Review: Angels of Albion, Jane Robinson

The university library here doesn’t have Bluestockings. I know, right? It’s this massive fancy university library, and yet somehow it allows other patrons to check out The Thirties when I really wanted me to have it, and besides that it doesn’t have Jane Robinson’s Bluestockings. I was all excited to read about the first women to attend British universities, but when I searched “Jane Robinson”, I discovered instead this book Angels of Albion about the memsahibs during the Indian Rebellion of 1857.

I thought that was going to be quite cool too. I am interested in the evolution of British rule in India, and all that started with this rebellion. Basically, the British army administration came up with this new guns that required you to bite something in order to fire the guns (yeah, yeah, I’m hazy about guns and how they work), and the things you had to bite were coated with cow and pig fat. So the Hindus and the Muslims were all really angry, and there was this massive rebellion where everyone got messily slaughtered, including a whole bunch of British women out there with their husbands and children. And everyone in Britain was all, OMG INDIANS ARE EVIL even though most of the soldiers trying to subdue the rebellion were also Indian.

It is difficult to write a book about women and children being slaughtered without engendering in the reader the sense that the slaughterers are monsters. Robinson includes long excerpts from the diaries, letters, and memoirs of women present during the Rebellion, while adding contextual information that, by and large, is the context for the women, not for the Rebellion. I’m sure she didn’t intend to give the impression that the Indians were monsters and the women poor victims–and indeed, she frequently pauses to note the bigoted content of the letters and memoirs, or to make ironic asides about what insular jerks the British men and women had been prior to the Rebellion–but the book as a whole leaves you with only one side of the story.

Basically I am not sure what Jane Robinson was trying to do with this book. She says in the introduction she wanted to give voice to the British women who survived (or didn’t), and yes, that happens, but I do not necessarily feel like it happens in a way that contributes anything new to the discourse on this event. Most of the book, except the chapter on Indian women of the rebellion (Robinson notes sadly that far fewer records survive on the Indian women), was a long litany of bad things happening to white women and their husbands and children. I got tired of it, and then I was cranky. This may or may not be Jane Robinson’s fault.

Also, here is the memory of a little boy from the Rebellion:

[I had] another brother, a baby born in the preceding February, remembered clearly as he formed the subject of interesting speculations as to whether he would be spitted on a bayonet, or covered with oil and burnt alive when the rebels came.

I KNOW THAT IS NOT FUNNY (but that is really pretty funny) (um, unless those things really happened to the baby eventually, in which case, not funny). Kids are just like that. His poor mother.

  • This is a shame, as I was planning on reading it some day when a library near me had it, seeing as I enjoyed Bluestockings so much and everything. However the one sidedness does put me off. I think JR is a bit like that though as Bluestockings left several sides of stories unexplored that I felt could have been probed better. You should try and get hold of E M Delafield’s Women Who Love from somewhere – one of the stories in it is a terrifying account of the mutiny.

  • Hmm, I never like when I don’t know what the POINT of a book is. I just read a fictional book in which I had no idea what the main idea was, and it can be very frustrating! I shall try something else by this author first.

  • This sounds like it would have been vastly improved if Robinson had included information on Indian women and children throughout, instead of devoting just one chapter to it, despite the lack of records. Yeesh.

  • What a pity this was so one-sided : But do read Bluestockings anyway! Also, I actually knew about the rebellion and it took me a while to remember where from. Turns out it’s from White Teeth.

  • I read that last quote seriously and thought it was sad and disturbing. But then I read your comment, and I do have two irreverent little boys, so I could see them joking around this way.

  • That’s the time period of my writing, so my ears pricked up when you mentioned The Thirties. Off to my library website to see if they have it!

    History (real history, not the dumbed-down textbooks) is endlessly fascinating.

  • She

    I mean… it is kinda funny in a not funny kinda way, haha.

  • It annoys me a lot when I don’t get what the point of a book is. I’m sorry you had that experience with this one.

  • Eva

    Boo to that. 🙁 I’ve found, when I read nonfiction books about India and don’t know the nationality of the author before starting to read it, within a few pages I know if it’s an American or Brit. And I’ve finally decided to just avoid British authors writing about India…I’ve yet to find one who’s attitude wasn’t imperialist. Which is annoying, because they often write books that SOUND awesome (I’m looking at you William Dalrymple) and then make me think “Wow. Still missing the Empire much?'” (To clarify: I’m not saying all Brits are racist…just that I’ve had bad luck with nonfiction written by Brits about India.)

    My library doesn’t have Bluestockings either, and it makes me SO CRANKY.