Scotland to Shalimar by Bryony Hill
A complex family history is the substance of this beautifully produced book, which not only has an interesting text concerning the generations of the author’s family, but is also beautifully illustrated. Hill has investigated family records and albums that have been created over the generations of her family since the 1740s. It is an achievement set down in a book, trying to master and convey the sense of a family which spent much of its time in India, in the service of the East India Company, then the British Military. Between the pictures of ancestors in and out of uniform, photographs of the latter generations and stories of the lives of the individuals, there are also many family recipes with some details of who and when they were written down. This is a lovely package of a book with a lot of social history as well as beautiful botanical paintings, generously produced. It does strike a very personal note, especially in the more recent family history where more is known about the characters. Never overly sentimental, it records the sadness of early deaths, and the repercussions of a family scandal or two. This is a memorable book for all the right reasons, and I was pleased to have the opportunity to read and review it.
In his Foreword Mark Tully points out that this book is “a unique portrait of life at different stages in the ever-fascinating history of the British and their ongoing relationship with India”. This book is rich in its descriptions of what life as a British officer and his family was actually like in India; the “Fishing fleet” of young women eager to find husbands, the living conditions that made activity impossible in the extremes of heat, the houses in which people lived. It reveals fascinating details of retreat to supposedly cooler regions of India for the warmer months, and some of the contrivances which were constructed to cool the air. This is not only the story of large buildings lived in by the most well connected families, but also the bungalows which were basic accommodation with the frequent incursions of local wildlife. This book recalls the conflict of sending children ‘home’ to Britain for education and to a certain extent safety, and the strain that put on relatively young boys who were dispatched to boarding schools, uncertain where they would spend holidays.
In the earlier years recorded in this book sometimes the details of life are somewhat sketchy, mentioning weddings, births and deaths which were a matter of public record. There are a few more details of military action, especially when an ancestor did something worthy of literal mention in dispatches. There are illustrations from the albums that have been carefully kept over the generations, showing journeys, sketches of landmarks and paintings of flowers and butterflies produced by women. The recipes are family favourites, being mainly for puddings, and stews, substantial meals of simplicity only slightly adjusted for warmer climates. The portraits in the early years are actual paintings, as suitable for the well known ancestors such John Montagu, 5th Earl of Sandwich, whereas later generations are remembered in family photographs.
This is a book which has much to say about the women of the family, their resilience and lives of frequent journeys. The Prologue sets out the tenor of the book accordingly “Intelligent, indomitable women, their sense of humour and pioneering spirit leap from every page.” This is a family story, but more than that; this book offers an insight into a way of life that had great influence on life in more than one country.