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.