As the Kaisar-I-Hind weighs anchor for Bombay in the autumn of 1928, its passengers ponder their fate in a distant land. They are part of the “Fishing Fleet”—the name given to the legions of English women who sail to India each year in search of husbands, heedless of the life that awaits them. The inexperienced chaperone Viva Holloway has been entrusted to watch over three unsettling charges. There’s Rose, as beautiful as she is naïve, who plans to marry a cavalry officer she has met a mere handful of times. Her bridesmaid, Victoria, is hell-bent on losing her virginity en route before finding a husband of her own. And shadowing them all is the malevolent presence of a disturbed schoolboy named Guy Glover.
From the parties of the wealthy Bombay socialites to the poverty of Tamarind Street, from the sooty streets of London to the genteel conversation of the Bombay Yacht Club, East of the Sun takes us back to a world we hardly understand but yearn to know. This is a book that has it all: glorious detail, fascinating characters, and masterful storytelling.
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London, September 1928
Responsible young woman, twenty-eight years old, fond of children, with knowledge of India, will act as chaperone on Tilbury-to-Bombay run in return for half fare.
It seemed like a form of magic to Viva Holloway when, having paid three and six for her advertisement to appear in the latest issue of The Lady, she found herself five days later in the restaurant at Derry & Toms in London, waiting for her first client, a Mrs. Jonti Sowerby from Middle Wallop in Hampshire.
For the purposes of this interview, Viva wore not her usual mix of borrowed silks and jumble sale finds, but the gray tweed suit she loathed but had worn for temporary work as a typist. Her hair, thick and dark and inclined toward wildness, had been dampened and clenched back in a small bun.
She stepped into the genteel murmurings of the tearoom, where a pianist was playing a desultory tune. A small, bird-thin woman wearing an extraordinary blue hat (a kind of caged thing with a blue feather poking out of the back) stood up to greet her. By her side was a plump and silent girl who, to Viva's considerable amazement, Mrs. Sowerby introduced as her daughter Victoria.
Both of them were surrounded by a sea of packages. A cup of coffee was suggested but, disappointingly, no cake. Viva hadn't eaten since breakfast and there was a delicious-looking walnut cake, along with some scones, under the glass dome on the counter.
"She looks awfully young," Mrs. Sowerby immediately complained to her daughter, as if Viva wasn't there.
"Mummy," protested Victoria in a strangled voice and, when the girl turned to look at her, Viva noticed she had wonderful eyes: huge and an unusual dark blue color almost like cornflowers. I'm sorry, I can't help this, they were signaling.
"Well, I'm sorry, darling, but she does." Mrs. Sowerby had pursed her lips under her startling hat. "Oh dear, this is such a muddle."
In a tight voice she, at last, addressed Viva, explaining that Victoria was shortly to go to India to be a bridesmaid for her best friend Rose, who was, and here a certain show-off drawl entered Mrs. Sowerby's voice, "about to be married to a Captain Jack Chandler of the Third Cavalry at St. Thomas's Cathedral in Bombay."
The chaperone they had engaged, a Mrs. Moylett, had done a last-minute bunk something about a sudden engagement to an older man.
Viva had set down her cup and composed her features in what she felt to be a responsible look; she'd sensed a certain desperation in the woman's eyes, a desire to have the matter speedily resolved.
"I know Bombay quite well," she'd said, which was true up to a point: she'd passed through that city in her mother's arms at the age of eighteen months, and then again aged five where she'd eaten an ice cream on the beach, and for the last time at the age of ten, never to return again. "Victoria will be in good hands."
The girl turned to Viva with a hopeful look. "You can call me Tor if you like," she said. "All my friends do."
When the waiter appeared again, Mrs. Sowerby began to make a fuss about having a tisane rather than a "normal English tea."
"I'm half French, you see," she explained to Viva in a pouty way as if this excused everything.
While she was looking for something in her little crocodile bag, the daughter turned to Viva and rolled her eyes. This time she mouthed "Sorry," then she smiled and crossed her fingers.
"Do you know anything about cabin trunks?" Mrs. Sowerby bared her teeth into a small compact. "That was something else Mrs. Moylett promised to help us with."
