The lives of four ladies in British India. White woman's burden

Below the Peacock Fan: First Ladies of the Raj, by Marian Fowler. New York: Viking Penguin Inc. 337 pp. $19.95. KIPLING was only half right when he called the British Empire ``the White Man's Burden.'' It was the white woman's, too - and hers was weightier, for she had to carry her husband, as well.

In ``Below the Peacock Fan,'' Canada's prizewinning biographer Marian Fowler sets out to put the record straight, at least as far as India is concerned, taking the experiences of four First Ladies in the last half of the 19th century to tell a small part of the woman's story - the private view of heart and mind.

You don't have to care about empire or even India to be caught up in her account.

These poor ladies certainly had crushing loads to bear. Three were convinced they should be delicate, shy, caring only to please their husbands.

The standout, Emily Eden, proved the etiquette writers correct - at least in one respect. She never did catch a husband. But she didn't want to. She was satisfied with the love of her sister and brother. Bright, witty, informed, she enjoyed hobnobbing with politicians. But she, too, lay down her way of life to follow the male head of the household, her brother, to India.

Miss Fowler's second lady, Charlotte Canning, was a Victorian's delight. So good, so pretty, so obedient. A spell as a lady of the bedchamber to Queen Victoria left her well trained in abjectness (so Fowler claims, but I met a lady-in-waiting once and abject is the last word I would apply to her). Anyway, Charlotte went out to India ``prepared to suffer and look extremely elegant while doing so.''

The third lady, Edith Lytton, with her lovely pre-Raphaelite looks, thought she'd married her ideal, a poet. She hadn't - unless writing verse makes one a poet. Robert Lytton certainly looked the part. But he didn't want a wife, he wanted a mother to pamper him and plenty of mistresses to entertain him. He got his wish, and Edith assumed the task of countering all the gaffes he made as viceroy. ``To do so,'' writes Fowler, she had ``to repress her own natural warmth and rely more on convention.... This was Edith Lytton's generous gift to Robert, to British India, to Empire.''

Fowler's final example, Mary Leiter, the beautiful American heiress, the darling of London society, was snapped up by Lord Curzon - who was accurately (well, fairly accurately) lampooned in a college skit at Oxford: ``My name is George Nathaniel Curzon, I am a most superior person. My cheek is pink, my hair is sleek, I dine at Blenheim once a week.''

The American heiress became Lady Curzon, the second most prominent woman in the British Empire, the prop of her husband, settling for a role as cosseting wife to a workaholic at a time when her fellow-countrywomen were being touched by the emerging feminist movement. She added ``charm and grace'' to the vice-regency, but at a terrible cost. She endured the cruelest of separations suffered by so many memsahibs - her children were sent to England to be educated and she lost her own health.

All these ladies faced unpleasantness. Nothing in their how-to-behave books could prepare them for a totally alien culture; nothing had taught them to cope with corpses in the Ganges, bats and enormous insects in the toiletless palace. Worse was the cruelty practiced by both Indians and British and the soul-destroying effect of opulence and decadence in the midst of squalor and hunger. As for the temperature (over 100 degrees F.), it was almost more than these overdressed ladies could endure (Emily took six pairs of corsets to India). ``It's so very HOT I do not know how to spell it large enough,'' she wrote.

Charlotte Canning's defense was to make everything as English as possible. The country seat at Barrackpore was ``so marvelously ... improved by 450 yards of rose-chintz.''

But it was Emily, the independent one, who behaved the most uncharacteristically, accepting the role of a delicate woman, languishing and inert, fatalistic.

``I believe this whole country and our being here, and everything about it is a dream,'' she wrote. This ``inertia of the soul'' was ``a disease,'' Fowler says, ``which did more harm among British women in India than any physical disability.''

It was about a year before Emily recovered. By then she was beginning to enjoy the society of some of the Indian princes and to exercise her talent for watercolors. Less exalted Indians were the subject of her ridicule, the butt of her jokes. This kind of half-glamorizing, half-despising India could come from too much rather than too little sensitivity. Many of the memsahibs needed such a defense against what was incomprehensible and therefore frightening.

After all, what English man or woman could understand the Great Mutiny, for instance? To the British ``the most frightful thing of all'' was that it was ``beyond reason and beyond form. There was no agreement among leaders, no concerted plan or premeditated plotting.''

By writing about her chosen women, Fowler can show us the history of the decline of British rule in India through their eyes - ``slightly to one side.'' One hates to carp after enjoying such an excellently written and scholarly book, but why, when she lists the legacies the Raj left in India, does she leave out the English language? Surely it belongs along with the ``legacy of democratic and legal institutions, a neat grid of train tracks and canals, and some larger-than-life statues, crumbling around the edges, of its august Viceroys.''

Pamela Marsh is a free-lance book reviewer.

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