Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Three volumes of Emily Eden's letters

Miss Eden's Letters, Violet Dickinson, editor  (1919)
Letters from India, Vols. 1-2, Emily Eden (Eleanor Eden, editor)  (1872)

Reading Emily Eden's Up the Country made me curious about her other books. I had already read her novels, The Semi-Attached Couple and The Semi-Detached House, which always make me wish she had written more fiction. I found that an edition of her letters was published in 1919. Copies are rare, even in libraries, so I downloaded an e-version from Google Books (and read about half the letters). I was very pleased when ABE Books finally found me a copy two years later. It was withdrawn at some point from the Manchester Public Libraries - at least I hope it was, and not stolen. The "NOT TO BE TAKEN FROM THIS ROOM" notice pasted on the front cover, with its threat of prosecution, still makes me a bit nervous.

The letters in this book date from 1814 to 1863 (Emily Eden died in 1869). They consist primarily of letters from Emily to family and friends. Born in 1797, she was one of twelve children. Her father George Eden was a diplomat, raised to a barony for his service in various embassies in Europe. His second son George, who became his heir, went into Parliament as a Whig and then into government service. Their family moved in the highest social and political circles, and Emily's sisters married into prominent families. She and another sister Fanny never married, living with George and acting as his political hostesses. When their old friend Lord Melbourne appointed George Governor-General of India in 1835, Fanny and Emily went with him. He was recalled after the disastrous First Afghan War, settling again in England with them.

The first half of Miss Eden's Letters covers her life before India. The early letters remind me very much of Jane Austen's, full of family jokes and gossip. There are constant references to the birth of nieces and nephews, and to their marriages (Emily's oldest sister was twenty years older, so there was an overlap of generations in the family). Like Austen, Emily paid frequent visits to friends and family, but she moved in much higher circles. She stayed at Chatsworth and Hatfield House, and made long visits to Lord and Lady Landsdowne at Bowood. The first letter in the collection mentions that family friend Anne Milbanke has written to announce her marriage to Lord Byron. There are also frequent references to politics, in which Emily took a keen interest. I was a little out of my depth there, despite the footnotes.

The letters in this section include several from two of Emily's closest friends. Pamela FitzGerald was the daughter of Lord Edward FitzGerald, a leader of the Irish Rebellion of 1798. After his death in prison, his estate and his children were put under attainder. It isn't clear from the letters how Pamela and Emily met, but they developed a lasting friendship, sustained by long letters in between rare visits. I wonder if Emily was as surprised as I was when Pamela announced her marriage to Sir Guy Campbell, a widower with children whom she married shortly after meeting him in Scotland. He had to go back into the army to support their constantly-growing family, and they ended up stationed in Ireland. I felt her letters highlighted the limited opportunities for women of their class (even those not under attainder), and I wondered if Emily ever felt that she herself had chosen the better part (like one of her own sisters, Pamela bore eleven children). Another close friend and correspondent, Theresa Lewis, offered a different option. A wife and mother, she also wrote novels with her husband Thomas. It was Theresa who would later edit Emily's novels for publication.

Almost exactly half-way through this book comes the announcement of Lord Auckland's appointment to India. I had already realized that there are another two volumes of Emily's letters, covering her years in India. I decided to read those, before returning with her to England. The India volumes were published after her death. Her niece Eleanor Eden wrote in a preface that Emily had begun collecting the letters, after the success of Up the Country, but died before the project could be completed. The first letters in the first volume of Letters from India describe the preparations for the trip, and the six months' voyage. I enjoyed reading those, with their account of the passage via Rio and Cape Town. I am always in awe of people traveling such immense distances in small wooden sailing ships. It was a miserable trip, partly because Emily was a poor sailor, and partly because she didn't want to be there in the first place. She hated leaving England and her extended family, she did not want to spend five years in India, but she also couldn't bear to be parted from her brother. She disliked India from the start, particularly the heat and humidity of Calcutta (Kolkata). With Fanny, she acted as the "Governor's lady," hosting receptions and balls and theater performances, and joining Lord Auckland on formal occasions. But she lived for letters, and for books. She noted that pirated American editions were easy to find in the shops. ("The Americans are valuable creatures at this distance. They send us novels, ice, and apples - three things that, as you may guess, are not indigenous to the soil." Letter, April 24, 1836)

