Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Travels in India

Up the Country, Emily Eden

One of the books I'm looking forward to reading when this cruel TBR challenge is over is Eric Newby's Slowly Down the Ganges, about a trip with his wife Wanda in 1963.  But in the meantime, I have Emily Eden's Up the Country, an account of a trip down the Ganges 126 years earlier, and it seemed only right to read this book, so long on the TBR pile, first.  I have long been a fan of Emily Eden's two wonderful novels, The Semi-Attached Couple and The Semi-Detached House (originally published in 1859/1860, and reprinted together in a Virago edition in the 1980s). 

The Semi-Attached Couple, written in the 1830s, has clear overtones of Jane Austen but also reflects the author's experience of politics.  Emily Eden was born in 1797, the twelfth child of the first Baron Auckland, a politician and diplomat.  She chose not to marry, setting up a household with her sister Fanny and brother George, who inherited the title at their father's death.  Lord Auckland, an active MP before his elevation to the House of Lords, held several high offices in Whig administrations, and Emily became a noted political hostess.  When George was appointed the Governor-General of India in 1835, Emily reluctantly went with him as his "First Lady," joined by Fanny and their nephew William.  They would spend six years in India.

In the fall of 1837, the Edens set off on what would be a two and a half year tour "up the country," from Calcutta northwest toward Delhi, then into the Punjab.  Emily chronicled their experiences in a letter-journal written to her sister Mary Drummond back in England, and her wonderful writing in this day-to-day account brings the reader along on this extraordinary trip.  The Governor-General and his suite travelled with an entourage of 12,000, whose line of march stretched ten miles.  Emily rode camels, elephants and horses, sometimes transferring to open carriages or palanquins carried by bearers.  The pace was slow, because the roads were bad, and also because there were frequent stops at the courts of local rajahs and princes, and at the stations with British residents, civil and military.

This tour had a political purpose beyond impressing the local rulers with British authority and prestige.  In Simla, Lord Auckland began talks that would eventually draw Britain into the First Afghan War in 1838.  Its disastrous end in 1842 would tarnish his reputation and overshadow the achievements of his administration.  Emily Eden, fiercely loyal to her brother, was not deeply concerned with the politics of the tour.  Nor was she greatly interested in the history or culture of the areas she visited.  After two years in India, she was intensely homesick for England, her sister Mary, and the rest of their close-knit family.  But she was determined to support her brother and play her proper part in his administration, though she was also determined to get all the fun out of it that she could along the way.  A gifted artist, she took every opportunity to sketch people and scenes, and some of her work was later published in a book of lithographs.  After accounts of the coronation of Queen Victoria reached India, Lord Auckland asked his sister to paint a portrait of the new queen, to be given to an important ally.  Emily drew on the newspaper accounts for details of the Queen's robes, but she had to make up the features of the face herself, hoping the prince would never know the difference.

Even on the march, Emily constantly recorded the arrival of mail and packages from home, forwarded on from either Bombay or Calcutta.  Letters brought family news, sometimes out of order ("Then Charley was going back to Eton. I never knew you thought of sending him there at all. I went all about the house, asking about him and his school").  She also received care packages with food ("preserves and sweetmeats and sardines and sauces from France"), clothes, new bonnets, and above all, books.  The Edens were major fans of Charles Dickens.  They left on their tour with The Pickwick Papers, and along the way they read and re-read Oliver Twist and Nicholas Nickleby, sometimes in serials sent out from England, and other times in cheap pirated editions.

With her brother and sister, Emily attended dinners and dances with the local British residents in the areas they visited, which were recorded in her journal with vivid sketches of the company.  She also took part in the durbars, ceremonial meetings with the Indian princes, and she and Fanny were sometimes invited into the cloistered women's quarters.  One of regular features of the visits was the lavish exchange of gifts, including fabulous jewels and valuable shawls. The Governor-General's sisters came in for a share of these gifts, but under government policy they could not keep them, though occasionally they were able to purchase some of the items back for themselves.

The only other Victorian woman traveler whose writings I have read is Isabella Bird (The Englishwoman in America, A Lady's Life in the Rocky Mountains, Unbeaten Tracks in Japan).  It is difficult to compare the two, first because their travels were so different.  Emily Eden travelled literally with a cast of thousands, as part of her brother's suite.  Isabella Bird travelled alone, with only the necessary translators or guides.  But even more than that, Emily seemed detached, uninterested in India and its people, focused on her family.  She wrote, "I never ask questions, I hate information."  Isabella Bird would talk to anyone, and she constantly asked and answered questions.  She made herself at home, while never losing sight of her position as an Englishwoman abroad.  I was also reminded of Elizabeth Grant, whose Memoirs of a Highland Lady include an account of her family's residence in India in the late 1820s, though she left India before the Edens arrived.

The edition I have is a Virago Travellers, published in 1983.  I see that other editions are available, and I hope that they include maps of the areas that Emily visited, the lack of which is a real handicap in this book.  It would have been even more helpful to include notes linking the English place-names that Emily uses with their modern equivalents.  I read this book with my trusty atlas on hand, but it was difficult to track their march from Umritzir, for example, until I figured out it was really Amritsar.  There are several pages of notes in the back of the book, reprinted from a 1930 edition, most of which identify people who for privacy appear only as initials.  But there is no asterisk or number on a page to signal an endnote, which I found frustrating.

Those quibbles aside, I thoroughly enjoyed this book.  Emily is delightful company, even in her sad and homesick moods, and the pomp and circumstance of the trip is endlessly fascinating.  The introduction mentions two other volumes of her letters that have been published, and I will be looking for those as well.


  1. I hate travel books (memoirs, letters, guides, whatever) that don't have maps! Maps are key! I first came across Eden's letters in Margaret MacMillan's excellent Women of the Raj, which was particularly fascinating since it tracks womens lives over all the years of the Raj. I was struck by Eden's writing enough at the time to add her published volumes of letters to my TBR list at the time but I haven't got around to them yet!

  2. Women of the Raj does sound excellent - I will be looking for a copy of that, in addition to Eden's letters.

  3. After reading some Indian fiction lately, I am interested in your comments on this book. A history on my to-be-read pile looks terrific: Vishnu's Crowded Temple, India Since the Great Rebellion by Maria Misra. That would be the 1857 uprising. Lots of maps!

  4. I've got Amitav Ghosh on my reading list, and I was thinking of it as I read this. The only fiction I've read set in India, besides Kipling, is Paul Scott's Jewel in the Crown trilogy.

  5. I am always astounded when I read of people who took these amazingly long and arduous journeys without airplanes, cars or trains. Amazing!
    Emily does sound like a good companion, but did you miss getting a sense of the history or people of the areas she was visiting?

  6. Absolutely, Anbolyn! I wouldn't recommend this as an introduction to India in the late 1830s, and I appreciate the suggestions for further reading. It does remind me of when Anthony Trollope was in Washington DC during the Civil War, and decided it was too much trouble to call on President Lincoln.

  7. i have the same edition tucked away somewhere. The trip sounds wonderful and I'm pleased you enjoyed the company so I will try to pull it out soon.

  8. I enjoyed her company so much, and I'm anxious to get hold of her published letters. There seem to be a lot of print-on-demand options, but I don't always like their formatting.

  9. I have not heard of that book before but I will try to find it. Seems interesting.

  10. I found it very interesting. Eden is an entertaining writer, with an eye for detail & a wonderful turn of phrase, though of course she is very much of her own time & culture.


Thank you for taking the time to read, and to comment. I always enjoy hearing different points of view about the books I am reading, even if we disagree!