How Lady Catherine of Downton Abbey depicts the life of Women in British India?
The setting of the series Downton Abbey takes place at Highclere Castle, the owners and residents are the Carnarvon family. The book , Lady Catherine, the Earl, and the Real Downton Abbey (Available on Amazon) authored by the 8th Countess of Carnarvon depicts the lives of the actual family who lived at Highclere Castle - the 6th Earl of Carnarvon and his Countess, the American-born, Catherine Wendell.
The Indian experience of Lady Catherine as described in the first Chapter of this book is an example of the lives of British women who went to live with their husbands in colonial India (1). The voyage of Mayflower from Plymouth to New England in 1620 marked the British colonization overseas.
However, few women were able to travel to the other parts where the British were ruling in the 17th and 18th Centuries. In India, where the East India Company was laying the foundations of the British Empire or the Raj, women were not allowed, since life was supposed to be dangerous with diseases such as malaria, typhoid and various other endemic illnesses. The climate was also hot and humid which the English women were not exposed to. By the nineteenth century, a myriad of men and women left the homes in their homeland and traveled to the exotic and the mystified country of India, where they tried to replicate their own society. The women led hidden lives, out of the history books, often supporting their husbands conquests and even cruelties, which in turn supported the British rule in India.
Every year, more and more British women came to India to live with their husbands; every single woman came to make marital alliance (marriage) with the administrators and officers of the "Raj". The English women of the colonial India were mere spectators of violence that accompanied the imperial power. They learned to cope with these circumstances as well as the harsh climate and endemic diseases; to ward off the boredom, they invented their own entertainment like games, balls and theatre.
According to the book The Incumberances British Women in India (2) by Joan Mickelson Gaughan, there were women like Fanny Parkes who relished India in her travel writing Wanderings of A Pilgrim in Search of the Picturesque , while there were too many other women who scorned the country they came to live in. The life in India placed new burdens in terms of moral values on British women of colonial period.
The result of British women assuming their new positions as moral guardians of British Raj was that the Indian women who were once the mistresses of British men were expelled to the background and the children of these illicit relationships were denied the status of their British fathers.
Colonial legislation also placed British above the law, despite their pledge of equality. British ruled the Empire in a way that led to a lot of atrocities which could have been fixed by the government. The deaths that could have been avoided, from violence, deprivation and avoidable famines in the British India is estimated to be 1.5 billion, which is out of history books and mainstream media.
The history of the British Era of one and a half century also offers the history of missionary work, building projects, and the establishment of hospitals by medical doctors of which women were part of, regarded as the positive outcomes of the East India company rule.
Unlike their rude male counterparts, the English women of India had to cope with unimaginable sufferings like the tragic loss of children to sudden illness or their separation in need of better education in Britain. The women faced challenges in raising children, maintaining relationships with the native populations, and much more. British women in India, while well rooted in the structures of colonialism, were victims of confinement of boredom and insecurity themselves.
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1. Lady Catherine, the Earl, and the Real Downton Abbey by the 8th Countess of Carnarvon, Broadway Books ISBN: 978-0385344968
2. Gaughan, J.M. The Incumberances: British Women in India, 1615-1856 Oxford University Press ISBN: 978-0198092148
Edited by: Rajesh Bihani ( Find me on Google+ )