The best historical novels about the British in India

Janet MacLeod Trotter Author Of The Emerald Affair
By Janet MacLeod Trotter

Who am I?

As a historical novelist, my passion is world history and the story of my own family. Having survived the First World War, my Scottish grandfather went to India as a forester and my granny followed him out there; they married in Lahore. I was fascinated by their stories of trekking and camping in the remote Himalayas. They lived through momentous times: world war, Indian Independence and Partition. Grandfather Bob stayed on to work for the new country of Pakistan. Long after they’d died, I discovered their letters, diaries, and cine films from that era – a treasure-trove for a novelist! – which have helped enrich my novels set during the British Raj.

I wrote...

The Emerald Affair

By Janet MacLeod Trotter,

Book cover of The Emerald Affair

What is my book about?

After the heartbreak of the First World War, two friends leave Scotland for a new life in India. While Esmie endures hardship and danger nursing in the wilds of the Northwest Frontier, hedonistic Lydia dreams of a glamorous life at The Raj Hotel in Rawalpindi. But the simmering tensions at the hotel are mirrored in the unrest on the frontier and when crisis strikes, Esmie faces a shattering choice: should she stay the constant friend she’s always been, or risk everything and follow her heart? Love, loyalty, and friendship will be tested to their utmost in the heat and turbulence of colonial India. The Emerald Affair is the first in the Raj Hotel Series.

The books I picked & why

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A Passage to India

By E.M. Forster,

Book cover of A Passage to India

Why this book?

This novel, quite simply, sent me to India! Written in the 1920s when my grandparents were starting married life there, it is a beautifully written but unsettling depiction of British colonial rule. The plot is deceptively simple: was Adela (a naive young woman newly arrived from England) molested in the Marabar Caves by Dr. Aziz (a cultured young Indian acting as her guide)? But the characters are complex and the novel brilliantly illustrates the tensions between the racist rulers and the ruled. I read it as a teenager, and its portrayal of the vividness of the Indian landscape and the vibrancy of its multi-layered culture gripped my imagination. This book is what made me – aged 18 – climb on a bus to India!

The Far Pavilions

By M.M. Kaye,

Book cover of The Far Pavilions

Why this book?

This is romantic fiction on an epic scale and took my breath away. It starts at the time of the Indian Mutiny and powers through to the Second Afghan War; a whirlwind of daring escapes, palace intrigues, brutal battles, and star-crossed lovers (British boy Ashok raised as Hindu and Princess Juli). The descriptions of India, from the desert fortresses to the northern mountains, are mesmerising – it’s like watching a very long technicolour film with a vast cast! M.M. Kaye set the bar very high for historical fiction set in India. She was raised in Simla during the British Raj and her passion for India shines through the novel. It inspired me to write my own homage to Kaye’s novel, set a generation earlier.

The Raj Quartet, Volume 1: The Jewel in the Crown

By Paul Scott,

Book cover of The Raj Quartet, Volume 1: The Jewel in the Crown

Why this book?

I read all four novels in the Raj Quartet (The Jewel being the first) in the 1980s and they have stayed with me ever since – absolutely riveting historical fiction. Set during and after World War 2 in India (where Scott himself served in the army) it follows the lives of a British Raj army family trying to hold onto their way of life as the political and social tectonic plates shift towards Independence. There is a brilliant array of characters – both principled and flawed – from army wives and missionaries to Indian nationalists and elites. It made me want to return to India! When I eventually travelled to Shimla to discover where my grandparents had lived, I also saw where much of the Jewel in the Crown TV series was filmed!

Teatime for the Firefly

By Shona Patel,

Book cover of Teatime for the Firefly

Why this book?

Set in 1940s India in the lead up to Independence, the backdrop is the rarely written about North-East India. The protagonists; Layla, (well-educated and independently-minded) and Manik (a free-thinker with a sense of adventure) are an unusual couple for the core romance but his work takes them to the remote tea plantations of Assam. I have written about the tea gardens in my India Tea Series, but largely from a British and Anglo-Indian point of view. Patel’s vivid depiction of this way of life is informed by her own upbringing, as the daughter of tea planters. It’s rich in detail with wonderful descriptions of Assam and keen observations of the British managers and Indian workers. As it builds towards Partition, the drama and tension are brilliantly evoked through Layla’s eyes.

City of Spies

By Sorayya Khan,

Book cover of City of Spies

Why this book?

As this novel is set in 1970s Islamabad, Pakistan and the ex-pats are mainly American, it’s technically not about the British in India. But the ex-colonial legacy is there to see: Pakistan was a creation of independence from British rule and is still being affected by geo-politics. I was gripped by the description of life in the Pakistani capital; an area where my grandparents had lived and worked and through which I had travelled in the ’70s. This coming-of-age story is told by teenager Aliya, (half-Pakistani and half-Dutch) who attends the American school. Not only are the tensions of identity well portrayed but also the growing unease between the communities after a traffic accident leaves a young boy dead and world events ignite further unrest. Fascinating and unusual historical fiction.

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