Staying On

A tea party in Calcutta, 1890
British Library Board/Bridgeman
A tea party in Calcutta, 1890

In The Lion and the Eagle (2018), Kathleen Burk’s recent book comparing the British and US imperial experiences, she notes that few American public servants chose to make their lives in their nation’s overseas possessions or client states. Most preferred to serve out their appointed terms in faraway places, then return thankfully home. Their British counterparts, by contrast, often remained for decades or even lifetimes in the colonies, and above all in India, “the jewel in the crown.”

In 1971 I made a film for BBC TV in Simla, the summer capital of the Raj, about a cluster of elderly English ladies who had “stayed on.” Their houses were full of chintz armchairs and faded sepia images of a long-vanished Albion, together with reverential portraits of our dear Queen. Yet they knew that their mustily remembered pasts and illusions would face shipwreck if they encountered the reality of late-twentieth-century Britain. Thus they lingered in the Himalayan foothills until death did them part.

The grandest of them, Mrs. Hermione Montague, who lived with an English companion and twenty-three dogs, spurned social contact with two sisters who occupied a modest house less than a mile away. Their father had been in trade, owning a store at the foot of the hills. He was thus classed, in Raj vernacular, as a “boxwallah”; he was not a “pukka sahib,” a proper gentleman.

Encounters with such people in various corners of the world imbued me with pity for the melancholy of the circumstances of many imperialists abroad, rather than envy of the grandeur that permitted William Hickey, for instance, an early-nineteenth-century lawyer in India, to boast a household of sixty-three servants, including eight men who waited at table, eight who worked in the stables, a coachman, three mowers, and four grooms. To us of the twenty-first century, there is a preposterousness about the manner in which a few tens of thousands of British soldiers and civilians lorded for three centuries over an ever-expanding mass of the subcontinent and its inhabitants.

In The British in India, David Gilmour seems of the same opinion as he examines the processes and processions of our forefathers and their families in India through the eras of the East India Company and the high Victorian Raj, followed by slow descent toward the messy mid-twentieth-century departure. Gilmour is the author of distinguished books that include a biography of Lord Curzon, a controversial viceroy, and The Ruling Caste, a study of India’s administrators during the Raj. The British in India is a companion volume of sorts, an exhaustive social history of the daily lives, manners, and mores of the men, women, and children who lived under the union flag in what we might characterize as Kipling country. He has studied their marriages, servants, eating and drinking habits,…

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