When I went looking for a book to fill a tricky year in my 100 Years of Books project, this book, in the Victorian Secrets catalogue caught my eye. I read that though she is forgotten now, Alice Perrin was a popular and respected author in her day, and that she was considered a feminine counterpart to Rudyard Kipling.
I was intrigued.
Her obituary in the Times said:
She wrote a simple, unforced style, and the reader feels keenly the heat, the dust, the moonrise, the night calls, and all the sights and sounds and smells of the unchanging East.
Now that I have read this volume of short stories, I have to agree with that; but I think that the comparison that was drawn was rather flattering. My view is good, certainly worth reading, but not that good.
The introduction made me think that she loved the country of her birth, and that she would treat the country, its people, and its culture respectfully.
‘One of the many lessons that the great Mother India instills into the hearts of her white foster children is to sympathise with one another’s troubles and misfortunes however trivial or however serious.’
As I read the fourteen stories that make up this book, I realised that she was a capable writer and that the form suited her. She had the ability to draw her reader into her tale and its setting very quickly and then to lay out an engaging story, which though it was short had a proper beginning, middle and ending.
Alice Perrin had the knack of making the India she knew come to life. It was a place where she was one of a small community of British people, surrounded by a culture quite unlike her own. It was a culture that she appreciated but didn’t really understand.
She did understand the home-sickness, the isolation and the alienation that many of her compatriots felt. And the effects that that the climate, the way of living and the local traditions had on their lives.
These stories reflect all of that, and they reflect the author’s great love of the India that she knew.
They are small human dramas, mostly revolving round love and romance. There are tales of the happily and unhappily married, of new and established couples, and of requited and unrequited love. Some of the stories have a dash of the supernatural, simply but effectively done, and there is madness, murder and much more. All of this produces a lovely range of stories.
The British characters are very well drawn. The Indian characters are secondary – most of them servants – and drawn much more simply. One story that focuses on Indian characters is less successful, because the author didn’t have to understanding to do any more than say what she saw.
I don’t want to say too much about particular stories, because they are quite simple; so I’ll just say that my favourites are the story of a woman who was separated from her husband on a hunt and surprised by his reaction when they were reunited, and the simplest of all of the stories, telling of another woman who worried about something she had never told her husband as she sat outside listening to him sing in his bath.
There were some contrivances, but there was a very real truth at the heart of each tale. I could believe that each one was based on real people and events, with some of them being a little altered and exaggerated in the retelling.
Alice Perrin did, as I had hoped, treat the India its people, and its culture respectfully. I suspect that she was a woman with sound principles, because I came to realise that virtue was rewarded and wrong-doing punished in every story. That was satisfying, but it did make some of the later stories a little predictable.
They are, nonetheless, good stories.
They are well written, engaging and evocative, and they catch women’s experiences at an interesting point in history, so I am glad that this book caught my eye.
6 thoughts on “East of Suez by Alice Perrin (1901)”
How interesting, Jane. I’d never heard of her so I’ll add her to the mental list of authors to pick up if I come across them! 😀
Interesting that 1901 should be a tricky year, I wonder why in particular?
I’ve heard much about Kipling and read a few of his books, but never encountered Alice Perrin. Perhaps the fact that she did not understand the native culture of India as well affected the reception of her work, but I will still take a look at it.
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