Strangerland: A Family at War by Helena Drysdale - review by Vyvyen Brendon

Vyvyen Brendon

Sheep and Dust

Strangerland: A Family at War


Picador 396pp £14.99

‘Imprisoned in an alien environment, poor, friendless, disoriented and alone.’ Thus Helena Drysdale portrays the plight of her forebear Isabella Gascoyne (née Campbell). She is describing the most traumatic period of Isabella’s life, not as a soldier’s grass widow on a remote Indian army cantonment, or as a settler’s wife on an isolated New Zealand farm, but as a little girl of five left at a boarding-school in her home country.

The Gascoyne family saga thus ranges across three of the five continents encompassed by the British Empire in the mid nineteenth century. It was because Isabella was born in India that she was consigned to an English boarding-school at such a tender age. Only through banishment, thought pukka Raj contemporaries, could one avoid the fearsome perils of rearing a child in a heathen land. Orphaned, like a Frances Hodgson Burnett heroine, when she was only ten, Isabella grew up in the London household of a family friend and then went to India in her turn. Her plan was to keep house for her brother Archy, who had joined the Indian army. Instead she was swept off her feet by his best friend, Lieutenant Charles Gascoyne, and began married life in 1835 on the Cawnpore military station. She had at last ‘found a home’.

Ignoring the advice of Anglo-Indian childcare manuals, the Gascoynes also created an Indian home for their children rather than sending them to Britain. It is true that they lost two out of nine babies, but this was not an unusually high infant mortality rate for the time even in England.

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