And by a miracle Viva did: the week before she'd been scouring the front pages of the Pioneer for possible jobs, and one Tailor Ram had placed a huge advertisement for them.
She looked steadily at Mrs. Sowerby. "The Viceroy is excellent," she said. "It has a steel underpinning under its canvas drawers. You can get them at the Army and Navy Store. I can't remember the exact price but I think it's around twenty-five shillings."
There was a small commotion in the restaurant, the clink of cutlery momentarily suspended. An attractive older woman wearing faded tweeds and a serviceable hat had arrived; she was smiling as she walked toward them.
"It's Mrs. Wetherby." Tor stood up, beaming, and hugged the older woman.
"Do sit down." She patted the chair beside her. "Mummy and I are having thrilling talks about jods and pith helmets."
"That's right, Victoria," Mrs. Sowerby said, "make quite sure the whole restaurant hears our business." She turned to Viva. "Mrs. Wetherby is the mother of Rose. The one who is going to be married in India to Captain Chandler. She's a quite exceptionally beautiful girl."
"I can't wait for you to meet her." Tor was suddenly radiant with happiness. "She is so much fun, and so perfect, everybody falls in love with her I've known her since she was a baby, we went to school together, we rode ponies..."
Viva felt a familiar pang what a wonderful thing to have a friend who'd known you since you were a baby.
"Victoria," her mother reproved. The blue feather poised above her eyebrow made her look like a slightly miffed bird. "I'm not sure we need to tell Miss Holloway all this yet. We haven't quite decided. Where is darling Rose by the way?"
"At the doctor's." Mrs. Wetherby looked embarrassed. "You know..." She sipped her coffee and gave Mrs. Sowerby a significant look. "But we had the most exciting morning before I dropped her off," Mrs. Wetherby continued smoothly. "We bought dresses and tennis rackets, and I'm meeting Rose again in an hour at Beauchamp Place she's being fitted for her trousseau. The poor girl will be absolutely dead tonight; I don't think I've ever bought so many clothes in one day. Now, who is this charming young person?"
Viva was introduced to Mrs. Wetherby as "a professional chaperone." Mrs. Wetherby, who had a sweet smile, put her hand in Viva's and said it was lovely to meet her.
"I've done the interview," Mrs. Sowerby said to Mrs. Wetherby. "She knows India like the back of her hand, and she's cleared up the trunk business she says the Viceroy is the only one."
"The girls are very sensible," said Mrs. Wetherby anxiously. "It's just quite comforting to have someone to keep an eye on things."
"But I'm afraid we can only offer you fifty pounds for both girls," said Mrs. Sowerby, "and not a penny more."
Viva literally heard Tor stop breathing; she saw her mouth twist in childish apprehension, big eyes trained on her while she waited.
She did some quick sums in her head. The single fare from London to Bombay was around eighty pounds. She had one hundred and twenty pounds saved and would need some spending money when she arrived.
"That sounds very reasonable," she said smoothly, as if this was something she did every day.
Tor exhaled noisily. "Thank God!" she said. "Oh, what bliss!"
Viva shook hands all round and left the restaurant with a new spring in her step; this was going to be a piece of cake: the gawky one with the blue eyes and the mad-looking mother was so clearly desperate to go; her friend, Rose, was about to be married and had no choice.
Her next stop was the Army and Navy Hotel to talk to a woman named Mrs. Bannister about another prospective client: a schoolboy whose parents lived in Assam. She scrabbled in her handbag to check the piece of paper. The boy's name was Guy Glover.
And now she was sitting with Mrs. Bannister, who turned out to be an irritable, nervy-looking person with buck teeth. Around forty, Viva estimated, although she wasn't good at guessing the age of old people. Mrs. Bannister ordered them both a lukewarm cup of tea with no biscuits or cake.
Mrs. Bannister said she would come to the point quickly because she had a three-thirty train to catch back to Shrewsbury. Her brother, a tea planter in Assam, and his wife, Gwen, were "slightly on the horns of a dilemma." Their son, Guy, an only child, had been asked to leave his school rather suddenly. He was sixteen years old.
