An outspoken critic of colonial inefficiency and corruption, writer of novels and short stories

Juliet Shields teaches British and American literature at the University of Washington in Seattle. She’s currently writing a book about nineteenth-century Scottish women writers, many of whom were quite dangerous.

Flora Annie Webster Steel (1847-1929), author of numerous novels and short stories about India, has been described by scholars as “the female Rudyard Kipling,” implying that her writing was derivative of her renowned male contemporary’s works. Yet Steel’s fiction is no weak imitation of Kipling’s. For a start, it offers a woman’s perspective on British colonial government and Anglo-Indian relations. And furthermore, in their scope and detail, her historical novels rival the Waverley novels written by her countryman, Walter Scott. So, who was Steel, and what made her a dangerous woman?

Steel spent twenty-two years in India, primarily in the Punjab. Although it was her husband, an engineer with the Indian Civil Service, who brought her to India, she was by no means one of the “memsahibs” whom she mocks in her novels—bored women who spent their days drinking tea, gossiping, and flirting with soldiers. She was too busy learning multiple Indian vernaculars, inquiring into local customs, and, after she was appointed Inspectress of Schools, monitoring the state of basic education across the Punjab. When an official with the Indian Civil Service asked Henry Steel why he couldn’t keep his wife in order, Henry responded by inviting that the British governors of the Punjab to take her for a month and try for themselves.

Flora Steel’s outspoken criticisms of colonial inefficiency and corruption made her a dangerous woman as far as the Indian Civil Service was concerned. Yet she was also dangerous from the perspective of traditional Muslim and Hindu communities in the Punjab, as she established schools for women that introduced them to literacy, numeracy, and to the basic medical knowledge that could save their children’s lives. While Steel was by no means free of the racial prejudices common to Victorian Britons, the challenges she posed to patriarchal authority opened new opportunities life for British and native women in late nineteenth-century India.

Given her later passion for education, it is interesting that Steel was an autodidact. She was one of eleven children, and while her brothers were sent to school at Harrow, Steel and her sisters remained at Burnside, a rambling house about three miles from Forfar. None of her sisters was close enough to her in age to justify the expense of hiring a governess, so instead Steel was encouraged to read what she pleased from her father’s library—history, philosophy, novels, poetry, and even medical texts—all of which would prove useful in later life. Steel was only twenty, scarcely removed from this idyllic but isolated childhood, when she married Henry in 1867. A week after their wedding, they sailed for Bombay.

The birth of a daughter, Mabel, brought Steel new opportunities to learn the language and customs of the people she lived among. In her autobiography, The Garden of Fidelity, she describes her daughter as “the first link of my subsequent enchainment to the interest of the village women. A baby is ever a good ambassador, and Fazli, the ayah, was an excellent attaché. So most evenings I held a regular court, and I picked up much more of the language than I should have done otherwise” (57). Two decades later, Steel would co-author The Complete Indian Housekeeper and Cook (1888), a guide to help British women recreate as nearly as possible in India the domestic practices that they were accustomed to at home. Drawing on her own experiences after Mabel’s birth, Steel urged British women to learn Hindustani, pointing out that “no sane Englishwoman would dream of living, say, for twenty years, in Germany, Italy, or France, without making the attempt, at any rate, to learn the language” (12). The Complete Indian Housekeeper mustered domesticity in the service of colonialism, claiming that “an Indian household can no more be governed peacefully, without dignity and prestige, than an Indian Empire” (18). It went through several editions, and some of its chapters were translated into Hindu so that the mistresses who followed Steel’s advice on learning the language could read them aloud to their servants.

When it came time to send Mabel to school in England, Steel felt a deep sense of loss that she overcame by throwing herself into new kinds of work. When she learned that the restrictions of purdah prevented many Indian women and their children from receiving medical care from male physicians, Steel began to attend to sick women and children. During the three years that Henry Steel was stationed in the remote district of Kasur, Steel relied on her early reading of medical texts and consultation with doctors who passed through to help her patients. At the same time, she began to teach English to boys under sixteen. Impressed by the boys’ progress, Kasur’s Chief Native Administrator suggested that Steel open a school for girls and women, the first of many such schools that Steel would help to establish. When it was time for Steel to leave Kasur, her students presented her with a brooch to which each woman had contributed a bead or stone from their own jewelry. Steel called it her Star of India. It was thanks to her entirely grassroots efforts at educational reform that Steel was eventually appointed the Inspectress of Schools for a region between Peshawar and Delhi of about 141,000 square miles. She also wrote primers for students, some of which were illustrated by John Kipling, father of Rudyard.

