Sunday, May 23, 2010

NYRB Challenge #31: An Earlier Passage to India. . .

Original Letters from India by Eliza Fay is the account of several nerve-wracking voyages from England to Calcutta made by this indomitable woman near the end of the 18th century, and recounted in letters sent home to her sisters and friends. Her first trip was accompanying her husband who hoped to make his fortune as a barrister in the Indian city and the description takes up the majority of this book as the entire journey takes twelve months and eighteen days. Harrowing adventures are recounted along the way - the precariousness of going over the Alps on a mule, the dangers going through Egypt and sailing down the Red Sea, and the horrors of being imprisoned for several months in Calicut by Hindu rulers waging war against the British.

Throughout the trials and tribulations, Eliza keeps her wits, her eye for detail, and her plucky spirit. She reminds me a bit of Katherine Hepburn playing Rosie in The African Queen. Some of her predicaments are quite funny. Fearing capture and confiscation of their goods, she and her husband hide their papers and valuables among their clothes. Three watches are hidden in Eliza's hair with pins stuck in them to stop them from ticking but, "one of the pins however came out, at the very time I was set on shore. Never shall I forget what a terrible sensation the ticking of the watch caused! I think had it continued long, I must completely have lost my senses."

Unfortunately her husband was no Charlie Allnut or Bogey. Eliza quickly finds him cowardly, foolish, vain and his stupidity often adds to her distress. His nonchalance in being punctual for one of their boat connections forces them to take undue risks through choppy waters. His wife notes wryly that this is, " a common practice with most people who have brought themselves into difficulties by their imprudence and who seek to regain by obstinacy, what they have lost through folly. Pity such cannot always suffer alone." The marriage did not last and she separated from him a few years after their arrival in Calcutta - accelerated no doubt when he fathered an illegitimate child.

Undaunted as a single woman forced to be financially independent, Eliza makes several other voyages between England and India, trying to start a millinery business. These are longer sea voyages around the Cape of Good Hope and the number of shipwrecks and other nautical disasters she recounts give a vivid portrait of how difficult and brave it was to travel during this period when various European wars would sometimes intrude on their safety along with the life-threatening climate and its attendant diseases. It didn't help that she also encountered captains who believed it was bad luck to have women on board. Yet despite her occasional cattiness (or perhaps because of it), you can't help cheering Eliza on. She had a lot of spunk and courage. This is an entertaining and eye-opening slice of social history dotted with perceptive portraits of the people she encounters. The engraving above is from the frontispiece of the original 1817 edition, showing Eliza wearing Egyptian clothes. Unfortunately she died the year before publication, penniless in Calcutta at the age of sixty.

The annotations are by E.M. Forster who also contributes an introduction; he convinced Virginia and Leonard Woolf's Hogarth Press to publish an edition in 1925. While he admires Eliza and acknowledges that her account of events is fairly accurate, he also has no qualms about pointing out her character faults and poking some fun at them. His footnotes are sometimes as entertaining as Fay's letters. Despite her constant complaints of ill health, Forster notes that:

From various passages it is clear that our heroine was of the hungry type. People who write long letters often are. . . She ate and ate till the end - asparagus, pork, tunny, turtle, preserved peaches, ghi.
As Simon Winchester writes of the letters in his introduction: "Shelley would have been proud. And Jane Austen, just shocked, shocked."

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