What a great book! A wonderful setting, a beautiful romance, characters I really cared about, an exciting story and lots of fascinating historical detail…definitely one of my favourite books of the year. I could see the influence of other books that I love – The Far Pavilions, Gone with the Wind and Jane Eyre – so it’s maybe not surprising that I loved this one too!
Zemindar is set in India before and during the Sepoy Mutiny of 1857. Laura Hewitt, a single woman of twenty-four, is accompanying her newly married cousin Emily and her husband Charles Flood on a trip to India as Emily, at eighteen, is considered too young to travel without another female in the party. Laura is happy to accept the position of paid companion – her parents are both dead and she has no money of her own – but she is also aware that it may not be a good idea to be in such close proximity to Charles, whom she had been in love with herself before he turned his attentions to the younger, prettier Emily.
After a brief stay in Calcutta, Laura and the Floods travel to Lucknow where Charles is planning to make the acquaintance of his half-brother Oliver Erskine who lives a few days’ journey away on the estate of Hassanganj. Charles and Oliver have never met but knowing that his brother is unmarried and seems likely to remain that way, Charles hopes to convince Oliver to make him his heir. On arriving at Hassanganj, however, it quickly becomes obvious that this will not be an easy task. As a zemindar (hereditary landowner), Oliver has been used to leading an unconventional lifestyle on his huge and isolated estate and is not the sort of man who can be made to do anything he doesn’t want to do!
Laura and Emily are both fascinated by Oliver Erskine, though while he shows nothing but kindness to Emily, Laura finds him arrogant and annoying. But when mutiny breaks out among the Indian sepoys in the army and Hassanganj comes under attack, she begins to see a different side to Oliver. Taking refuge in the Residency in Lucknow where the British army is preparing to withstand a siege, Laura must decide how she really feels about Oliver and whether she can see a future for herself in India. First, though, she needs to stay alive…
There are so many things I loved about this book it’s difficult to know what to focus on first, but I think I should start by praising Valerie Fitzgerald’s beautiful writing. Zemindar was published in 1981, but I almost felt I was reading something written by Jane Austen or Charlotte Brontë. Laura’s story is told in the first person and her narrative voice sounds exactly as the voice of a 19th century woman should sound. The descriptions of India – the landscape, the culture, the contrast between life in the British colonial communities and the mofussil (the rural areas) – are stunning too.
The story takes place during a turbulent time in the history of British India, but don’t expect this to be a fast-paced novel – some parts are very slow allowing time for character development and fleshing out of the historical background. No previous knowledge is needed as we have the opportunity to learn along with Laura as the events leading up to the Indian Rebellion unfold. Later in the book, when the British begin to crowd into the poorly-fortified Residency for safety there are some quite graphic descriptions of the brutality and atrocities committed by both sides as Lucknow finds itself under siege and tales of even greater horrors suffered by those in Cawnpore reach Laura’s ears. Obviously we are seeing things from a British perspective but there’s some sympathy for the Indian point of view as well; having spent most of his life at Hassanganj, Oliver understands India and its people in a way that most of the other characters don’t and he tries to pass this understanding on to Laura.
The relationship between Laura and Oliver is a lovely and poignant one which takes its time to develop and is not without its difficulties and misunderstandings. At times it reminded me of the romance in Gone with the Wind, though while Oliver is similar in some ways to Rhett Butler, the quiet, sensible Laura is more like Jane Eyre than Scarlett O’Hara. Because I liked Laura and Oliver so much I was completely absorbed in their story and hoping for a happy ending for them both – it was not at all obvious whether they were going to get one so I was kept in suspense right to the end!
I hoped I’ve made it clear, though, that this book is not a fluffy romance or a silly bodice ripper. The romance is only one element of the story and is sometimes pushed into the background while we concentrate on the history, the battles and the sieges. My only disappointment on reaching the end of the book was discovering that Zemindar was Valerie Fitzgerald’s only novel. I know M.M. Kaye’s Shadow of the Moon is set during the same period so I’m hoping to read that one soon and see how it compares.