‘A Glimpse of an Empire’ is an interesting record of how women, particularly aristocratic women, viewed British India, writes S Nanda kumar.
A Glimpse of Empire is an account of the visit of Lilah Wingfield, an Anglo-Irish lady, to India when King George V’s Coronation Durbar was held in Delhi in 1911. There have been many accounts written by European visitors to India during the days of the Empire. There are also innumerable and exhaustive accounts of life in India that are available through the gazetteers of British India.
These gazetteers were meant to be of use to British District Collectors and officials, and have today become a wonderful source for students of Indian history. What makes this book different is that Lilah’s granddaughter, Jessica Douglas-Home, has written it based on Lilah’s diary and photographs. Lilah was the youngest of five children of the seventh viscount of Powerscourt, Mervyn Wingfield, and Lady Julia.
She was a feisty woman who resisted all efforts by her mother for an early marriage in England. She chose instead to enlist the support of her close friend, Sylvia Brooke, and a distant relative, Judy Smith, to travel to India for the Royal Durbar.
This was ostensibly to look for a groom, somebody “at once more adventurous and suitable — the sort of person, in a word, who might be part of the royal entourage to the Durbar.” (This practice by women from the British Isles going to find a suitable groom had been prevalent from the times of the East India Company. Women going on such voyages were collectively referred to as ‘The Fishing Fleet.’).
There are some interesting accounts of how the British Government and the Indian viceroy went about their painstaking preparations to make sure that the Coronation Durbar went off successfully, and this would be of great interest to those interested in history. In 1910, there were fresh ripples of unrest against British rule in India. King George V, who had just ascended the throne of England, had been captivated by India, that “fascinating and multitudinous country,” when he had visited it as the Prince of Wales on the occasion of Lord Curzon’s Durbar seven years earlier.
He told the secretary of state that he no longer wanted to be “a vague and remote personage to my Indian subjects in that vast land, ruling from a remote far-off island in the northern seas.” The ball was set rolling, but a fierce debate prevailed in England. It was unprecedented that a reigning monarch be absent from England for so long. There was enough trouble in England, with strikes, lockouts and radicalism on the increase. “With the growing influence of the firebrand David Lloyd George…made the impressionable Lilah feel like she was participating in something like the French Revolution…”
It is interesting to note that much of the efforts of ensuring ‘protocol’ and ‘order of precedence’ while being presented to King George V bordered on the ridiculous. This included comprehensive notes on how many steps the ruling princes had to take when they appeared to pay obeisance to the King. “They were to bow once to the King, once to the Queen, and then walk backwards for seven steps before exiting to the side.” The Gaekwad of Baroda, Maharajah Sayajirao III, created a diplomatic furore when he greeted the royal couple with a simple bow and turned his back on them.
There is also an account of the vast tented city that sprang up in Delhi to ensure that the royal scions of various Indian principalities stayed in the luxury to which they were accustomed. The tented city covered an area of 25 square miles, had electricity, and even a train that could fetch the princes and their staff. Lilah’s detailed account only confirms what we already know from history — that the Indian royalty were living in a world of their own, far removed from any thought of Independence from the British.
Apart from details of the Durbar, which was also used to announce the shifting of the capital from Calcutta to Delhi, Lilah has recorded her travels across many parts of India, including the North-West Frontier, the Khyber Pass, Rawalpindi, Banaras, Lucknow, Kanpur (Cawnpore), Jaipur and Bhopal, before leaving for England by ship via Colombo. Her photographs definitely add a nostalgic touch to the book — there is something about old black-and-white photographs that is so full of old-world flavour. There is a certain underlying dryness to the entire account, not unpleasant.
Apart from reflecting an era when things were understated, it may also be because the book is based on Lilah’s diary, and her granddaughter, Jessica Douglas-Home, had to rely totally on research — Lilah passed away in 1981, and the diary was found only in 1999. Interestingly, while Lilah’s albums of photographs were always available with the family, a total stranger discovered her diary at a second-hand bookshop in Norfolk. The stranger remains unacknowledged.
But the account certainly reflects the spirit of an adventure-seeking beauty who did not take the easy path of conforming to “the claustrophobic Edwardian and aristocratic conventions of her gloomy elderly mother.” Lilah’s trip to India was a rebellion against the social norms of the day.
The book shows the cloistered and corseted life Edwardian ladies lived in pre-World War I England. Seen in that light, this would be an interesting record of how women, in this case aristocratic women, viewed British India. And serves as an additional source for readers wanting to know more about life in India under the British, but from the side of the memsahibs.