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  • Katie Hickman at The Richmond Literature Festival

    Arts Richmond's contribution to the Literature Festival: Katie Hickman on her new book 'She Merchants, Buccaneers & Gentlewomen' British women in India

    Wednesday 20 November 2019

    Duke Street Church

    Duke St
    TW9 1DH

    She-Merchants, Buccaneers & Gentlewomen

    British Women in India 1600-1900

    Katie Hickman

    Published by Virago, on 2nd May, price £20

    ‘With her customary brilliance, Katie Hickman has gone beneath the surface of male imperial history to dig out a cast of extraordinary women, living astonishing lives in remarkable times. At times funny, at others sobering, but always engrossing’  - Anita Anand

    ‘Sharply observed, snappily written and thoroughly researched, She Merchants provides a fabulous panorama of a largely ignored area of social history.  Katie Hickman successfully challenges the stereotype of the snobbish, matron-like memsahib by deploying a riveting gallery of powerful and often eccentric women ranging from stowaways and runaways through courtesans and society beauties to Generals' feisty wives and Viceroys' waspish sisters. It is full of surprises and new material and completely engaging from beginning to end’ - William Dalrymple, Mira Singh Farm, 2019

    ‘Absolutely brilliant... these are remarkable women, but until now almost unknown. I was so gripped I couldn't put it down’ - Antonia Fraser  The first British women to set foot in India did so in the very early seventeenth century, two and a half centuries before the Raj came into being. In stark contrast to the languid memsahibs of popular imagination, these women were tough adventurers, their voyages extraordinarily daring leaps into the unknown.  Those who dared the nineteen-month sea voyage, often confined to the lowest bowels of the ship, were at risk of hurricanes, shipwreck, and even piracy.  While for some it was a painful exile - in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries it could take more than three years to receive and reply to letters from home - for many others it was an exhilarating opportunity to re-invent themselves in the often decadent, and socially porous British enclaves. 

    While it is well-known that women went to India to find husbands, what is almost unknown is that they also worked as traders, cloth merchants, milliners, bakers, dress-makers, actresses, portrait painters, maids, shop-keepers, governesses, teachers, boarding house proprietors, midwives, nurses, missionaries, doctors, geologists, plant-collectors, writers and travellers. India was the British 'wild east', and many women succeeded in building a new and often independent life for themselves. Through diaries, letters and memoirs (many still in manuscript form), She-Merchants, Buccaneers & Gentlewomen reveals the life and times of hundreds of women who made their way across the sea and changed history.                                                                                                                                                                                           

    British imperialism has cast a long shadow over their reputations.  The term 'memsahibs', once a title of respect, has become a byword for snobbery and even racism. And it is true: prejudice of every kind - racial, social, imperial, religious - did cloud many aspects of British involvement in India.  But it was not invariably the case. Katie Hickman, author of the bestselling Courtesans and Daughters of Britannia, which collectively have sold more than a quarter of a million copies worldwide, challenges our views of this period in this exciting new landmark history. 

    The She-Merchants:                                                                                              

    Eliza Fay: in late 18 century Calcutta, having escaped captivity dressed as a French seaman, then abandoned by her husband, she founded a successful millinery business.

    Mrs Hudson: in 1617, one of the first British women ever to travel to India she was forbidden by the East Indian Company merchants to invest in indigo. Instead, they `allowed’ her trade in cloth. She returned to England three years later with her fortune.

    The Buccaneers, Risk-takers, Adventurers

    Charlotte Hickey: an infamous high-class London courtesan Charlotte left England in 1782 with her protector, the diarist William Hickey, and arrived in India as the respectable ‘Mrs Hickey’, becoming the darling of Calcutta society. 

    Unnamed Women from Christ’s Hospital: Women were needed to marry the English soldiers stationed in Bombay and when the East India Company advertised in 1668 for single women between the ages of 12 and 40, many orphans from Christ’s Hospital took the chance, even though life-expectancy there was just ‘two mussons’ (two monsoons, two years).

    The Gentlewomen

    Flora Annie Steel:  Founder and Inspector of schools, she collected folk stories for Tales of the Punjab   and wrote more than thirty books; her most famous publication was the Complete Indian Handbook and Cook (1888) – a magisterial guide to everything from how to protect your kid gloves from humidity to curing ‘bumble foot’ in chickens.

    Maria Impey:  Owner of a famous Calcutta menagerie and a naturalist who employed three full time Mughal artists to paint Indian wildlife, and the exquisite paintings in her collection are now housed in museums and art galleries around the world.    

    Katie Hickman is the author of eight books, including two bestselling works of non-fiction, Daughters of Britannia - in the Sunday Times bestseller lists for 10 months and a 20-part series for BBC Radio 4 - and Courtesans. She has also written a trilogy of historical novels – the Aviary Gate, The Pindar Diamond and the House of Bishopgate - which have been translated into 20 languages. Her other books include two highly-acclaimed travel books, including Travels with a Mexican Circus, which was shortlisted for the Thomas Cook Travel Book Award. Her first novel, The Quetzal Summer, was shortlisted for the Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year Award.  

    Born into a diplomatic family, she had a peripatetic childhood, growing up in Spain, Ireland, Singapore and South America; she has two children and lives in London.

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