Zemindar

By Valerie Fitzgerald, 1983, Historical Fiction
Bantam Books, ISBN #0-553-22845-5

In love with her cousin Emily’s husband, Laura Hewitt travels to India in the winter of 1856-1857. She does not want to travel with Emily and Charles on their honeymoon trip, but family pressure and family affection compel her to accompany the newlyweds as Emily’s companion.

Laura is, above everything else, a resilient and pragmatic survivor. Determined to make the most of her trip, she alone of the three does not react to India with disdain and disfavor. She is passionately interested in the many cultures of India and frustrated by the well-meaning attempts of her countrymen to restrict her explorations.

Emily and Charles have chosen India as their honeymoon destination at the bidding of his mother. She has another son, from an earlier marriage, who possesses a magnificent estate, Hassanganj and she hopes her elder son, Oliver Erskine, will make Charles his heir. Charles and Oliver meet in Lucknow and while Oliver has no use for Charles, he is immediately intrigued by Laura. He invites all of them to visit him at Hassanganj.

At the estate, Laura finds a glimpse of the “real India” she has been longing to see. And she comes to know the sharp-witted, sardonic Oliver a great deal better. He demands honesty from her and when she attempts to give him less, he badgers her until she tells the truth. They are well-matched.

But before she can discover this for herself, the simmering unrest in the country erupts in the Sepoy Mutiny and the foursome are forced to flee for their lives. They travel to the city of Lucknow, eventually making their way behind the weak defenses of the Residency. At this point, Oliver abandons them. He must return to his estate to care for his illegitimate daughter.

The rest of the book details Laura’s trying and occasionally horrifying experiences during the siege. There is loss, suffering, joy, and the bleak pleasures of living through “interesting times.” There is a happily-ever-after ending, but it comes after much heartache and soul-searching. Yet you always believe Laura and Oliver belong together.

If I were a marketing person, I would call this a “Romantic Historical Novel” rather than a “Historical Romance.” The focus of the story is on Laura’s experiences in India, including her romance with Oliver, rather than on the romance itself. I love this book because I always feel as if I am there, listening to Laura’s slightly acid voice telling the story of her adventures, sparing no fools, including herself. (Zemindar is written in first-person narrative form.)

Valerie Fitzgerald’s writing is wonderful. All the characters are drawn with affection and in great detail; while they may seem like stock characters on the surface, they all have surprising depths. And they move in a vivid landscape; Fitzgerald gives you the sights, sounds and smells of India without allowing her story to get bogged down in long passages of description.

I have read this book at least a dozen times, finding something new in each reading. It is one of my all time favorites.

— Katy Cooper

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