I found the first volume of these India letters interesting, with the journey out and the first accounts of their lives in Calcutta. Emily could find the fun in almost anything, I think, and she wrote comically about their European neighbors and the various social activities. She also liked to tease her brother, and to share jokes. There are more troubling elements, such as her attitude toward the Indian people. She frequently used the term "savages" in discussing them, though she also protested against their abuse by Europeans. She saw nothing to admire in their history or art, and she had no respect for Hinduism (Islam on the other hand was simply an incomplete religion). I know these attitudes were common. I just found them a bit wearing in letter after letter. I also would have appreciated some context on the political situation in India, which was presumably fresh in the minds of readers in the 1870s. I had to keep checking for more information, to understand how Lord Auckland got England involved in war with Afghanistan and what went wrong. At the same time, he was sending British troops to the First Opium War with China. Emily wrote about these events, of course fully supporting her brother's administration. There is no hint in her letters that he was actually recalled to England, under a cloud, because of the debacle of the Afghan war.

I finished the second volume of India letters with some relief, prepared to return to England with Emily. I was taken aback to find that Miss Eden's Letters continued with yet more Indian letters. I was also surprised to find myself enjoying those letters more. I think it's partly that they were written to people that I knew from the earlier correspondence. Though they included many of the same complaints, they felt more alive, and Emily's sense of fun came through more clearly. These India letters take up most of the second half of the book. The letters that date from her return to England deal mainly with her declining health, though she continued to follow politics carefully. Her brother George's death in 1849 was a terrible blow, as were the deaths of her sisters in the 1850s. It was in those years that she was writing The Semi-Detached House, and revising The Semi-Attached Couple. Like Jane Austen, she carefully collected reviews, both private and published. The letters don't mention the publication of Up the Country, however, which also did very well.

All of these books are available in e-versions, through Google Books. The two volumes of India letters have been reprinted in modern editions, and they are available in print-on-demand editions. I think Miss Eden's Letters is the best. Anyone interested in women's lives in the early 19th century, or in Emily Eden, will find much to enjoy. She really is good company, and I think this is a book I will return to. The India letters are interesting to a point, but I struggled to finish them. I would only recommend them to someone who wanted to delve deeply into the British women's experience in India in the 1830s.

Reading these letters did remind me how long it has been since I read The Semi-Attached Couple and The Semi-Detached House. I think I'll be taking my combined Virago edition off the shelf again before too long. It is clear particularly from The Semi-Attached Couple how much Jane Austen influenced Emily Eden's novels. There are frequent mentions of Austen's characters in her letters, which show how familiar she was with the books. She also enjoyed Charles Dickens' books, but I was tickled to find in the later letters that she had lost her taste for Charlotte M. Yonge's books.
I have been fairly beat by Miss Yonge's new book, The Daisy Chain, which distresses me, as I generally delight in her stories; but if she means this Daisy Chain to be amusing, it is is, unhappily, intensely tedious, and if she meant it to be good, it strikes me that one of Eugène Sue's novels would do less harm to the cause of religion . . . [I think] Ethel, the heroine, the most disagreeable, stormy, conceited girl I ever met with. . . I read on till I came to a point where she thought her father was going to shake her because she was ill-natured about her sister's marriage; and finding that he did not perform that operation, which he ought to have done every day of her life, I gave it up. (Letter, March 1856)

N.B. I have already filled the 1872 slot in my Mid-Century of Books, but I can still fill 1919 with Miss Eden's Letters.


  1. Sounds very interesting. She's been on my TBR list for a long time because of my interesting in India - impossible to read books about the British in India without tripping over quotes from her!

    1. I can imagine, though unlike a lot of the women she met and wrote about, she was there for such a comparatively short time. I think you recommended a book on women in the Raj, which I still need to read.

  2. This might be the push I need to finally pick up Emily Eden's books. I'm sure I could fit one of them into my poor neglected century.

    1. I've reached a point with my century where I keep reading books from years that are already filled! I guess that's what comes of reading without a plan.

      I hope you will enjoy Miss Eden as much as I do - particularly the novels.

  3. Reading this is reminding me, too, that it's been too long since I read her two novels. I found an edition of the two books together (probably the same one you have!) at the Housing Works Bookstore in Soho, and I don't think I've read it since I bought it!

    1. I don't remember all the details now, but a friend bought a copy of that edition, and had it shipped to me to send on to her. I was never so tempted to steal a book, and it took me AGES to find a copy for myself.

  4. What an interesting way to learn about a person and a time and a place. Reading your post made me think that reading these letters would feel like reading an epistolary novel, which is actually one of my favorite genres.

  5. These letters sound wonderful, especially the Indian letters, as I am often happily immersed in England of the 1860s to 1880s via Anthony Trollope's novels.


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!