Wednesday, July 25, 2012

A voyage of discovery: India in 1911

A Glimpse of Empire, Jessica Douglas-Home

Our county libraries have a wonderful interlibrary loan system, which can be accessed through their website to submit requests on-line. But it often takes a while for the books to appear, and in the meantime, the system doesn't allow you to track your requests. Since I keep forgetting to write mine down, I generally have no idea what I've asked for, and it's often a pleasant surprise to see what turns up. This past week I got three, none of which I initially even remembered requesting.

One of them was this book, an account of a trip to India to attend the Coronation Durbar of King George V and Queen Mary, in December of 1911. It is based (presumably) on the diary and photographs of Hon. Lilah Wingfield, a young woman of 23, the daughter of an Irish peer, Lord Powerscourt, and written by her granddaughter Jessica Douglas-Home. The youngest of five children, Lilah grew up on the family's estate in County Wicklow, with summers spent with her maternal grandfather, the Earl of Leicester, at his estate in Norfolk. It was a rough, rambunctious, and idyllic childhood, the despair of her mother's staid family. It ended with her father's death, when her mother took her three daughters to London, making room for the new Lord and Lady Powerscourt. Lilah's sisters soon found husbands, leaving her the companion to their difficult elderly mother. She hoped to escape for a while through travel, and when she saw an advertisement for a tour group going to the Durbar, it seemed the perfect opportunity. Enlisting a distant cousin as advocate and chaperone, she managed to convince her mother to let her go.

As Douglas-Home explains, the Durbar was months in the planning. The King was determined to go, and Queen Mary to accompany him. I had read about the trip in James Pope-Hennessy's Queen Mary, which of course focuses on her role and experiences, so this book provided an interesting contrast, though Lilah was hardly an ordinary tourist. Her position as a peer's daughter and her family connections opened many doors, as did the friends she traveled with. She and her companions stayed in the great tent city that covered 25 square miles near Delhi. Under escorts from the 10th Hussars, whose commander was known to have a tendre for her, Lilah had access to all the festivities leading up to the Durbar itself. After it ended, her party traveled up to the Northwest Frontier before turning south again to zig-zag across central India, stopping in several different states and often visiting the native courts. Entranced with India, Lilah was anxious to experience the reality of the subcontinent, to be more than a typical British tourist. She was in no hurry to return home, though she evaded at least two serious suitors, marriage to whom could have brought an extended stay in India.

I enjoyed reading about Lilah's unconventional but happy childhood, and I cheered her determination to break free of her constrained life in London. Douglas-Home places Lilah's adventures in India within the larger context of the Durbar, explaining its importance to Britain's colonial rule and the difficulties the organizers faced. Some of those difficulties came from the native rulers, many of whom Lilah met. Douglas-Home manages to introduce them, to describe their place in the Raj and their relations with the Empire, keeping them straight in the reader's mind while not allowing them to overwhelm Lilah's story. There are pictures of them in the four sections of photographs, with helpful captions to tie them into the story. Lilah was apparently an enthusiastic photographer, and many of the photos may be her work, though the sources are unfortunately not listed.

In a preface, Douglas-Home mentions her grandmother's photo albums. She also mentions a diary of Lilah's that someone purchased at a second-hand bookshop, but she says nothing more about it, not even if the diary was returned to the family. She quotes frequently from Lilah's writing, but since there are no notes, it is impossible to tell if the quotes are from this diary or other sources. As an archivist and a student of history, I found that frustrating. Douglas-Home also quotes others, apparently from letters, but again the quotes are unattributed and there is no bibliography. She has obviously done a lot of research, and it is a shame she chose not to share that information with those (like me) who might be interested in the context or in further reading.

Despite this lack, I found the book informative and engaging. Lilah's travels in 1911 are as interesting as Emily Eden's in the 1830s, but very different. The differences are not just in the years that separate them, but in large part in Lilah's determination to immerse herself in India, and in her openness to the native peoples that she met.


  1. Fine review. This book sounds like it is right up my street. To be read . . . one of these days. Feeling kind of overloaded with books right now.

  2. I think you'd enjoy this, Fay. I saw your post about the Booker long-list and your reading plans with that.

  3. Another great book about a woman traveler that I know I would enjoy! However, my library just instituted a $6 fee per ILL so no more interlibrary loans for me - I will be buying more books, for sure.
    And boo to the publisher of this book for not including a bibliography -so important when you want to research further!

  4. Our city library system changed their ILL program and now they only borrow from a tiny group of libraries here in Texas. It's impossible to get my kind of books through them. We are so lucky to have the county library system as well. $6 per request seems high - but I know a lot of libraries are having budget problems (our city system is closed on Fridays and Saturdays now). I was tempted to buy a copy of this, but the lack of sources put me off - otherwise I could lend it to you :)


Thank you for taking the time to read, and to comment. I always enjoy hearing different points of view about the books I am reading, even if we disagree!