In the 1930s, Eliza Fraser accepts a job to photograph the royal family in Rajputana, India, which she hopes will launch her career. However, returning to India brings back bad memories for Eliza as her beloved father was killed in a bombing in Delhi which Eliza witnessed.
While living at the castle in Rajputana, Eliza meets Prince Jayant Singh, the handsome younger brother of the current Maharajah, and a mutual attraction begins to grow despite their efforts to remain apart. As a member of the royal family, Jay is destined to marry an Indian princess to maintain the line of succession since his brother has failed to produce a male heir, otherwise the kingdom will fall into the hands of the British. The idea of an Indian man, regardless of his royal status, marrying an English woman is completely unacceptable in British India even without the added complication of Eliza being a widow.
As Eliza explores the country with Jay, she becomes increasingly horrified at the level of poverty she is witnessing and realises the British have no place in the country. Desperate to help, Eliza and Jay come up with a plan to irrigate the land around Jay’s palace which would alleviate some of the problems caused by heat and drought in the summer months. However, the project requires a great deal of funding which cannot be achieved without the help of the British and Eliza soon realises their involvement comes with conditions. To protect Jay and their project, Eliza may have to sacrifice her own happiness.
Before the Rains is the second book I’ve read by Dinah Jefferies and this time we are transported to India with Eliza Fraser, a young widow, who is returning to realise her ambition of becoming a successful photographer. Eliza’s assignment is to take informal photographs of the royal family in Rajputana, however it isn’t long before she realises she’s supposed to spy on them. As one of the last royal families in India, the British are keen for an excuse to depose them and Eliza’s close proximity is an ideal opportunity for them to gather information. Although Eliza is grateful for the opportunity she has been given, spying on the royal family isn’t part of her agenda.
The book is at its best when Eliza breaks away from the confines of the palace and begins to see the extreme poverty for herself. Dismayed by what she is witnessing, Eliza comes to the realisation the British are doing more harm than good and she is desperate to help alleviate some of the suffering. Eliza comes up with an idea to irrigate the lands around Jay’s own palace, a project that will bring Eliza and Jay closer together despite their efforts to do otherwise, however it means securing funding from the British which will leave Eliza in a vulnerable position as she becomes caught between the ambitions of two very different men.
There is an element of fantasy about the royal romance storyline though because I don’t really believe an Indian prince would pursue an English woman the way he does. While the whole subject of royal status and the succession is often brought up as a stumbling point, religion and the caste system is never once mentioned. Apart from the succession issues, the only other factor against Eliza’s relationship with the prince is the fact she is a widow and widows are considered unlucky in India. To push the point home, Eliza bears witness to a young woman forced to commit suttee, a horrifying custom where a widow immolates herself on her husband’s pyre, even though it has been outlawed by the British.
The book delves further into the treatment of women in Indian society as Eliza hears stories of baby girls being left out to die for being the wrong gender and wives being badly mistreated by their in-laws. All of this is contrasted by the progressive attitude of the royal family who have banned purdah, the practice of screening women from men or strangers, and are actively trying to prevent clandestine suttee ceremonies. Realising their place is precarious, the royal family are anxious to do nothing to antagonise the British while also keeping their subjects happy as the desire to regain independence is growing. Although we are a decade or so from India being partitioned, Jefferies doesn’t ignore the growing unrest and the book begins with Eliza’s father losing his life during a ceremonial procession as Delhi is designated the capital once more.
The death of her father has a profound effect on Eliza’s life and her return to India brings back a lot of traumatic memories for her but Jefferies keeps it low key until the truth behind the bombing begins to surface. It would be easy for Eliza to harbour a grudge against the people who stole her father from her but her exposure to the Indian way of life has made her more sympathetic to their plight. As the truth about her father’s death is revealed, Eliza also learns she has an Indian half-sister who she is determined to find.
There are a lot of strands to bring together but Jefferies does it well while maintaining the flow of the story, even it is somewhat predictable at times. The descriptive passages are wonderfully vibrant as India is vividly brought to life and there is much to celebrate in the colourful festivals as well as to deplore in the scenes of poverty. While the story may be a little light in depth, it transports you successfully into another world and I read it during the three unexpected snow days we had recently. So, while the blizzards were raging outside, I was safely indoors basking in the heat of India.
Sometimes you just want to get lost in historical fiction without being too embroiled in the politics of the situation and Dinah Jefferies’ books are perfect for that.