This is not a plain tale from the Raj even though it is the journal of the wife of a British officer serving in India. The touch of the mem-sahib is inevitable since Honoria Lawrence was one; however, it remains a mere streak in an otherwise rich and complex personality and it is the individual who comes through strongly in the pages of the journal. She is a woman of many strands and if her husband was regarded as someone rather special then she has claims to the same regard in her own right.Honoria Lawrence did not come out on the ‘fishing fleet’ in search of a husband as did so many other memsahibs. Her marriage to Henry Lawrence was the culmination of a nine-year courtship carried out over a long distance. Being obviously an intelligent woman, she understood her husband’s work rather more fully than did many of her contemporaries.
Scattered in the journal therefore are references to the revenue system and administration of British India which were the immediate official concerns of her husband and of the family. She describes the British Indian government as ‘the head landlord of the soil’, in conformity with current views on land ownership in India. She quotes with approval passages from Charles Metcalfe in which Indian villages are described as little republics. She shows some concern at the possibility of a change in the Charter of the East India Company which might affect the service conditions of officers such as her husband. She makes an opposite comment on changes at Haileybury College and the consequent recruitment to the Indian Civil Service when she writes with great clarity, ‘Formerly a civil employment was a ripe apple plucked and laid on your plate. Now the fruit will be left on a high bough where numbers will be invited to strive for it’. These comments read like asides to the historian more familiar with official documents and provide a vignette on reactions behind the scenes.
A woman of considerable courage she had no qualms in often travelling alone taking the children with her and accompanied by an entourage of servants. Such travels when her husband went on in advance took her through frontier areas on the edge of British administration. There is a full description of the journey she takes by boat with the children along the Sutlej for three weeks upto Ferozpore, the river being then; the boundary between British India and the Punjab. This was the period of the ‘adventurers’, European soldiers of fortune working for a local court or maintaining their own supply of mercenary soldiers. She comes across the American, Harlan, who had served in the courts of Rangoon, Lahore and Kabul, all to great profit. George Thomas who was virtually the uncrowned king of the Indo-Gangetic watershed was succeeded by his son, Tamas Sahib, in this area, who provided safe conduct to Honoria Lawrence. Her sense of security in the Indian environment is particularly noticeable when compared to accounts of the later half of the nineteenth century when fear had entered firmly into the relationship with India.
One of the most startling discoveries from such a journal is the nomadic character of the life led by early nineteenth century administrators. Admittedly Henry Lawrence was exceptional in that he was often given the task of initiating new areas into or towards British administration. But clearly many months each year were spent by such families in tents, in palkis and on horseback. The romanticizing of such an existence must have helped make it more palatable. Honoria Lawrence’s description of one of her tents as double-poled, spacious, fitted with glass doors and covered with warm carpets does conjure up a vision of the better moments of life in the East as seen through western eyes. Doubtless, the fatigue apart, it was this feeling of acting the potentate which must have kept up the spirits of these roving families.
Inevitably the education of the children caused concern in such conditions and equally inevitably many were sent back to England to live in boarding schools or with families. Honoria’s mood when the first of her children had to follow this routine is beautifully captured in her journal. For the children who remained behind learning was largely dependent on parental effort. Detailed timetables were worked out and lengthy resolutions formed, but these were rarely adhered to. The exigencies of camping by a sand dune left little energy for memorizing Greek.
The selections included in this book from the voluminous journals of Honoria Lawrence suggest a sensitively put together volume. It covers a wide geographical span, the Lawrences having worked and moved, from Calcutta upto the Punjab and later into Kashmir and Nepal. Honoria Lawrence’s perception into all that she saw and experienced is perhaps the major attraction of the journal. In some ways she was very much the woman of her age but at the same time had enough individual insight to move when she chose to, beyond the confines of conventional thought. She knew her Bible extremely well and relied on a Christian perspective of the world, yet she was by no means a missionary in her attitude to India for much in the country reminded her of passages from the Bible. She also shows an understanding of the problems of British administration in India as seen by the British. But curiously even a woman of her intelligence was so conditioned by the ‘official view’ of India that she rarely pauses to question this view or to express any doubts regarding its validity. Or have the editors been over-judicious in their selection?
Romila Thapar is Professor, Ancient Indian History, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.