“For English Girls … in the Eastern Empire”: Housekeeping in British India

By Cynthia D. Bertelsen

An Indian household can no more be governed peacefully, without dignity and prestige, than an Indian Empire.
~ Steel and Gardiner

British Bungalow in India During the Raj. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons.
British Bungalow in India During the Raj. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons.

The British Empire at its zenith stretched across more than fourteen million square miles, ruling nearly half a billion people. Social and racial attitudes forged during the long period of colonial and imperial rule still prevail on many levels today. To survive the many unknowns of tropical daily life, British women relied on nineteenth-century household manuals.

Arjun Appadurai, in his much-cited “How to Make a National Cuisine: Cookbooks in Contemporary India”, commented that “[t]he spread of European ideologies of household management in the colonies in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries is an important topic for comparative research.” Books such as these provided more than just recipes; they also outlined cultural beliefs and hinted at the overall agenda of Empire–the so-called civilizing mission, wherein women were expected to create a little England amidst the dust, heat and teeming masses of India.

These prescriptive texts form a sub-set of the larger genre of household manuals, of which Isabella Beeton’s Book of Household Managementfondly dubbed Mrs. Beeton–became one of the most popular and long-lived of the nineteenth century. Studying these materials offers culinary historians numerous insights into subliminal communication of “Othering” attitudes by which a relatively small number of British administrators and other personnel ruled the British Empire.

Mrs. Beeton certainly accompanied many women’s voyages out to India, but a whole spate of similar cookbooks, geared specifically toward the Anglo-Indian* housewife, appeared later in the nineteenth century. Women wrote most of these, but some were written by men. For example, Robert Flower Riddell, an Army surgeon at the Nizam of Hyderabad’s court, first published his Indian Domestic Economy and Receipt Book in 1841. The women had lived through it all, following their husbands from one lonely posting to another, suffering through brutal heat in the tropical sun, challenges of feeding families on slim provender, and dealing with servants.

Flora Annie Steel. Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
Flora Annie Steel. Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

One of the best and most thorough of those books was The Complete Indian Housekeeper and Cook, by Flora Annie Steel and Grace Gardiner, dedicated “To THE ENGLISH GIRLS to whom fate may assign the task of being house-mothers in our eastern empire”. The Complete Indian Housekeeper and Cook followed not only in the footsteps of Mrs. Beeton, but also took heart from a number of other books, such as Riddell’s. Steel and Gardiner’s book underwent at least ten editions between 1888 and 1921 and became the bible of existence for many young English women in India. And elsewhere in the British Empire.

A common theme in these books concerned servants, and more specifically cooks, usually older Muslim men. The creation of social distance made it possible for the household to run as efficiently as the empire, or at least to aspire to do so. Authors accomplished by including derogatory comments, particularly after the Indian Rebellion of 1857. Servants were described as dirty, dishonest, and childish. Steel and Gardiner warned young housewives in India to beware of “the dirty habits which are ingrained in the native cook” (13).

Chapter XXI, “Advice to Cook”, spoke directly to the cook (225):

The next point is to keep yourself clean. Cooks must use their hands a great deal. Some things are better done with the hand than with spoon or fork, but not with dirty hands; so keep a piece of soap and a towel handy by the sink for constant use, and don’t use your hands unnecessarily. Don’t, for example, stir eggs into a pudding with your fingers. They do it very badly.

The Complete Indian Housekeeper and Cook, and similar household books, promised to turn British women into astute managers who perpetuated the idea of Empire by creating the essence of England in their households… even if those households abutted up to steamy jungles or vast plains on the Indian subcontinent.

As Steel and Gardiner stated (220), these cookbooks assisted them in the

knowledge really required by a mistress which is that of half-practical, half-theoretical and wholly didactic description which will enable her to find reasonable fault with her servants.

In other words, household management books served as reference books. But a close reading suggests that they also served as models for creating the “Other.”

*Anglo-Indian as used here refers to the British housewife, not as the term now denotes people of mixed British and Indian heritage.

One thought on ““For English Girls … in the Eastern Empire”: Housekeeping in British India”

  1. Yet another lovely piece of scholarship from Cynthia Bertelsen. She has made it her mission to link recipes to cultural and social
    developments and does so winningly again in this informative, eminently readable analysis of Indian cuisine and its effects on British and Indian civilization. Cindy introduces us to the importance of cooking in and on History. She is a genuine and authentic excavator of why what “was” is so vital to our understanding of what “is”.
    I am breathless for the arrival of her new book!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *