Hard to believe now, but up until probably the time of World War II in Britain, if you were young and female you were expected to marry, produce children and be a devoted wife and mother for the rest of your days, in that order. Woe betide being labelled 'spinster', a word, when spoken aloud, sounds as dreadful as what it stood for - left on the shelf, destined to be a governess or companion forever. A failure.

But wait, all was not lost! From the early days of Britain's involvement/interference in India, women were thin on the ground. For a long time, it was acceptable for British soldiers, farmers, plantation owners, business men to marry or live and have children with local Indian women, with little prejudice to their womenfolk or children. But over time, this changed and it became more desirable and socially necessary for British men to marry British women. At first, women in want of a husband were paid to make the perilous journey to India to find a husband. They were given a year, and if a match was not made in that time, they sailed back home as 'returned empties'. What a fate.

India came under British government control in 1857 - the beginning of the Raj. The  export of well educated and well bred young men to India to govern this jewel in the crown became a flood. Along with the transplanting of the strictly hierarchical English class society.  From that time on, British men could marry only British women and once a year the ships left British ports, full of eager young women in search of a husband and an adventure, with hundreds of young and not so young men waiting at the other end. Let the fishing begin. After World War I, with the huge hole left in the young male population of Britain, the annual fishing fleet took on a greater significance, lasting  until the mid 1940s when India became independent of Britain.

The author has documented the many and various stories of these women through their diaries, letters, personal interviews with some of the women themselves, and their descendants. Most of these women were very young when they made the trip - late teens/early 20s. They knew little of life, little of relationships, nothing about the opposite sex, but they treated the whole thing as an exciting and thrilling adventure. The parties, the dances, the tiger hunts, polo matches, retaining one's virtue, the sheer logisitics of travelling around the country, the extravagant clothes, the heat, the isolation, the boredom, the fragility of life with illness and unexpected deaths.  To us an extraordinary way to find yourself a life, and it would seem, more often than not, successful.

For the women who did find themselves married and then mothers, the hardest most painful time came when their children reached the ages of 8, 9, 10, and the decision would be made to send them home to be educated. Did she also go to be with her children and leave her husband on his own for at least a year? Or did she stay and send her children to boarding school knowing she may not see them for some years. There are some interesting reviews by readers on who are children/grandchildren of some women who were part of the Fishing Fleet, which do make the stories in this book just that much more interesting.   

As well as being the story of these brave and resourceful women, this book also gives fascinating insight into British life in India, especially covering the period from 1870s to early 1930s. Relations between the Raj, headed by the Viceroy, always a Lord or an Earl, and the many, many unbelievably wealthy Indian maharajahs were generally very cordial. The two societies mirrored each other perfectly in terms of a rigid social hierarchy, everyone fitting neatly into it, and each using the other to advance further up the social and economic ladder.

This is a truly fascinating and extremely well researched account of a time when Britain ruled supreme in the world, and boy did they know it. My only criticism is that it could have done with some more editing - there is a fair amount of repetition and padding out especially in the first few chapters; I don't know how times I read that young women had to be chaperoned at all times, or that men had to receive permission from their superiors to marry and were not allowed to marry too young so generally were ten years older than their intendeds. The narrative also jumped around a fair bit, and I did lose track of who all these young women were as they reappeared at different stages of the book.


MAY READING: Middle Age - A Natural History by David Bainbridge

Just say it out loud - middle age - how drab, dull and gloomy sounding is that. The long slow slide to old age and beyond. Bits of body drooping, face showing cracks of a life lived, being overtaken in the job stakes, can't keep up with the ever changing language, music, TV of the youth, never heard of before medical issues, worries about retirement, elderly parents, teenager offspring, and so it goes on and on.  Paraphrasing Frankie Goes to Hollywood - Middle Age, What Is It Good For. 

Well, according to David Bainbridge, trained vet surgeon and with a PhD in Zoology, middle age is actually good for quite a lot of things. Mind you, he was only 42 when he wrote this book, so he has barely scratched the surface really in terms of the realities of middle age. Unlike some of us...but if it makes you feel better, keep reading.

The author has taken a biological viewpoint in his analysis of why human beings are really the only species with a defined period of time in the life cycle that can be called a middle age. We are neither young and we are neither old; we are, quite simply, in the middle. He defines the period of middle age as being the fifth and sixth decades, ie one's 40s and 50s. Because we are the only species which has a middle age, then from an evolutionary point of view, this period of time must be a necessary stage in the human life span. Essentially he puts this down to the very large brain that humans have - no other species has a brain quite so large as the human brain in proportion to the rest of the body mass.

