The Simple Adventures of a Memsahib by Sara Jeannette Duncan ~ 1893. This edition: Tecumseh Press, 2002. Softcover. Facsimile edition, with Introduction by Thomas E. Tausky. ISBN: 0-919662-13-7. 311 pages.
My rating: 9/10. Sara Jeannette Duncan’s work remains extremely readable more than a century after the publication of this book. A writer of depth, clarity, wry humour, and a strong sense of irony which never degenerates into sarcasm.
I was recently introduced to turn-of-the-century Canadian writer Sara Jeannette Duncan, and I was most favourably impressed:
So much so that when I came upon this facsimile edition of her 1893 novel, The Simple Adventures of a Memsahib, I quite eagerly snapped it up. It did not disappoint.
The story, narrated by the omniscient Mrs. Macintyre, twenty-some-year resident of India, follows the evolution of young Helen Peachey from English rector’s daughter to wife of an Anglo-Indian clerk George Browne and fully fledged memsahib herself.
…As you probably know, one is not born a memsahib; the dignity is arrived at later, through circumstances, processes, and sometimes through foresight on the part of one’s mamma. It is not as easy to obtain as it used to be. Formerly it was a mere question of facilities for transportation, ans the whole matter was arranged, obviously and without criticism, by the operation of the law of supply… But that was fifty years ago. To-day Lower Bengal, in the cold weather, is gay with potential memsahibs in all degrees of attraction, in raiment fresh from Oxford Street, in high spirits, in excellent form for tennis, dancing, riding, and full of charmed appreciation of the “picturesqueness” of India.
Helen is spared the relative indignity of having to parade herself before the bachelors of British society in Calcutta and other Anglo-Indian centres of governance and commerce; Mr. Browne has become mildly infatuated with her while on his every-five-years’ leave in England, and she returns his affection. Their engagement is announced, and George returns to his work while Helen and her family busily occupy the next year preparing a trousseau and arranging for their eldest daughter to leave the fold for, if not forever, possibly for a very long time.
Helen quite eagerly embarks to travel to her future husband, and despite episodes of seasickness, enjoys to the full the voyage out and the tourist sights she sees in her travels. Arriving in Calcutta she is greeted by George with loving trepidation; the two are soon married and happily embark on their joint life as slowly upwardly mobile but presently financially challenged “young marrieds”.
We follow Helen through her introduction to both Anglo-Indian society, with all of its quirks and complications, and its complex class structure, and her introduction to the Indian servant and shopkeeper classes with whom she will have an ongoing working relationship.
Nothing goes as anticipated, and Helen and George have their share of domestic disasters, but their unshakeable good humour and very real affection for each other see them through the worst of their minor adventures.
Sara Jeannette Duncan was herself a developing memsahib of three years’ standing when she wrote this book, having married a young businessman in Calcutta, and the narrative is drawn from personal observation. The sights, sounds and smells of a crowded Indian city of the late 1800s are fully documented, as are the challenges of the British expatriates seeking to create an endurable habitat for themselves in this very foreign atmosphere.
Duncan is quite dismissive of the native inhabitants of the country both she and her heroine inhabit during the time period of this book, and her commentary seems frankly racist at times, redeemed only by the remembrance that she is writing from a very specific perspective coloured by the mores of her social class and limited experience. Occasionally Duncan, in the cynical and opinionated voice of her narrator, Mrs. Macintyre, comes out with commentary that shows us that this attitude is partly put on for fictional purposes, and that the author herself is fully aware of the stunningly obtuse attitude of many of the British occupiers of what remains, despite efforts to either ignore or change it, a very foreign land with a long history in which the British Raj is merely the latest episode, not to be taken too seriously though naturally to be adapted to and endured.
Thomas Tausky’s Introduction to this edition gives a much broader perspective of the true nature and variety of the often stereotyped memsahib population, pawns in many ways of the circumstances of their times. It was a nice addition to this publication of this vintage novel, which in this edition appears as a rather uneven facsimile copy, with text of varying degrees of clarity and very poorly reproduced illustrations.
Aside from its value as a firsthand account of a specific time, place and class of society, The Simple Adventures is an amusing and well-written story in its own right. Nothing terribly dramatic happens, but I found I was sincerely interested in the fictional Helen’s attempts to cope (usually successfully) with the challenges of her new life. An affectionate and sympathetically drawn portrait of a stereotyped character, with a continuous overlay of rather dry humour to keep the reader smiling gently, even though the subject matter is often quite tragic.
“Hamilton seedy?” inquired young Browne. “I saw him riding a fine beast the day before yesterday – he looked fairly fit. Hamilton’s a very knowing chap about horses, he’s promised to look after a pony for my wife.”
“You’ll have to get somebody else, I’m afraid.”
“Hamilton’s not —”
“Yes. Went to the funeral this morning. Fine chap. Awful pity. Cholera.”
Though the characters of this story, and the real people it is based on, were truly in occasional danger of losing their lives for numerous reasons relating to their unfamiliar climate, they appeared to have maintained an almost universally stoic demeanour towards the risks of their adopted homeland. Stiff upper lips, indeed, and more than a bit of self-demeaning humour.
An interesting narrative for a number of reasons. As I said earlier, very readable. I enjoyed it.