BELOW THE PEACOCK FAN First Ladies of the Raj By Marian Fowler Viking. 337 pp. $19.95 TWO UNDER THE INDIAN SUN By Jon and Rumer Godden Macmillan. 199 pp. paperback, $4.95
FIRST ONE should study the four portraits that introduce the sections of Marian Fowler's handsome book. Watercolor, oil or photograph, each depicts a notable vicereine of the British Raj. Naturally they do not convery much of these ladies' lives -- this is left to the well-researched text. But the pictures evoke the distinct eras, styles and temperaments of their subjects, who otherwise had so much in common: aristocratic birth, a sense of noblesse oblige, stoic endurance, devotion to the British Empire, increasing isolation from Indian life, and above all a doting submissiveness to their difficult and autocratic consorts.
Emily Eden, from 1836-1842 first lady of India for her bachelor brother, the governor-general, is known here, if at all, as a minor novelist in the Austen tradition. The charming painting of this Regency Miss with beribboned curls, full sleeves and her spaniel Chance would make a fine frontispiece for Pride and Prejudice. But in fact Emily spent less of her life fanning herself between dances at Bath than being fanned with peacock feathers and punkahs in sweltering Calcutta.
Witty, sensible and artistic, she was initially charmed by the picturesque and amused by the grotesque, recording both in her sketches and sprightly letters home. But a two-year official progress north with its rigors of climate, disease, elephant-back travel and tent life, destroyed her health. And the trip shook her spirit as she compared the princes' dazzling palaces with the starving babies near Cawnpore. Then her brother's rash invasion of Afghanistan (to forestall supposed Russian incursions there) eventually resulted in a disastrous retreat: of 4,000 men who set out from Kabul only one survived. Lord Auckland's post was another casualty. Disillusioned, they returned to England, to his premature death and her invalidism and her novels. This pattern was quite typical.
Shown posed by a large potted plant, and elegant but somber with smooth dark hair, white snood and blouse, Charlotte Canning (1856-1861), was equally Victorian in her piety, benevolence and wifely devotion. Though childless and lonely she felt useful "chintzing" Government House in Calcutta, going to church and providing rest-cures for weary compatriots. After the horrors of the Sepoy Mutiny of 1857 and the hideous massacre of English women and children at Cawnpore, she supported her husband's moderate response that earned him the derisive nickname "Clemency" Canning.
The next year the queen proclaimed that henceforth the government -- rather than the East India Company -- would rule India, "so bright a jewel of her Crown," and ensure religious toleration. Lord Canning was thus made the first viceroy. But Charlotte succumbed to the fevers of India and died at 44 in Calcutta, to be logically apotheosized as the ideal memsahib, the Perfect Victorian Lady.
Edith Lytton, vicereine from 1876 to 1880, is portrayed in an early oil as a pre-Raphaelite demoiselle with long wavy hair. Cheerful and warm-hearted, she first relished the beauty of India, but gradually was forced to stiffen into a correct vicereine to balance the excesses of the viceroy.
MORE THAN the other consorts in this account Edith is almost obliterated by her flamboyant partner. Lord Lytton was a minor poet dandy, and philanderer whose major project was a costly and garish "Assemblage" to celebrate Queen Victoria's promotion to Empress of India in 1877 -- while famine swept the south. Later he "cajoled and hoodwinked" -- according to historian Denis Judd -- the British government into another rash invasion of Afghanistan (also from fear of Russia); it too was a disaster, and forced his resignation.
The last of these ladies, the beautiful rich American Mary Curzon (1898-1905), was photographed as well as painted characteristically in tiara, jewels and an elaborate gown which Fowler acidly calls the "supreme creation of her Vice-Reign and her life." While clearly least fond of Mary, Fowler is in fact critical of all of these vicereines, though not as much as of their callous, reckless or conceited husbands whose activities in retrospect seem so often waste or war, extravagance or aggression. Mary was a fit mate for the brilliant but despotic Lord Curzon; she gloried in her imperious husband, her title, the Empire, the adulation, her beauty and her clothes, all of which coalesced in yet another extravagant assembly, the grand Delhi Durbar of 1903 to celebrate King Edward's coronation. But then her health broke too, and within months after Curzon's arrogance caused his recall, Mary died at 36 in England.
Like Lady Canning, Mary Curzon was beatified by her husband and canonized by the imperialist press. Fowler's final assessment of her and of the other vicereines is significantly ambivalent. She concludes with a pro forma curtsy to the wit and wisdom of Emily, the calm and devotion of Charlotte the empathy and ardor of Emily, and the grace and drama of Mary. But with more feeling she invokes again the image of the peacock, a great symbol of India that is threaded through this narrative, and deplores its degradation as an ornamental design on Mary's emerald-studded ball gown, its debasement by the Raj. Despite these ladies' personal virtues and real sacrifices for their viceroys and Empire -- which are perhaps all that could be reasonably expected of them at that time -- one nonetheless shares the suggested sentiment that these were not enough. So it seems a shame Fowler did not complete the story with a fifth chapter on the last vicereine, Edwina, who helped Lord Mountbatten to dismantle the Raj and finally liberate India.
During the great Durbar, we are told, as Lady Curzon rode past on the largest elephant in the procession, she theatrically tossed kisses to her two young daughters. Their lives in India were certainly unlike those of the little girls of a steamship agent in Bengal a decade later. Rumer Godden and her sister Jon, both prolific novelists, in Two Under The Indian Sun offer a winsome picture of their childhood. In contrast to the viceregal world of Calcutta and Simla, and even more to the dark Dickensian corner of London from which they had come, the Godden girls found a lush beauty that made up for the miseries of climate and disease; exciting excursions on primitive boats and trains; and affectionate or at least watchful contact with natives of various castes and sects. This was an India that neither the Curzon children nor the vicereines nor even most viceroys ever experienced -- or wished to. But that was very much their loss, and probably it was India's too.
Audrey C. Foote is a critic and translator living in Washingon.