In 1858 the entire landmass of India came under direct control of the British crown. To reflect the status and role of the Governor General as representation of the monarch to the feudal rulers of the princely states the term viceroy and governor general of India was applied. His consort was accordingly elevated to vicereine.
From the first Charlotte canning through to the ultimate vicereine Edwina Mountbatten this is the biographical history of the invisible empresses illustrating what is was to occupy the most powerful position accessible to a woman in the age of the British Empire in India.
Penny Beaumont retired from the Texas A&S university system in 2003 where she had served as the system first female vice chancellor she currently serves as president of the board of directors for the foundation of women.
Roger A. Beaumont professor of history Texas A&M University has specialized in the study of command and control and of special operations and elite units.
While some vicereines’ lives have been described at length by biographers and historians, they have not been surveyed as a whole. In studies of the Indian viceroyalty, aside from Charlotte Canning, Mary Curzon, Edith Lytton and Edwina Mountbatten, most vicereines have received a few paragraphs or incidental mention, with sparse reference to their charitable work, or involvement in the dynamics of the viceroyalty. Little is to be found in biographies of the viceroys, several of whom had long and distinguished careers of which their time in India was but one episode. Of those several vicereines wrote about their lives in India, perhaps most outstanding of those efforts, Hariot Dufferin’s Our Viceregal Life in India reveals her deep fascination with India’s people and culture, and eagerness to learn more and record her experience. Early drafts of Mary Minto’s India, Minto and Morley, written to highlight her husband’s role in framing the Morley-Minto reforms of 1909, display a sparkle and texture which were substantially blunted in editing. Yvonne Fitzroy’s diary of her service as secretary to Lady Reading offers insights into viceroyalty in the 1920s, including the prejudices and social slights endured by a Jewish viceroy and his wife. But none provide a comprehensive look at these “imperial divas” and the evolution of the role of the viceroy’s wife through the 90 years of the Raj.
The diaries and oral histories of women who had spent years in India reflect extreme views they held of their experience either as the most horrific or the most exhilarating and exciting of their lives or both. Virtually none were ambivalent. Some left India regretfully, savouring an independence of mind and liberating experiences gained there as they returned to a world in which their talents would be far less appreciated, and where they would enjoy far less freedom than they did on the ramparts of empire. Others left joy fully, never looking back, delighted to leave the misery that being in India was for so many women. And a few realised only long afterward how much India “had seeped into their bones.
Most vicereines’ unpublished diaries, journals, and correspondence provide details of their experience, as do some of their husbands’ papers, both public and private, or letters written home from India. While each viewed India from a unique perspective, some common themes are visible. The vicereines were all at once fascinated by the exotic environment of the East, filled with palaces and bejewelled princes and maharajahs, horrified by the glimpses of the “real” India and its pervasive eroticism, and confused by the unique blend of violence, poverty, ugliness, gross wealth, and sublime beauty. How their views of all that changed during their tour of duty is a common thread of their stor5c Despite the luxury of dwelling in palatial residences in Calcutta, Simla, and later Delhi, like other Englishwomen in India, vicereines dealt with sometimes appalling heat and humidity, intrusions by insects and animals, spoiled food, warm beverages, and such trivial but cumulatively wearing things as the decay of treasured books, clothing, and shoes. They often left children and elderly parents in England, and until the extension of the cable system, learned of deaths and illnesses only weeks or months after they occurred. And all of them saw death come close, often, and sometimes instantly, and without warning, from disease or terrorism, living with the fear, based on certain knowledge, that they, like the first vicereine, Charlotte Canning, or many loved ones or friends, might not live to return home.
Beyond all that, the public activities of the vicereines, as women at a particular time in history, reflected values and norms that shaped and constrained both British and Anglo Indian upper class society. Although greatly sheltered from Indian poverty, kept at a distance from the rich texture of myriad subcultures, and cramped by British social pressures aimed at assuring “appropriate” behaviour, all vicereines found India a life-changing experience and none left the subcontinent unaffected. For many, their post-Indian lives provided an interesting coda to their experiences in South Asia. Some continued their social activism in Britain, others moved on to more comfortable diplomatic posts, while a few simply slipped back into their “normal” lives as gentry in the countryside. As a whole, the stories of the vicereines, as facets of the dusky diamond that was British India, are worth the telling.
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