1930, Rajputana, India. Since her husband’s death, 28-year-old photojournalist Eliza’s only companion has been her camera. When the British Government send her to an Indian princely state to photograph the royal family, she’s determined to make a name for herself.
But when Eliza arrives at the palace she meets Jay, the Prince’s handsome, brooding brother. While Eliza awakens Jay to the poverty of his people, he awakens her to the injustices of British rule. Soon Jay and Eliza find they have more in common than they think. But their families – and society – think otherwise. Eventually they will have to make a choice between doing what’s expected, or following their hearts…
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.