"He's been quite a difficult boy, but I'm told he's very, very kind underneath it all," his aunt assured Viva. "He's been at St. Christopher's for ten years now without going back to India. For various reasons I don't have time to explain to you we haven't been able to see him as much as we'd like to, but his parents feel he'll thrive better in India after all. If you can take him, they're quite prepared to pay your full fare."
Viva felt her face flush with jubilation. If her whole fare was paid, and she had the fifty pounds coming from Mrs. Sowerby, she could buy herself a little breathing space in India, thank God for that. It didn't even cross her mind at that moment to inquire why a boy of that age couldn't travel by himself, or indeed, why his parents, the Glovers, didn't come home to collect him themselves.
"Is there anything else you'd like to know about me, references and so forth?" she asked instead.
"No," said Mrs. Bannister. "Oh well, maybe yes, you should give us a reference, I suppose. Do you have people in London?"
"My present employer is a writer, a Mrs. Driver." Viva scribbled down the address quickly for Mrs. Bannister, who, fiddling with her handbag and trying to catch the waitress's eye, seemed half in flight. "She lives opposite the Natural History Museum."
"I'll also send you a map of Guy's school and your first payment," said Mrs. Bannister. "And thank you so much for doing this." She produced all her rather overwhelming teeth at once.
But what had most struck Viva, watching the back of Mrs. Bannister's raincoat flapping in her haste to enter her taxi, was how shockingly easy it was to tell people lies, particularly when it was what they wanted to hear. For she was not twenty-eight, she was only twenty-five, and as for knowing India, she'd only played there innocently as a child, before what had happened. She knew it about as well as she knew the far side of the moon. Copyright © 2008 by Julia Gregson
"She seems all right, doesn't she?" Mrs. Sowerby said to Mrs. Wetherby after Viva had gone. "She's very good-looking," she added, as if this decided everything, "if you discount that appalling suit. Honestly, Englishwomen and their clothes." She made a strange hood of her upper lip when she said the word "clothes," but for once Tor couldn't be bothered to react.
How balloon they had a chaperone, phase two of the plan had fallen neatly into place. Her mother's pantomime of careful consideration might have fooled the others, but it hadn't fooled her. They'd fought so bitterly that summer that a hairy ape could have applied for the job and her mother would have said "He's perfect," so desperate was she to see Tor gone.
And now, the excitement was almost more than she could bear. The tickets had come that morning, and they were leaving in two weeks. Two weeks! They had a whole day ahead of them in London in which to buy clothes and other necessities from a thrilling list that their Bombay hostess had provided.
Her mother, who normally had all kinds of rules about things for instance, only lemon and water on Tuesdays, and no cake on Wednesday, and saying "bing" before you went into a room because it made your mouth a pretty shape had relaxed them, even to the extent of allowing her walnut cake at Derry & Toms. And now she knew she was definitely going, all the other things that normally drove her completely mad about Mother the way she went all French and pouty as soon as she got to a city; the embarrassing hats; her overpowering scent (Guerlain's Shalimar); not to mention the other rules about men, and conversation seemed almost bearable, because soon she'd be gone, gone, gone, hopefully never to return, and the worst year of her life would be over.
After coffee, Mrs. Wetherby flew off to pick up Rose at the doctor's.
Tor's mother was sipping a hot water and lemon no tisane had been found she had her silver pencil and notebook out with the clothes list inside.
"Now jods. Jodhpurs. You'll probably go hunting in India." It seemed to Tor that her mother was speaking louder than usual, as if hoping the people at the next table would know that, for once, they were the exciting people.
"Ci Ci says it's too stupid to buy them in London; she knows a man in Bombay who'll run them up for pennies."
Ci Ci Mallinson was a distant cousin of her mother's and would be Tor's hostess when she arrived in Bombay. She had also heroically agreed to organize Rose's wedding without ever having met her. Her letters, written on thrilling brittle writing paper in a slashing hand, spoke of constant parties, gymkhanas, days at the races, with the occasional grand ball at the governor's.
"Such a good idea," she'd written in her last about a recent ball at a place called the Bombay Yacht Club. "All the decent young Englishmen are rounded up, and the girls spend ten minutes with each of them and then get moved on great fun and usually quite long enough to know if one can get on." Before she'd signed off she'd warned, "People out here really do try to keep up, so be sure to send out a couple of issues of Vogue with the girls, and if it's not too much of a bore, one of those divine silk tea roses mine was munched upcountry by a horde of hungry bog ants!"
