Violet Jacob’s diaries from India 1895 – 1900

Life in the Raj

A year ago I went to India for the first time. My wife was talking about her book, Dance with Fireflies, the story of her Anglo Indian grandmother, at the wonderful Kumaon Literary Festival. We were based in Nainital, a town, in the foothills of Himalayas that grew around a beautiful lake. Nainital was one of the British Hill Stations in the days of the Raj. It’s where the British administrators escaped the summer heat and still has some of the old Victorian charm.

One of the Festival topics was the British legacy in the area. There were opposing views, but its clear that social divisions grew and life for many Indians was difficult. So my mission was to find diaries and journals from the time and hear directly what different people thought. My first find was the Diaries and Letters of Violet Jacobs.

Violet describes life in the Raj between 1895 and 190o. She was from a landed and wealthy Scottish family. Her privileged childhood helped her develop a talent for writing and painting. She would go on to become a relatively successful published poet and author.

Violet married an officer in the British Army and was stationed in Mhow in ´hot and dusty´ Indore, Central India, an area ´ruled´ by local Monarchs but like most of India, was answerable to the Raj. The diaries are a combination of letters to her mother and diary entries ´to remember the sights and sounds of this beloved country´. Although Violet bound all these records together, they weren´t ´discovered´ until the 1980s.

Its clear that Violet loved India. She was a curious explorer and determined to see the real India. So she travelled by train and horse to discover the villages, the people and the history. She painted the amazing local flora and temples as she went. She visited Hindu and Muslim festivals and sought out Buddhist remains. She also met Royalty including a memorable visit to Bhopal in 1898 unusually headed by female rulers; meeting the Shah Jehan, the Begum of Bhopal and her daughter. I liked her account of wearing the Purdah and being able to make faces at the British officials without them seeing.


In 1899 she visited Kumaon lakes  being carried by Dandys from Kathgodam up the hills to the lakes. A journey I remember well (but by taxi not Dandy).

It’s a brilliant descriptive journal but does avoid the political realities of the time. The privilege and hierarchy is the acceptable and unchallenged norm. Violet is kind and generous and dislikes the ´British´ areas of India but there remains an air of superiority. Violet observes the differences and tensions between Muslims and Hindus though doesn’t attempt to understand life from the average Indian perspective. Equally she doesn’t tackle the role of women in the Raj or any in the Indian communities. Overall a fascinating and real account of a different time.

I loved India, the people and their positivity. Everyone has to go there at some point in their life.

Nainital / Mallital October 2015


The 2016 Kumaon Literary Festival is taking place 11th – 15th October

Our Indian adventure was brilliantly organised by Charlie Gilbert at Indigo East

My wife’s book Dance with Fireflies by Jane Gill is available from


The journals of Celia Fiennes

celia pic

I came across Celia Fiennes about 20 years ago on a visit to Broughton Castle near Banbury.

She was an amazingly independent and curious woman who travelled around England from around 1682 to 1712 in a series of ´tours´. Her published journals are a fascinating read if, like me, you love real observational history.

Celia was born into an old and dispersed aristocratic family that included Viscounts and Barons. They were fortunate to have castles and homes throughout the country that partly mapped out the journeys. Her descendants still live in Broughton Castle.

The journals are descriptive and observational but not strictly diaries; there’s very little personal information and views. Even though she and her relatives where part of one of the most fascinating periods in English history.

It’s the descriptions of estates, towns and cities from 300 years ago that make this so absorbing.  She is interested in the architecture (she liked neatness), occupations, folklore and particularly local minerals, as its seems she had some investments in mines.  The waters (Spas) were fashionable at the time and these were a focus of many visits. She experienced the ´waters and rituals´ at Bath, something I experienced myself just a few weeks ago! In 1697 she travels through Warwick, a town I know well and describes the aftermath of a great fire that destroyed the church and much of the town. The ‘old buildings´ that I have walked past many times must have just been built or being built, like a modern day re-development.

I have been to many of the same towns and houses and can imagine Celia riding through, side saddle curiously taking in the same details as I do.

It seems she kept notes of her travels and at some later stage edited them into journals. There are lots of spelling errors and the occasional mix up of places and people which add to the authenticity.

Thank you to my friend and publisher Richard Webb (a distant relative of Celia) who kindly gave me a new ‘illustrated journeys of Celia Fiennes’ edited by Christopher Morris and inspired me to re-read the journals.


Two diary presents


An extra benefit of my new blog is that when it comes to birthday presents, it´s made life a bit easier. So last week I received these two diaries. Violet Jacobs diaries & letters from the Indian Raj and from my Father in Law; Francis Kilvert´s diaries as a nineteen century clergyman. Similar times, different continents. On y va.

Samuel Pepys: Plague, Fire, and Revolution


Samuel Pepys is my favourite diarist and an inspiration so when in London last week I had to visit the exhibition. It’s in Greenwich, along the river east of the city. Greenwich is grand place with the old Royal Naval College, the National Maritime museum and the Royal Observatory and the surviving tea clipper – the Cutty Sark. It’s an apt place to meet Pepys.

What makes Pepys so special? I like him because he reminds me of myself. He is from a modest background but he is ambitious. He is an observer and a listener. He is curious to learn and experience new things. He loves women, music, clothes and theatre. He wants a career and works hard to get his social mobility. When reading his diaries I feel it’s me wandering around London, just as I do now.

Of course his fame is largely down to the incredible events he witnessed over the 9 years of his diary (1660 – 1669); the restoration of the monarchy, the plague, the Dutch wars and the Great Fire. But for me it’s observations and opinions of relationships and everyday life that are the most interesting.

It seems quite extraordinary for the time that he kept such candid diaries.  And so deliberately; he wrote in (Shelton’s) shorthand and had codes for his sexual exploits. He wanted them to be secret but in leaving them to Magdalene College, he knew (and hoped) he had made an historical mark. His diary opens with disappointment that his wife isn’t pregnant and I wonder if the diaries became his legacy in the absence of children.

The exhibition is designed around the key historical events so it’s a story of the events as well as Pepys descriptions. But the diaries bring the events to life. His eye witness accounts of the Great Fire tell more than any history book. It’s not just the chronology of events but the reaction of the people, the government and his peers. We can assess the response and the priorities including his own famous decision to dig a pit with Sir William Penn to bury his wine and parmesan cheese.

In the exhibition there’s a brief mention of his life around the theatre, his home, his health, his wife and his career.  But read the diaries to fully appreciate his life. Claire Tomalin´s biography is my recommendation.


Overall it was great to see a celebration of a fellow diarist.