Only after Henry Steel’s retirement and their return to Scotland in 1889 did Steel begin writing fiction. Her earliest stories were published in Macmillan’s Magazine. For the first three years of their correspondence, the magazine’s editor Mowbray Morris was under the impression that his new protégé was a man, a mistake Steel did her best to perpetuate. Steel considered her best novel to be On the Face of the Waters (1896), a story of the Indian Mutiny of 1857. By this time, a number of novels had already been written about the series of localized military rebellions against British colonial authority, all of them representing in lurid terms the dire threat that depraved Muslim rebels supposedly posed to white, Christian womanhood.

On the Face of the Waters was different. In it, Steel tried to represent British and Indian perspectives sympathetically and without sensationalism. She considered it the greatest compliment she’d ever received when a man whose wife had been killed in the Mutiny wrote to tell Steel that reading On the Face of the Waters had enabled him to forgive her murderer. Before writing this novel, Steel returned to India for several months, this time alone. She was given permission by government officials to look through confidential, and hitherto unexplored, boxes of papers related to the mutiny. She wrote afterwards that it was like “digging for gold, uncertain each instant if some priceless treasure would not turn up. And there was a breathless haste, an inevitable hurry about it, almost as if the spirit of the times had been caught and prisoned in the papers” (Garden of Fidelity 214). Steel also used this time to get to know Delhi, where the remnants of the Mughal dynasty had resisted British troops for four months during the Mutiny, and where she listened to the stories of men and women who had lived through the experience. She even lived on a rooftop above the city, just as Kate Erleton, the heroine of her novel, does until she can escape from safety.

Steel’s novels include a broad range of female characters beyond the conventional memsahib. For instance, The Hosts of the Lord (1900) tells the interconnected stories of Erda, a Scotswoman who has come to missionary work in Eshwara by way of East London’s slums, and Laila, a Eurasian woman who has been raised to pass as white, as they try to escape marriages that have been arranged for them. Many of Steel’s novels also depict characters that postcolonial critics would now describes as hybridized, those who are neither purely Indian nor purely British, but who disturb the hierarchies of colonial society by embodying a liminal position between the two. Miss Stuart’s Legacy (1893), for example, describes the frustration of Dick Smith on one hand, and Murghub Ahmed on the other. Smith dreams of becoming an engineer with the ICS, but he cannot attend the Government Engineering College in Roorkee because, although he is of Eurasian parentage, he was born in England and is not a statutory native. Ahmed, learned in Persian, Arabic, English, and Hindustani, begins to publish a radical Islamic newspaper after he is denied a government post because he has not passed the Middle School examination administered to English boys. Both of these talented men are denied educational and employment opportunities because they don’t fit within the rigid categories of colonial society, and Steel elicits sympathy for their characters even though she offers no solution to their plight.

To all of her undertakings, Steel brought an amazingly energetic efficiency and no-nonsense attitude that seems to have enabled her to sweep away obstacles posed by law and custom, whether British or Indian. But with all her matter-of-fact practicality, Steel was deeply sensitive to the beauties of India’s landscapes and traditions, which brought out her own latent mysticism. One of my favorite passages in her autobiography reveals these co-existing sides of her personality. Setting sail from Bombay after her husband’s retirement, Steel watched the ship pass through a sea of fronds. She writes, “Ancient travelers have it that the belt is of sea serpents, set to guard the treasures of Hindustan. We moderns know it as seaweed set in motion by the movements of the microscopic animalcule by which it is infested. I am not sure which is right; but of this I am certain that those travelers who, looking down through the blue water on the brown, restless snaky coils, can see nothing but seaweed had better not go to India. They will see nothing there” (191-2).

Works Cited:
Steel, Flora Annie, and Grace Gardiner. The Complete Indian Housekeeper and Cook. Ed. by Ralph Crane and Anna Johnston. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010.
Steel, Flora Annie. The Garden of Fidelity, being the Autobiography of Flora Annie Steel, 1847-1929. London: Macmillan, 1930.