"Quinine," her mother was ticking away furiously, "face cream, darling, don't forget, please. I know I nag about unimportant things, but there really is nothing more ageing and you are already quite brown." This was true; Tor had her ancestors' smooth olive-brown skin. "Eyebrow tweezers, darling, I am going to take off your own caterpillars before you go." Eyebrows were an obsession of her mother. "Evening dresses, a camp stool oh, for goodness's sake! I think that's too Dr. Livingstone...I'm going to strike that and..." she lowered her voice, "she says you'll need packets and packets of you-know-whats. They're wildly expensive there and I "
"Mummy!" Tor frowned at her and moved away; any moment now she felt her mother would blight her beautiful morning by talking about "Dolly's hammocks," her code for sanitary towels. "Mummy," Tor leaned across the table, "please don't cross out the camp stool. It sounds so exciting."
"Oh, how pretty you look when you smile." Her mother's face suddenly collapsed. "If only you'd smile more."
In the silence that followed, Tor sensed a series of complicated and painful thoughts taking place under her mother's hat; some of them she was all too familiar with: had Tor smiled more, for instance, or looked more like Rose, all the expense of sending her to India might have been saved; if she'd eaten less cake; drunk more water and lemon on Tuesdays; acted more French. Her mother seemed always to be adding her up like this and coming to the conclusion she was a huge disappointment.
But now, how strange, an actual tear was cutting a channel through the loose powder on her mother's face and had lodged in her lipstick.
"Hold my hand, darling," she said. When she took a deep sobbing breath, Tor couldn't help it, she moved her chair away. Her mother in this mood seemed horribly raw and human, and there was nothing she could do about it. It was too late; the harm had already been done.
It was impossible to find a taxi that day, and even though they weren't normally bus people, an hour or so later Tor was on top of an omnibus, looking down on drops of rain drying on the tops of dusty trees in St. James's Park. The bus swept down Piccadilly toward Swan & Edgar, and Tor, feeling the perfumed bones of her mother sitting so unusually close to her, was surprised to feel another stab of sorrow.
This felt so exactly like the kind of outing a happy mother and daughter might have had, if she hadn't been so difficult; a father left at home with a plate of sandwiches, the "girls" up in town for the day.
From the top of the bus she could see the vast bowl of London spreading out to the horizon: splendid shops with mannequins in the window, interesting people already a much bigger world.
Bars of sunlight fell across her mother's face as she leaned to look out of the window. The blue feather in her hat wiggled like a live thing.
"Darling, do look!" she said. "There's the Ritz oh God, I've missed London," she breathed. And all the way down Piccadilly she pointed out what she called "some smart waterholes" (when Mother got excited her English let her down), places she and Daddy had eaten in when they had money, before Tor was born: Capriati's, the In and Out "dreadful chef " the Café Royal.
Tor heard a couple of shopgirls behind them titter and repeat, "dreadful chef."
But for once, she told herself she didn't give a damn she was going to India in two weeks' time. When you're smiling, When you're smiling, The whole world smiles with you.
"Darling," her mother pinched her, "don't hum in public, it's dreadfully common."
They'd arrived at the riding department at Swan & Edgar. Her mother, who prided herself on knowing the key assistants, asked for the services of a Madame Duval, a widow, she explained to Tor, who'd fallen on hard times and whom she remembered from the old days.
"We're looking for some decent summer jods," her mother had drawled unnecessarily to the doorman on the ground floor, "for the tailors in Bombay to copy."
Upstairs, Tor mentally rolled her eyes as Madame Duval, removing pins from her mouth, complimented Mrs. Sowerby on how girlish and slim she still looked. She watched her mother dimple and pass on her famous much-repeated advice about lemon juice and tiny portions. Tor had been forced to follow this starvation diet herself, all through the season, when her mother had only agreed to buy her dresses in a size too small so as to blackmail her into thinness. Sometimes she thought her mother wanted to slim her out of existence altogether: their fiercest row they'd almost come to blows was when her mother had found her one night, after another disastrous party where nobody had asked her to dance, wolfing down half a loaf of white bread and jam in the summer house.
