The reprinting of Mary Frances Billington’s book is a welcome addition to the literature of foreign travellers commenting on India. First published in 1895, Woman in India is a well-organized pastiche of women’s lives in the last few years of the 19th century. Her work is particularly interesting as it deals with a section of Indian society which was not readily accessible to most foreigners. In her introduction, the Marchioness of Dufferin and Ava pointed out that the book was of immediate relevance because of the growing interest in the ‘social conditions and the ”rights” of women all over the world.’ Nonetheless she reminded her readers that they should not ‘demand from it either finality or infallibility’ but rather enjoy its ‘varied and useful information in so succinct and agreeable a’ form’ (p. xiii).
As a staff member of the Daily Graphic, Mary felt that the newspaper reading public should have access to more information on women in India; accordingly, the editor organized a tour which took her to various parts of the country from where she sent back 28 ‘letters’. A number of these have been put together in the present book which is illustrated with pictures based on the author’s photographs. Apart from the somewhat usual photographs of women in the zenana or inner living quarters, girls in a palki and so on, Billington has some unusual and informative illustrations of women winnowing rice, working in the Giridih coal mines, drying cocoons and spinning.
The text itself is systematically organized into various phases of the life cycle as well as has chapters on women’s work outside the home, female criminals and on Anglo-Indian society. While Billington does not give us information on which parts of the country she visited, clearly she had spent time in the three Presidencies as well as the North West Frontier Provinces. An important draw-back in some of her chapters is that she does not always introduce her reader to the area about which she is writing. It is also clear that the author had a strong and clearly discernible missionary background; at the same time, unlike the judgmental The Wrongs of Indian Womanhood by Mrs. Marcus B. Fuller published in 1900, Billington’s writing is well-researched and attempts to be ‘objective’. Her interest in women’s education, alarm at traditional modes of childbirth and care of the sick are representative of the thinking of the times and the detailed table on p. 36 of the curriculum of girls and women educated under the zenana system is most instructive and useful. Her brief sketch of Mrs. Wheeler, and Indian missionary wife—it is not clear whether her husband was an Englishman —provides insights into some of the tensions associated with granting women access to education. Billington notes:
As the outcome of both of her racial knowledge and her actual experience, she deprecates strongly the tendency to push the girls onto university distinctions. The results are showy no doubt and look well in school reports; but in practice the young women become arrogant, are seldom successful as teachers, and very frequently develop hysteria and nervous complaints (p. 34).
Contemporary reports, women’s autobiographical writings as well as the works of social reformers in the Bengal ‘Presidency during the middle and late 19th century are all concerned with the need for educating women; at the same time they voice apprehension over the likely harmful effects of too much learning. This debate was an important area of discourse in Britain as well.
Billington’s concern at the role of unlettered dais (midwives) at childbirth is matched by her admiration at the effectiveness of British-type hospitals. After a visit to the Eden Hospital in Calcutta, she is approving not only of the facilities it provided to women in ‘their hours of greatest need’ but also of its training facilities for midwives and nurses. Chapter IV entitled ‘Medical Aid and Assistance for the Sick’ gives detailed information on medical colleges and on the syllabus of the ‘female certificate course’ available in Calcutta: when Billington visited the city a few years after Kadambini Ganguly had made history by becoming the first women doctor of the British Empire in 1885, medical education for girls was being taken fairly seriously. Together with teaching, medicine was one of the earliest professions to be regarded as respectable for women. The primary cause for this was the increasing tendency among the westernized to adopt modern medicine in preference to traditional healing methods.
Billington’s vignettes of the Behrampore widow who earned her livelihood by reeling cocoons, of the women working in the opium trade or in preparing the ground for sowing are meticulous in detail. The account of her visit to the opium factory was ‘a very rarely accorded favour’ obtained ‘personally’ by Lord Lansdowne is fascinating as is her description of women at the mine face in the collieries at Giridih. It is interesting to note that Santhali women—then as now—were actively involved in spinning and weaving fine silk.
Billington’s book ends with advice to other women who may wish to travel to India: she has detailed comments on train journeys; hotel accommodation, life in the missions, food and so on. She concludes:
Thus the traveller must be equipped for things to which she is totally unaccustomed, yet which, to the woman , who has experienced them, seem such ordinary matters of fact that she seldom troubles herself to mention them to any who seeks her advice (p. 327).
Nonetheless, she advises carrying ‘three to four pairs of underwears,’ blue serge for the ship voyage, evening gowns, (which are ‘not markedly decollete’) and cottons for day wear. At times, one may lose patience with Billington’s almost obsessive interest in detail; at other moments, there are nagging questions raised by Edward Said and his followers: Which reality is Billington presenting? Is there anything ‘factual’ about her writings or is the author coloured by her life situation? If so, which author is not? Clearly, such questions cannot be answered easily; in any case if one is doubtful about facts, Lady Dufferin had alerted us in her introduction not to look for infallible truths. Without entering into this thorny area of discourse, it is still possible to come away feeling that Women In India is indeed a remarkable book. One admires the author’s hard work and dedication as well as her ability to paint vibrant pictures of women’s life.
Malavika Karlekar is Senior Fellow at the Centre for Women Development Studies; author of Poverty and Women’s Work.