None of us today needs to know how to cope with bumble-foot in geese, or just how many flannel skirts to take to a new posting in India or Burma.
But anyone wanting a picture of what life was really like for the wives of the men who ran the Raj in the second half of the 19th century might find this book of household advice fascinating – not to mention anyone thinking a woman with so many servants must have had an easy time of it.
Flora Steel and Grace Gardiner wrote their book in the 1880s to help the inexperienced young women arriving in India as wives of, mostly, members of the Indian Civil Service. While their husbands ran the Raj, they were expected to run the entire house-hold, which included horses and cows, sweepers, grooms and punkah-wallahs who worked the fans.
In Britain they would, of course, have been of a class to have maybe four servants, but in India they might be responsible for 40 people – and of a very different kind.
Except for the ayah who would personally attend the mistress of the house and maybe her children, all the servants were male, with a strong sense of hierarchy and – according to these authors – almost no sense of hygiene.
In her scathing comments on the persistent link between dirt and Indian customs, we might think Steel sounds racist. But Indian women warmed to her, and when, after a later stint as an inspector of schools, she left, 300 of them turned out at the station to wish her goodbye.
The authors’ advice yields intriguing insights. They give remedies for all the ailments the horses might develop, say blankets should be given to grooms lest they keep warm by borrowing them off the horses and suggest a basket be kept for all bits of paper found, so that when important documents are inadvertently blown away by the punkahs, there they will be. Lettuce, they insist, should not be washed nor eaten the day it is picked, and the silver must be counted every evening.
They instruct that no woman should buy a dress without thinking: ‘How would that lovely costume look folded up with camphor in an air-tight tin box?'; that moving from one station to another will require no fewer than 11 camels; and that ‘an unreasonable but absolutely effective cure’ for hiccups is to grip the right ear with the left forefinger and thumb, bringing the elbow as far across the chest as possible. I must try it.
Some of the recipes might be worth trying, too, but a good deal of the advice reads almost like a management manual.
The wives are told to let the cook do his own shopping in the market so that he can’t blame a dreadful dish on bad ingredients; women are praised for learning Hindustani – ‘They would not dream of spending years in France or Germany without at least trying to learn the language’ – as are those who make a point of complimenting the cook on a good dish; and a wet-nurse must be allowed to see her friends and ‘not be treated as an animated bottle’.
The challenges which this book makes one thankful none of us are likely to face include setting off to remote areas with a fleet of cows from whose milk butter can be made instead of getting tinned butter from England, and when in camp even dressing for dinner; choosing between sweltering on the plains or leaving your husband for months by moving to the hills; and facing that other difficult choice between sending your children ‘home’ to be looked after in Britain (as Flora Steel did) or worrying incessantly that they might catch cholera or malaria.
I think I could manage, though, to follow the stern instructions about soup: ‘Keep the lid tight. Do not boil. Do not strain through a duster.’