That was the night when her mother, who could be mean in several languages, had introduced her to the German word Kummerspeck for the kind of fat that settles on people who use food to buck themselves up. "It means sad fat," she'd said, "and it describes you now."
"Right now I've got the larger size." Jolly Madame Duval had returned with a flapping pair of jods. "These might fit. Are we off to some gymkhanas this summer?"
"No," Tor's mother as usual answered for her. "She's off to India, aren't you, Victoria?"
"Yes." She was gazing over their heads at her reflection in the mirror. I'm huge, she was thinking, and fat.
"How lovely, India!" Madame Duval beamed at her mother. "Quite an adventure. Lucky girl!"
Her mother had decided to be fun. "Yes, it's très amusant," she told her. "When these girls go out they call them the Fishing Club because there are so many handsome young men out there."
"No, Mother," corrected Tor, "they call us the Fishing Fleet."
Her mother ignored her. "And the ones who can't find men there," her mother gave Tor a naughty look with a hint of challenge in it, "are called returned empties."
"Oh, that's not very nice," said Madame Duval, and then not too convincingly, "but that won't happen to your Victoria."
"Um..." Tor's mother made the little pout she always made when she checked her face in the mirror. She adjusted her hat. "Let's hope not." I hate you, Mother. For one brief and terrible moment Tor imagined herself sticking a pin so hard into her mother that she made her scream out loud. I absolutely loathe you, she thought. And I'm never coming home again. Copyright © 2008 by Julia Gregson
Reading Group Guide
This reading group guide for East of the Sun includes discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Julia Gregson. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
Questions for Discussion
1. Viva’s decision to return to India is a complicated one. What does she expect to discover? What life does she want to create for herself? How does that change over the course of the novel?
2. The notion of home is an important theme in the novel. Contrast the homes that the girls leave behind with the ones that they create. Viva and Tor thrive in the foreign setting and relative freedom of India, while Rose’s new life is tinged with nostalgia. What constitutes home for each? Discuss the thrills and perils of being a young woman in the Fishing Fleet, leaving home for the unknown.
3. The author frequently uses rich, colorful imagery to describe the exotic sights of India. How do the sensual descriptions of India contrast with those of England? How do the descriptions and images of daily life differ?
4. Rose and Tor have no education and little information to prepare them for relationships with men. In what ways does this sexual innocence harm them? What cultural or antiquated attitudes contribute to the gap between what’s expected of them and what’s shared with them?
5. Ci Ci Mallinson and Daisy Barker each act as guides, though of very different sorts. What type of woman, and type of influence, does each represent? Why is Bombay so inhospitable to independent women like Daisy? Why is the sort of independence that Daisy possesses and inspiring work that she does so essential to Viva?
6. Tor and Viva are polar opposites when it comes to romance; Tor throws herself into love too easily, while Viva always holds herself back. Consider the past experiences that explain their behavior and the new experiences that change it.
7. In what ways does working with the children at Tamarind provide Viva with a new purpose? What does she learn from them and how does she reexamine her own life as a result?
8. Guy is a malevolent force in Viva’s life, a cause of fear and distress and, ultimately, danger. But his actions also precipitate many pivotal moments in her relationship with Frank. Discuss how Guy is both a negative and a positive force in Viva’s life.
9. Did you feel sympathy for Guy, as Viva did? Why does she continue to take pity on him despite all that he does?
10. Toby tells Viva that “the English are neurotically private.” (page 486) Discuss the ways that Rose and Viva live up to that description. How does their reserve complicate their friendships and relationships? What is the significance of the fact that Rose is “a soldier’s daughter”(page 244)?
11. The unrest in India and the growing resentment of the British rumbles in the background for most of the novel, and many of the characters seem unwilling to acknowledge it. How would you characterize the attitude of the British toward the country? In what ways does the author convey the precariousness of their position in India?
12. References to birds appear throughout the novel, and the author sometimes compares the women to birds; for example, she writes “their plumage is quite varied.” (page 42) What do these analogies convey about the women? About the setting?
