Steel [née Webster], Flora Annie (1847–1929), writer on India and educationist, was born on 2 April 1847 at Sudbury Priory, Harrow on the Hill, Middlesex, the sixth of the eleven children of George Webster and his wife, Isabella (d. 1882), daughter and heir of Alexander MacCallum, a Jamaican sugar planter. Her parents were Scottish, on her mother’s side of west highland descent. Her early years were marked by her father’s bankruptcy and the loss of her mother’s fortune, which meant a move from Sudbury Priory and their house in Palace Yard, Westminster, which George Webster had occupied as a Scottish parliamentary agent, to a small villa overlooking Harrow School cricket field. In 1857 her father was appointed sheriff-clerk of Forfarshire, and the family moved north to Burnside, near Forfar, amid wild country where the children indulged their love of country life.
Flora Webster was informally educated in a cultivated home, her parents having counted Thackeray and the artist Cruikshank among their friends. Her mother fostered her daughter’s love of ‘amateur theatricals’ with home productions, and encouraged her wide reading, and considerable talent for painting, singing, piano playing, sewing, and handicrafts. Flora also gained practical skill as a housekeeper in helping to run the home. Her academic schooling was restricted to six months in Brussels with her cousins, when she was judged ‘diligente mais point gracieuse’.
On 31 December 1867 Flora married Henry William Steel (1840–1923) of the Indian Civil Service, the son of the Revd Thomas Steel, a housemaster at Harrow. She claimed that neither was in love, but the marriage was long, happy, and mutually sustaining. Their daughter recorded that ‘To him my mother was the one entirely right thing in this world’ (Steel, 289). He had the grace and tact to accept her exuberant vitality and enthusiasms, self-confessed autocratic ways and centre-stage role, and provided the foundation for her life and activity. The small, pink-cheeked, golden-curled young woman he married was described as ‘Steel’s baby bride’; her engagingly youthful appearance was noted even in lined old age.
The Steels left almost immediately for India, and were posted to Ludhiana in the north. There, and in Dalhousie and Kasur, near Lahore, they enjoyed the longest periods of residence in India, during part of which there were fifteen postings in sixteen years. A daughter was stillborn in Dalhousie on 29 September 1868, the memory of which always haunted Flora Steel. A second daughter, Mabel, was born on 10 December 1870, and left at home in Britain during their leave in 1872–3. Since there appeared no hope of another child, Flora Steel was compelled on her return to Kasur to devise a way of life for herself.
The activities of Flora Steel’s girlhood provided absorbing interests, and in postings where there were other Europeans she arranged theatrical productions, balls, and played the harmonium in church. But Kasur had no other British officers, and it was to the world of India that she turned with fascination, learning the local language, as she did on all their postings. She accompanied her husband on his tours of the area, acquiring an intimate knowledge of the peasantry, entertained local municipal officials to iced melon and cold plum pudding, and designed the town hall. Her personal interests also led her deeper into the life of Indian women. She championed their traditional handicrafts, which were under threat from western taste and commercialism, and produced an illustrated monograph on their delicate phulkari embroidery. Medical care was another area of concern: with supplies brought from Britain, she assisted the women and children of the town, learning much of their otherwise hidden world. Education, however, brought her greatest involvement with Indian life. From small beginnings, teaching English to young men in Kasur, she was asked by Indians to help establish girls’ schools, which soon numbered twelve; later, in 1884, she was appointed government inspector of girls’ schools for an area extending from Peshawar to Delhi, and from 1885 to 1888 served on the provincial educational board. She was an active and outspoken member, introducing reform, rewriting school primers, which were illustrated with the help of John Lockwood Kipling, and producing a manual on hygiene. However, despite her concern for Indian women’s welfare, she disapproved of attempts to bring education and medicine to the zenana, on the grounds that they merely buttressed segregation.
Though the groundwork for British women’s intervention in the fields which occupied Flora Steel had been laid earlier in the century, the Indian mutiny of 1857 had undermined contact between British women and Indians. By the later nineteenth century, a near-contemporary commentator, Maud Diver, noted how exceptional were her interests and activity (The Englishwoman in India, 1909, 78, 153–4). Although she sometimes piqued British authority with her criticism and outspoken views, she was greatly loved and admired by Indian women and girls. On her departure from Kasur she was honoured with a brooch composed of jewels donated by local women; later her pupils in the Punjab presented her with fabric they had spun, woven, dyed, and embroidered themselves, from which she made a dress.
