Researching 19th century India
April 14, 2011 3:08 AM   Subscribe

I'm starting a novel set in 19th century India-- but I don't know where to start my research.

I'm about to start working on a historical novel set in 1840s India, specifically in a fictitious princely state in Central India, roughly based on mid 19th century Nagpur. It's the relationship of an Anglican missionary and an Anglo-Indian tea planter's wife, and how they unintentionally get involved in the politics of this state (quite against their will). Although I've written a lot of historical fiction before, this is a completely new period for me. But I really want to do justice to the setting; I also don't want to repeat the same old cliches that I've seen in most other historical romances, where white people gad about exotic settings, with the locals treated like window dressing. What are some good non-fiction books that can get me started on this era?
posted by suburbanbeatnik to Writing & Language (9 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
I've done some research on 18th/19thC Meghalaya and Burma which are both nearby Nagpur, so you can take my comments with a slice of chilli mango.

Nagpur is not central India and was neither Hindu nor Islamic at that time you are speaking. It was not, to my knowledge, influenced by the East India Company and Anglicanism like other parts of India. For example, Meghalaya, when it was finally involved in colonisation was influenced by the Welsh Baptists.

If you want a 'central India' location with politics, conflict, tea and anglo-indian people have a think about (what once was the principality of) Coorg.
posted by Kerasia at 4:09 AM on April 14, 2011 [1 favorite]

I'd seriously recommend coming out and spending some time in India. In Delhi you can visit the National Archives, where you're free to browse the treasures on its shelves and visit Manohar Bookstore for your purchases, before heading down to Nagpur to explore and absorb.
posted by gravelshoes at 5:26 AM on April 14, 2011

A Time for Tea is not quite what you're looking for, because most of it is an ehtnography about modern tea workers/feminist theory, but you might find the first several chapters helpful-- it's giving the background about what tea growing was like in colonial India.
posted by geegollygosh at 5:38 AM on April 14, 2011

Kerasia, where on earth did you get the idea that Meghalaya and Burma are near Nagpur? They're practically on the other end of the country. Burma IS a different country!

Seconding gravelshoes- the best way to research India is to come down here, because unlike a lot of the West, stuff just isn't digitized or available anywhere except the big government archives and maybe a couple of the big university libraries.

And yes, A Passage to India is a good how-not-to guide. I'm at work at the moment, but I'll see if I can dig up some better resources for you.
posted by Tamanna at 6:10 AM on April 14, 2011 [1 favorite]

I think Kerasia may be conflating Nagpur with Nagaland and Manipur-- two of the northeastern "Seven Sisters" states, which are indeed near Meghalaya and Burma and culturally similiar to those areas. Nagpur is actually a city in Maharashtra, very much in central India.

Part of the confusion might be the tea-growing stuff. Tea is not actually grown in most of India, just a few cooler, mountainous areas. This includes the northeast (Darjeeling, Assam), and the South Indian mountains (Nilgiri), but not central India. So you might want to re-think the Anglo-Indian tea planter's wife, or else the location.
posted by bookish at 6:26 AM on April 14, 2011

FYI, there are many, many different primary sources on Google Books about British life in India at this time -- a lot of etiquette and advice guides for Company men heading over; some for women, too (with ever-helpful packing lists - great detail for the writers among us!). Also, lots of memoirs and travelogues published later in the century about India in this period.
posted by artemisia at 7:54 AM on April 14, 2011

Response by poster: Ha ha, oh dear-- is a tea planter's wife such a cliche? I had no idea. I'm such a n00b, I have never watched a movie set during this period, nor finished reading a book set during this time. (I've read about ancient India, not colonial era India, for what that's worth.) It's not really vital for her to be a tea planter's wife-- just a planter's wife of some variety. Did they have any plantations of any kind in the Nagpur area?

Tamanna and Gravelshoes-- I would LOVE to travel to India, but I am flat broke, so I have no idea when I can do this. Tamanna, would it be okay for me to MeMail you more info about my project? It might help you with coming up with books for research.
posted by suburbanbeatnik at 10:24 AM on April 14, 2011

Ah, aftre sleeping I realised my answer was all kinds of wrong geographically. Sorry.
posted by Kerasia at 3:45 PM on April 14, 2011

I think then that your first order of business is to start reading up on Indian history. I'm Indian and I still haven't quite got as good a handle on it as I'd like, because it's just so vast. I'm not usually one to recommend Wikipedia, but if you've done only very basic research, if at all, then that should do to start with.

And sure, you're welcome to memail me, if you don't mind waiting a little for a response; I'm entering my final weeks of grad school, and as such am going to be horrifically busy until the first week of May. I'd be happy to help out after that, though.
posted by Tamanna at 1:00 AM on April 15, 2011

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