13. When Viva tells Frank about her mother, he asks, “Don’t you think most people make their parents up?” Do you agree with him? How did the made-up story of her parents’ deaths shape Viva’s life?
Enhance Your Book Club
1. Invite your reading group to learn more about the women of the Fishing Fleet and hear Julia Gregson discuss her research for the novel in this BBC interview: http://www.bbc.co.uk/radio4/womanshour/02/2008_42_fri.shtml
2. As you discuss the characters’ experiences in India, experience a little bit of India yourself. Serve Indian food and drinks from a local restaurant or try your hand at making it with recipes from www.indianfoodforever.com.
3. What was Bombay like in the 1920s when the characters arrived? Look for books on India at your local library or print out photos such as those at http://oldphotosbombay.blogspot.com/ which displays historical images of Bombay.
A Conversation with Julia Gregson
How did you come to write the story of three women in the Fishing Fleet? The novel captures three characters and three distinct points of view. Did you base them on real women?
I have always been fascinated by India. When I was a child, our family rented the top floor apartment of a large and freezing country house in Hampshire that belonged to a woman called Mrs. Smith-Pearse. She’d gone to India, aged eighteen, as a member of the Fishing Fleet, married there, stayed for close to thirty years, and had only recently returned to England. I was five when we first met; she was sixty. I loved everything about her: her battered tweeds, her honking laugh, her wonderful stories about snakes under the bath, tiger hunts with maharajahs, the three-day treks on ponies up to Simla. I followed her around like a shadow, and sometimes she’d let me dress up in tiny silk saris, spice-scented tunics and salwar kameeze, produced like magic from her mother-of-pearl trunk. Four years ago, I was lucky enough to get my hands on a box of tape recordings she’d made when she was very old. It was then I realized how hard her life had been in India, too.
My other influence was my husband’s mother, Violet, another Fishing Fleeter, who’d had the time of her life in India and who missed it for the rest of her life. Both these women fired my imagination, but none of the characters in East of the Sun are exactly based on them. My aim was to bring to life take three very different young women and imagine the terror and the excitement they would feel at being sent halfway across the world, often unchaperoned, to find husbands. I wanted to show the madcap speed with which some of them married, to think about the humiliation of failing and being shipped back home a “Returned Empty.” As a marriage market, the system left a lot to be desired.
Rose and Tor arrive in India with everything they’ll need for parties and social events, but little practical information. Building marriages and lives must have been difficult, especially in unfamiliar territory. Based on your research, what do you think were the biggest challenges that faced women arriving in India? How did they overcome them?
For young girls, the immediate challenge—rarely stated or acknowledged—was to find a man. To do this, one had to meet the right people, to go to parties and polo matches, to fit in with a very small, enclosed, and sometimes frightened group of people. Lots of fun on the surface, but the rules of engagement were clear: you had to conform, to look good, to dress well, and not to say anything that might frighten the horses. Bluestockings and eccentrics were not well tolerated. India itself was another challenge. Some women fell in love at first sight, others hated it: the stinks, the poverty, the heat, the feeling of being cut off from Europe.
Marriage brought a new set of problems, and the realization that the India that could give such pleasure took in equal measure. My childhood heroine, Mrs. Smith-Pearse, spoke on the tapes of the agony of sending 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 with distinction in France in 1917—in India, she was allowed only 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. All of this made me determined in East of the Sun not to make my female characters into the usual caricatures of the memsahib—ginswilling, narrow-minded snobs. Some were magnificent; some deserved our contempt; most didn’t.
Your descriptions of Indian cities and riding the trains feel vivid and authentic. Did you travel to all the places you described?
I’d been to Bangladesh as a foreign correspondent after the war there in 1973 to do a series of stories on orphanages and to interview women who had been raped after the war. My description of the orphanage at Tamarind Street in East of the Sun drew on these experiences.
While I was writing the book, I went back to India twice: once to Rajasthan and Shimla with my husband and daughter, and once on my own to Bombay. I love this kind of travel, with all your antennae out. I went up to Poona to see the polo fields, the ghostly old Raj houses where the British had lived, and to the military hospital where my husband was born.
