

This process — of reaching into history to give voice to women — isn’t new to Hickman. In the late ’90s, her book, Daughters of Britannia, delved into the life and times of British diplomat-wives overseas. Cut to the present, and Hickman, who grew up in a diplomatic family herself, recalls it was when she was working on Daughters... that she thought she might one day write its companion piece. This one would focus on the Indian context. “And finally, after more than 20 years, here it is,” she says.

Cluster of characters

The book is a culmination of an entire year’s worth of full-time research, drawing from the East India Company Records at the British Library in London. “There are said to be more than 10 miles of documents in the collection, so I sometimes did find myself suffering from ‘archive faintness’,” Hickman shares. “I decided that I needed to have a cut-off point, as otherwise, I would have been overwhelmed with material.”

And rightly so: the sheer number of characters in She-Merchants... can leave you reeling. Among the British women who travelled to India before the 1857 rebellion are “bakers, dressmakers, actresses, portrait painters, maids, shopkeepers, governesses, teachers, boarding house proprietors … even traders”. There’s Mrs Hudson, a cloth trader, for instance; Julia Maitland, the wife of a district judge in Rajahmundry who started a school and library for children; and Fanny Parkes, a traveller who made incisive observations on social politics. These are just a few examples that stand out, either for their innate spunk, or by virtue of not being sandwiched in a page filled with a crowd of other names.

In her introduction, Hickman starts off with the breathless feel of an adventure waiting to happen. “On a sultry midsummer night”, an English couple is to make its way off the coast of Lisbon, aboard the Raynha de Portugal, “a vessel bound for the East Indies”. Of the couple, we are told almost immediately that the lady, a Mrs Hickey, was in fact a notorious courtesan in England (“no better than a common prostitute”) who was masquerading as a woman of respectable society. But it wouldn’t be until the character sets sail for India that her true transformation started, writes the author.

Katie Hickman on her book about fearless memsahibs
 

First of their kind

That pace would’ve truly carried the book. Unfortunately, that’s just a teaser; we jump into other tales soon after, with Hickman perhaps straining with balancing characters and chronology. What is most likely to sustain interest into its 390 pages, however, is the very premise of the book, and how the writer’s enthusiasm comes through in almost every page and footnote.

“I wish I could properly describe to you how exciting it is to find these: bundles of frail, almost yellow, paper, the ink on them faded to sepia, giving off a very particular dusty ‘library’ smell every time you turn a page,” says Hickman, about her source material. “As you hold them in your hand, you realise that they were written almost 250 years ago, and you wonder who, if anyone, has read them in all that time.”

Through almost every chapter, she paints her characters almost like they’re the first explorers — that regardless of what sort of lifestyle they led or would lead thereafter, to travel to India was extremely dangerous for these women. At one point, she even compares the voyage then to current-day space travel. However, this approach also runs the risk of negating a whole population (of Indians) and their realities, as well as the increasing hostility towards the English that builds up over the couple of hundred years that her book spans.

That said, Hickman’s racy, character-driven approach to slices of history can find many takers. As she researches her next book on the pioneering women who travelled to the Wild West in the mid-nineteenth century, more serious books on anthropological history can stay on other shelves.

She-Merchants, Buccaneers & Gentlewomen by Katie Hickman, published by Hachette India, is priced at ₹699

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