Valerie Fitzgerald wrote only one book. But what a book it is. Don’t be deceived by its romance novel cover: “Zemindar” is historical fiction at its finest.
Set in India at the time of the Sepoy Mutiny (also known as the Indian Rebellion or the First War of Indian Independence) in 1857, this is the story of an English spinster and poor relation, Laura Hewitt, who accompanies her newly-married cousin Emily and Emily’s husband, Charles, on a honeymoon trip to India. It seems that Charles is related to a zemindar, a wealthy landowner in India named Oliver Erskine and since Mr. Erskine is childless, hopes to be named his heir. The relationship between these four people is complicated: Laura believes herself to be in love with Charles, Charles’ and Emily’s marriage is unhappy, and Oliver Erskine? Well, he’s enigmatic. Slowly, Laura finds herself less and less enamored of Charles and more interested in Oliver.
It is during the honeymoon stay at Erskine’s estate that the Mutiny breaks out. They escape to the Residency at Lucknow and join the many who are beseiged there. The hardships, fear, brutality and death during the Mutiny change each of Fitzgerald’s characters. And they are superb characters: besides the four main characters who run the gamut from spoiled and shallow to strong and colorful, she gives us Toddy Bob, Oliver’s Cockney servant; Kate, a tough but kind wife of an army officer; Moti, Oliver’s loyal Indian mistress, and many other vivid characters.
The author’s grandmother lived through the Mutiny and that the author lived in Lucknow during WWII; her description of India (Erskine’s estate, Hassanganj, and the Residency at Lucknow in particular) is superb, filled with detail that is included not for the sake of showing us how much research she has done, but to illuminate her story.
This is a sweeping, vivid book that reaches a deeply satisfying conclusion. It’s long (almost 800 pages), so set aside some time to enjoy this superb novel.