The India you describe was at a turning point, and the novel is set against a backdrop of unrest and resentment of the British. Was it difficult to capture the intimacy of these women’s lives and also the sweep of the historical events?
I thought very carefully about this. I spent months reading about the history of India at that time and then (maddening!) had to discard most of my research because my girls were very young and often entirely oblivious to the great changes going on around then. In order to be authentic, historical events had to be glimpsed at—a sudden glare from a native; an unwelcome protest on one’s way to a party; a bore at the club going on about unrest. It would have been out of character for them to discuss politics in any depth or with any great understanding.
What happened to women like your characters as the Indian-British relationship shifted? Were the women who had been part of the Fishing Fleet able to maintain the same lifestyle?
At midnight, on August 15, 1947, India became an independent nation.
Although many members of the Raj had started to see the writing on the wall during the ’30s and ’40s, for others going home must have been a terrible shock. Most of them had been living above their means in India, a comparatively luxurious life impossible to replicate in the United Kingdom on small pensions and without servants. Some went to Spain, attracted by a better climate and a lower cost of living; others had to make do in an England worn out by war and suffering the worst winter of the century.
Most of the maternal relationships in the novel are distant or absent, and there’s very little communication between the generations. Was this the cultural norm or a conscious choice for women at the time? Looking back now, what impact do you think this had on mothers and children?
It was the cultural norm when children reached the age of five or six to send them home to boarding schools in England. Many parents, who’d been sent home themselves, believed that if their children stayed with them in India, they might catch some awful disease, or be spoiled by their nannies, or pick up what were called chi chi accents—the singsong voices that their ayahs spoke to them in.
This system, although accepted, caused a great deal of inarticulate suffering on both sides. Boarding schools were tough places: boys were beaten, rooms generally unheated, and holidays, where you were farmed out to relatives or friends, often joyless and tricky.
After years apart, relationships between parents and children were often fractured, formal, and at arm’s length. One of the few positive things you could say about this system was that it did make children very self-sufficient, and that, occasionally, if they didn’t like their parents to start with, they found families they preferred in England.
Daisy Barker, Viva, and the enterprising women like them offer a surprising contrast to the high society of Bombay. Was it common for women to teach and live independently? Would you tell us a little more about Indian women, like Viva’s neighbors, who were choosing education and a more liberated path at this time?
Women like Daisy Barker and Viva and others who went out as social workers, teachers, nannies, and secretaries were in the minority in India in 1928. Most middle-class English women of that era didn’t have careers or professional qualifications or go to university.
One woman put it to me like this: “We had no keys, darling: no keys to a house, or a car, or a job, or an education.”
As for Indian women of that time, although most were illiterate, in cosmopolitan cities like Bombay, among the professional and upper classes, a small but determined feminist movement was growing, and women like my characters Dolly and Kaniz were starting to be trained as teachers, lawyers, and social workers.
The novel offers a wonderful portrait of female friendship and how it can sustain us. Was it important to you to display what a powerful force friendship can be in women’s lives? Why do you think this topic, though not unfamiliar, has such eternal appeal to readers?
While I was writing this book and trying to pull together its various strands, I had a moment of truth when I realized that it was about friendship. I thought about how much we need our friends, not just for laughs and what-the-hell days (all of which I absolutely approve of ), but to see us as we are and to understand our dreams. These are the friends who encourage and bully us to move from one stage of life to another. And of course, when you were in India, and thousands of miles away from home and family, friends were even more crucially important.
Would you describe your writing process? How long did you spend working on this novel?
The novel took me two and a half years to write, but I was also doing some teaching and short story writing in between in order to make a living.
My husband and I live in the country in Wales, in a very ancient farmhouse by a stream. We have a horse and two dogs, and bizarrely, they are all part of the writing process. It’s often while walking along the riverbank or taking my old Welsh horse for a ride that my mind is freed from shopping lists and plans and feels most connected with what it is I’m trying to say. But much as I love the idea of the muse striking, she’s famously unreliable. You do have to develop a sort of peasant-like doggedness and show up in your study each morning and get the stuff down. On bad days, I feel as if I am, to quote Graham Greene, “doing nothing badly.”
On good days, I feel incredibly lucky to be able to do work I love and to make a living out of it.