The foundation of Flora Steel’s literary career was also laid during these years in India. In 1884 she published Wide Awake Stories, folk-tales which she had collected from children in the villages of the Punjab, which were annotated by the distinguished folklorist R. C. Temple, and later republished as Tales from the Punjab (1894), with illustrations by John Lockwood Kipling. In 1887 came the fruit of her practical experience of Indian domestic life, The Complete Indian Cook and Housekeeper, jointly written with her friend Grace Gardiner. However, it was from the Steels’ retirement from India in 1889 and their move to Aberdeenshire that she began in earnest on the novels and short stories on India which were to make her name. From the Five Rivers (1893), the first of five collections of short stories, was rooted in her experience in the Punjab, and reflected an unrivalled knowledge of peasant life. Later stories extended her range to town and village life, and British characters. Among her novels (which also included some on British themes), it was her sweeping account of the siege and attack on Delhi during the Indian mutiny of 1857, On the Face of the Waters (1896), which brought her greatest fame. Like all her work, it was based on accurate personal knowledge, which she acquired by returning in 1894 to Kasur and Lahore to research the life of Indian urban women and to Delhi to record evidence of the mutiny and the testimony of descendants of the Mughal emperor. Other novels dealt with the contemporary scene, presenting a wide range of British and Indians at all levels of society, including the unfamiliar world of Indian women from aristocrats to peasants and prostitutes, and exploring issues of current interest. Voices in the Night (1900), for example, which she researched in Lucknow on her second and last visit to India in 1897–8, illustrated the frequent dislocation caused by the westernization of young Indians, a theme to which she returned in The Law of the Threshold (1924). Other novels included The Potter’s Thumb (1894), The Host of the Lord (1900), and four studies of Mughal rulers. She also tried to popularize India through accessible accounts of contemporary India, Indian history, and the Mahabharata and Ramayana.
The ‘otherness’ which she had always sensed in Indian life drew Flora Steel increasingly into religion and mysticism, and she claimed on occasion that her writing on India was dictated by forces outside herself. Another later area of investigation inspired by India was sexuality. Although she claimed personally to dislike the ‘sensual’, she had frequently explored the role of sexuality in Indian women’s lives, and its link with religion. Her last novel, The Curse of Eve (1929), was the culmination of her thinking on the sexuality of women.
Although many women were writing about India, Flora Steel’s work was judged outstanding by contemporaries because of the range of her knowledge, the colour and accuracy of her descriptions, and her combination of ‘masculine’ reason and ‘feminine’ sensibility. Her characterization, however, was often reckoned weak: ‘Mrs. Steel does not paint, she only sketches’ (Spectator, 1896, 672). Moreover, critics felt that, even in her novel about the Indian mutiny, she failed to understand the underlying causes behind events. Post-colonial critics emphasize her preference for ‘traditional’ India, her restriction within Victorian certainties of the raj, and her hostility to Indian attempts to cross boundaries of race, politics, or education.
Yet in Britain Flora Steel was fully engaged with the changing times. The Steels moved near Machynlleth, Montgomeryshire, in 1899, from where she spoke in support of women’s suffrage. By the First World War they were living in Shropshire, near Tenbury, where she lectured on the war, and helped found the local Women’s Institute. Throughout these years she was closely involved with her two grandsons, her daughter having married a cousin serving in India, and the Steels later moved to Cheltenham, where the boys were at school. The death of her husband in 1923 was a great blow, though Flora Steel maintained an active life, writing, studying, travelling, and keeping abreast of contemporary interests by joining the Eugenics Society in her late seventies. Her final work, the autobiographical Garden of Fidelity, was almost completed when she died of heart failure on 12 April 1929 at Springfield, Minchinhampton, Gloucestershire, where she had been living with her daughter and son-in-law on their return from India. She was cremated in Bristol on 16 April, wearing, at her request, the dress which her pupils had spun for her in India some forty years before.
Wealth at Death: £13,689 16s. 1d.: resworn probate, 15 June 1929.
(Oxford Dictionary of National Biography)