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The High-Flying Duchess
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High-Flying Duchess

Extracts / Victorian India


When Mary left school in England, she travelled out to India to join her family.


“For Mary this was the moment she had been dreaming of for years. Perhaps she was allowed to go to the Army and Navy Stores to buy a trunk and suitable clothing, both for the journey, when she would be expected to dress for dinner every night, and for use in India. The P & O ships were particularly full at this time of year with those travelling out for Christmas and especially with ‘the Fishing Fleet.’ ‘The Fishing Fleet was… made up of the “highly eligible, beautiful daughters of wealthy people living in India. This was the only way in which they could come out under the protection of their parents, to meet eligible young men and marry.” Those who failed returned to England in the spring and were known as the Returned Empties.’1 Mary, who had only just had her sixteenth birthday, must have found it interesting to watch from the sidelines the whirlwind of shipboard romances; the anxieties of those coming out, already engaged to marry men whom they may belatedly have reflected they hardly knew; the sorrowful mothers returning from leaving young children in England; the young men on their way to their first posting overseas.
The origin of the word POSH as meaning Port Out, Starboard Home, to define the cabins least affected by the heat of the sun and with the best views, is mythical. All the same, the refinements of travel on the steamship gave Mary her first introduction to the protocol of Indian life. With her quick intelligence, she soon learned to distinguish the status of the different passengers, clearly defined in the seating arrangements for meals and adhered to throughout. Her energy and enthusiasm made her a boon to those responsible for organising a constant round of activities, deck games, parties, fancy dress balls and so on.  As they journeyed further, every port brought new experiences of the east: the hawkers crowding round the ship in small boats, selling fruit, bangles, bright coloured materials or anything else likely to appeal to a gullible traveller; the young children performing tricks in the hope of earning a few coins; the beggars.”


Later, after the end of her first romance, she went with her father to Simla.


“Social life for British families living in India was always hectic. The most social time of all was in the summer, when the women and those of the men whose work was not tied to the plains moved to the hill stations to avoid the excessive heat. Of all the hill stations, the most glorious and glamorous was Simla. The Viceroy moved the seat of government there every year. Balanced precariously on a series of ledges high in the hills (which meant that it retained its Victorian character throughout the British Raj, for it was inaccessible to motor cars), it was the ultimate in Indian society.

"‘The facilities which Simla offers are startling. There are garden-parties, and tennis-parties, and picnics, and luncheons at Annandale, and rifle-matches, and dinners and balls; besides rides and walks, which are matters of private arrangement,’ wrote Rudyard Kipling.

"In her diary, Mary mentions his mother, sister and Kipling himself amongst her fellow guests at different functions. Zoë had been lucky enough to be invited to join another family at Simla in her first summer in India. From April 1886, when their father was appointed Archdeacon of Lahore, summers at Simla, with regular invitations to dances at Viceregal Lodge, were taken for granted by the Tribe family...
Soon she was enjoying musical parties, fancy dress balls (she attended one as a Girton girl), racing, Lady Dufferin’s fête, lectures (topics ranged from the medical subjects she had long found so interesting to the fall of the Moghul Empire), dancing and dinners at Peterhof, as Viceregal Lodge was then called. There was usually dancing after dinner, when Mary danced with the Viceroy himself, as well as other members of his establishment.”



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