Behind the Book
by Julia Gregson
Four years ago, in a remote house in Wales, I came across a box of tape recordings made by a childhood heroine of mine, Mrs. Smith Pearse. I was five when we met. She was sixty. She and her husband had recently returned to England after fifteen years in India.
I loved everything about her: the battered tweeds, the honking laugh, the wonderful stories about India: the snakes under the bath, the tiger hunts with Maharajahs, the three day treks on ponies up to Simla. I dressed up in tiny silk saris, spice-scented tunics and salwar kameeze, produced like magic from her mother of pearl trunk.
Superficially a classic Memsahib, she’d gone to India, aged eighteen, as a member of ‘The Fishing Fleet’ - the slightly derogatory name given to the girls who went east in search of husbands.
In my novel East of the Sun, I try to imagine the terror and the thrill young girls would feel being sent half way across the world, often unchaperoned, to find a husband; to imagine the madcap speed with which some of them married; to think about the humiliation of failing and being shipped back home a ‘Returned Empty’. I was determined not to make them the usual caricatures of the Memsahib - gin swilling, narrow-minded snobs. Some deserved our contempt; most didn’t.
The India that gave such pleasure took in equal measure. My childhood heroine spoke on the tapes of the agony of missing children sent home to be educated.
“It was the biggest decision we all had to make: husband or child.” Passionately fond of nursing- she’d served in France in 1917- in India, she was only allowed to run a few village clinics- working Memsahibs were frowned on. Other women of the Raj spoke to me of botched births in remote areas, of burying young children, of flies and heat and snakes, of runaway or workaholic husbands, of terrible homesickness.
East of the Sun is my raised glass to these women: to their friendships, their naiveté, to the men they loved, to the work they did, and for the price they paid in loving India.