This beautifully written, affectionate, though clear-eyed memoir by Mary Bennett of her grandparents' time in India in the 1880s deserves to be widely read, not just by family and friends, nor only by those of us who study late 19th-century British Indian history, but by anyone who is interested in the upper-middle-class culture of a century ago with its emphases on education, rationality, and civic virtue.
Courteney Peregrine Ilbert, the main subject of the book, came of a respectable south Devon family. He was sent to Marlborough (then still finding its feet) and was "intellectually emancipated" by Jowett's Balliol College. Becoming a fellow, and for a time bursar, he read for the bar, eating his dinners at Lincoln's Inn. He married Jessie Bradley, a highly intelligent young woman, the niece of the master of University College; and from their "little house" north of Hyde Park, filled with Morris fabrics and planted around with Virginia creeper, they started family and enjoyed the social life of London's professional classes. He practised at the chancery bar and prepared bills for Parliament. He would end his days as clerk to the House of Commons.
Although without previous connection with India, in late 1881 Ilbert was offered the post of legal member of the viceroy's council. Responsible for drafting legislation and guiding it through the council, his term of office began with a "humdrum little bill" about the storage of petroleum. But the legislation which brought him fame (and notoriety) was the introduction in February 1883 of a modest amendment of the criminal procedure code to permit Indian judges outside the cities of Madras, Bombay and Calcutta to try European British subjects on criminal charges. The public outcry on the part of Calcutta's white population against the bill was enormous, and not until the following year did a watered-down version secure approval.
Despite this controversy, Ilbert became highly regarded for his legislative work, and by the end of his period of service had come to play a significant role in policy-making more generally. This, and the amazingly primitive and cumbersome structure of government (key decisions for ruling a subcontinent were made by a smaller governing body than that of Balliol) are all well described, Ilbert's colleagues are brought vividly alive, and there are marvellous insights into the joys and anxieties of family life in Simla and Calcutta.
For those who delight in the art of biography, there could be no better book to slip into the top of the Christmas stocking than this deft and revealing account of late-Victorian public service.
Gordon Johnson is director, Centre for South Asian Studies, University of Cambridge.
The Ilberts in India 1882-1886: An Imperial Miniature
Author - Mary Bennett
ISBN - 0 907799 54 X
Publisher - British Association for Cemeteries in South Asia
Price - £9.00
Pages - 216