This well researched novel covers a period of the British Raj prior to the 1857 Mutiny. In 1849, a young and attractive Englishwoman, Emma, is suddenly widowed when her missionary husband is garroted by thugs, and she escapes miraculously. Emma is found, wandering in the hills, by East India Company soldiers, led by a dashing Captain Dickinson. He is immediately taken in by her beauty. Emma is to be shipped back home, but fearful of facing criminal charges there, she manages to stay on by persuading the governor general’s wife to send her as a governess, requested by the Rajah of Jhansi, for fourteen-year old Rani Manikarnika (Manu). Somewhat like Anna in Anna and the King of Siam, Emma arrives before the Rajah in Jhansi’s glittering palace and gets embroiled in some of the vignettes there. In one she is persuaded into marrying an Indian officer and in another she’s faced with a dilemma when her old flame, Dickinson, is posted to Jhansi and still desires her.
While this novel’s writing may not be at par with that of E.M. Forster’s or M.M. Kaye’s, it does bring to life that era of Indian history by evocative descriptions of scenery and edifices, and exact period dialogue, at least of the British characters. Christopher Nicole is sympathetic to the Rani’s plight and has used Emma’s first-person voice effectively to reveal the folly of the East India Company directors in imposing the Doctrine of Lapse – disallowing adoptees to govern – on Jhansi. Also, Emma’s observations on the strangeness of some of the Indian customs, such as the mutilation of an adulterous wife by her husband, are enlightening.
The open ending indicates that Manu is the first book of another one of Nicole’s acclaimed serials. Readers would be looking forward to a sequel.