His research and conclusions cover a huge range of topics broadly divided into three parts - Why Middle Age Has Never Been About Growing Old; The Triumph of the Middle Aged Mind; and Romance, Love, Sex and Babies After 40. So we learn that middle age spread is there for a reason, that the whale is the only other mammal to go through menopause and it is not about your eggs running out, is there really such a thing as 'empty nest syndrome' and 'mid life crisis', why we have the feeling that time moves faster as we get older, why mental health issues are at their lowest level during this time. And this list really just touches the sides of what middle age is all about, and how, really, according to the author, it is probably the best time of your life to be alive. Wow - bet you never thought that as you contemplated another grey hair, or hankered inexplicably after that brand new Porsche.

Initially when I started reading this, I thought how good it would have been to read it when I was in my early 40s, right at the beginning of 'middle age' - what to look forward to. But as I got closer to end of the book, I realised it all made a lot more sense, having a bit of experience of 'middle age' under my belt. Unbelievably perky, upbeat and optimistic about this stage in the human life cycle, this book makes for very interesting and entertaining reading. Not light enough to be a bed time read - deteriorating eyesight (!), but easily absorbed at any other time of the day, you will learn plenty about yourself and how this is really a stage to enjoy rather than get down in the dumps about.


READING FOR MAY: Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake by Anna Quindlen

I picked this up quite by chance one day in the local public library, filling in time as one does. It had a look of promise about it - successful novelist, self help book writer, and respected New York based journalist who has won the Pulitzer Prize - lots going for it. Without being earth shattering or extraordinarily brilliant as one would expect from a writer with such credentials, this is a most comfortable read. Sort of curl up on the couch with your slippers and bowl of hot soup type of read.

As it states on the cover this is a memoir. Not an autobiography, or stand-on-the-soapbox-aging-baby-boomer rave. Ms Quindlen is a commentator, using elements of her personal and public lives, to reflect on matters which have been particularly relevant for women of her generation - she is now 60 years old. With themes ranging from being a mum, being a working mum, being a wife, being a daughter, a friend, body image, getting older, this is a book full of reflections and a fair amount of wisdom. The author nursed and lost her mother at a young age. There is a certain sadness in much of the book because of this, and it may well have been the defining event in her life. As a result there is a certain 'take time to smell the roses' thread running through. And there is nothing wrong with that in a book either.

It has had mixed reviews in book circles, but I actually found it just a really nice book to read. Here is a woman who was at the vanguard of women 'having it all', who helped lay the foundations for those of us who followed along in her footsteps. Some things went well, some didn't, and she is quite open in her musings. A nice read.


APRIL READING: Mr Churchill's Secretary by Susan Elia MacNeal

What a scary, terrifying and highly charged time it would have been to be living in London during the years of WWII.  Even more so if you were one of the privileged few working in the office of PM Winston Churchill. The great man is a background figure in this story, but his courage, determination and charisma are a constant presence in the lives of those who work underground at 10 Downing Street, as well as their families and friends.

Young Maggie Hope finds herself, quite unexpectedly, working in the typing pool. Maggie has been living in London for a year or so, much longer than originally anticipated. English born, but US raised, her recently deceased grandmother has left her a house in London which Maggie resolves to sell, before returning to Boston and continuing her studies in maths and related subjects. For like her father before her, Maggie is a mathematical genius. The outbreak of war lights a patriotic flame within Maggie and she decides to stay in London, in the house with a number of girlfriends who have also decided to stay working in London for the foreseeable future.

Maggie is not at all happy to find herself a lowly typist in the typing pool, knowing that she has much more to offer the PM's office. But in the totally male dominated world of the British public service, unfortunately the woman's place is in the typing pool so Maggie just has to suck it up. It isn't long, however, before Maggie finds that her skills are put to much more useful ends, and she quickly finds herself involved in unravelling some very heinous plots.

This story fits into the genre of thriller rather than historical fiction with its myriad characters, different story strands, red herrings galore, betrayals, twists and turns. Nevertheless, there is plenty here to appeal to the history buff about life in war time London - the bombings, air raid shelters, the atmosphere on the streets, the tension and fear that everyone was living their daily lives under, rationing, the frantic need to take pleasure and have fun when you can. Plus a fair dose of Churchill's marvellous oratory to put the fire in the belly.

Despite its shortcomings as a work of literature, I really quite enjoyed this. It is easy to read, bit of a page turner, some good if somewhat unrealistic twists. Maggie is feisty, intelligent, stands up for herself, self-reflects. We feel her frustration, her fear, and patriotism. I imagine there were many young women living in London at this time whose daily lives were very similar to Maggie's, even if they weren't 10 feet underground.

This novel is the first in a series called the Maggie Hope Mystery Series. The fourth one is being published May 2013. They are all set in war time London and involve Maggie using her maths and espionage skills to solve the mystery.