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Emily Eden in India: A British Memsahib’s Account of India through Travel and Letters (1837-1841)

By Ankita Das

The word ‘travel’ has many meanings; it may imply a voyage, a journey or an expedition. However, in the literal sense, travel implies physical journeys undertaken to places. Travel narratives are accounts of visits to places. There are several ways in which the act of travelling may relate to travel accounts. They may have specific inter-relations to various aspects of social life such as culture, social class/status, and ideologies. The traveller features extensively in Western imaginative expression. For Francis Bacon, travel was an integral part of education. Descartes highlighted the significance of travel, which helped one to perceive reality in its true colors. Thus, travel as an activity was associated with the notions of freedom, mobility, progress, knowledge, and self-awareness. Men, as forebearers of public life, first featured in travel narratives. Physical journeys became a means to discover new lands and interpret the world. The sphere of the woman was limited to the home and hearth as the protector and nurturer, and was popularized by conduct magazines that sought to underline feminine virtues.

Since antiquity, men and women have traveled due to diverse reasons. Curiosity may have been one of the primary causes, but diplomacy, political pursuits, military campaigns, trade and business, pilgrimage, migration, and the search for economic and educational opportunities were and still are inducements for foreign travel. With the advent of colonialism, it defined social and cultural paradigms in new ways, in which travel became an integral part of fashioning the colonial modernity. With the social acceptance of travel as an exercise, it encouraged one to mingle freely with other nations. Although it was very rare for women to travel during the early nineteenth century from Europe to South Asia, there were several women who took upon themselves the challenge of travelling, sometimes alone, but most often accompanied by a male, family member or friend. Travel allowed them a necessary space to assert themselves, which was otherwise denied to them within the norms of their conventional society. It also enabled some of them to explore their own physical experiences and sexuality in ways that would be unthinkable at home. Narratives of such travels undertaken by women did not just serve the purpose of simplistic documentation; whatever they documented in their writings served the purpose of being fragments, which can help in creating a particular kind of women’s history, through their own voices. An analysis of such travelogues would help to critically assess the ways in which colonialism, empire, and notions of women’s emancipation intersected and overlapped each other. It would further assess what implications such intersections would have in the construction of cultural identities and help to analyze the sociological and psychological changes that women underwent.

With the growth in formal education, women, especially from the higher and middle classes of European society, transcended boundaries of the household, to enter into limited interactions with public spaces, mostly under the watchful eyes of an indigenous patriarchy. She was trained to be a companionate partner to her husband, trained in manners and domesticity, moral values and social demeanor. The European lady took part in activities of travel. Travelling for her was an act of negation and negotiation. First, she had to negotiate social restrictions on voyages, especially sea-voyages, which were not very popular during the late eighteenth and nineteenth century. Second, she was transgressing her domestic boundary which defined her identity. Finally, her act of writing her travel experiences and publishing them implied a sense of transgression from prescribed norms of society. In such a scenario, it is important to explore how women sought to construct a separate niche for themselves through these writings and what strategies they use to negotiate between the public and the private.

The figure of the memsahib offers a rich opportunity for reflection into the subtleties of gender within the British Empire. The Oxford Dictionary suggests that etymologically, the word ‘memsahib’ is a revision of the old ‘sahib’, a term Indians use to address some European men, but can also be attached to an office or to titles of Indian men in certain contexts. The first Oxford Dictionary citation of the word ‘memsahib’ occurs only in the 1830s, when it was reserved for high status European wives in India. However, in the following years, there was an increase in the number of women, who travelled to India and notions of imperial domesticity came to be established. The Census of the North-Western Province of 1872 reveals that there were 5000 British women, living in the North-Western Province of India; however there is a sharp increase in the figures by 1901: 42,004 British women were residing in India out of a total British population of 1,54,691.[i] As wives/sisters/daughters of the official elite, they came to embody many of the complex and contradictory links between domesticity and imperialism. Their writings reveal the domestic and familial roles they played, often as imperial home-makers in the colonies. In the course of their stay in India, they transported and translated the feminine discourses of middle class European notions of marriage, domesticity, and motherhood, through an imperial space. Apart from their domestic duties, they did not have much to do. Some of them expressed themselves through journals, diaries, and letters, to overcome boredom in an alien land. Emily Eden’s epistolary mode and her collection of letters offer a fresh perspective on British women travellers and how they perceived their status in an alien country. This genre allowed a degree of apparent immediacy and spontaneity and became the only source of connection between family and friends.

Emily Eden was unique in that she was an unmarried English aristocrat. Written in an epistolary mode, Up the Country (1867) is a collection of letters compiled for publication by Richard Bentley, the publisher of illustrious Victorian volumes.

The Edens reached Calcutta on 3 March, 1836, which incidentally was also Emily Eden’s 39th birthday. She was accompanying her brother, Lord Auckland (Governor General to India), along with her sister, Fanny Eden. On October 1837, they left Calcutta for a two and half year tour across the northern provinces of India, with an entourage of twelve thousand people, eight hundred and fifty camels, one hundred forty elephants, and sixty horses. Their journey route was from Calcutta to Simla via Benaras, Simla to Lahore, Lahore to Simla, and finally back to Calcutta. During the entire journey, utmost care and high standards were maintined to replicate the home environ in an alien land; beasts of burden carried tables, chairs, beds, cupboards, mats, cushions, dressing cases, and trunks filled with books, linen and tableware. The tents were very comfortable and splendid, with bedrooms, dressing rooms and sitting rooms which were connected by wide passages. In addition to this, there were huge tents for dining and holding durbars, but for Emily, it was still ‘open-airish and unsafe’.

As a well-educated member of the social elite, Emily Eden left behind a collection of materials, such as letters, lithographs, drawings, and two novels that were saved, edited, and published in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Some of her sketches and paintings were created into lithographs and compiled into Portraits of the Princes and People of India, which included pictures and images of rajas, attendants, native people, and events from India. She also authored two novels that commented on the modes and manners of the Victorian Era, The Semi-Detached House (1859) and The Semi-Attached Couple (1860). However, the richest collection of material that Eden left behind was the extensive correspondence of letters. The letters include her personal experiences, trials, and tribulations while travelling “up the country” from Calcutta to Simla. In a letter (1866), written to her nephew, William, Eden noted her own censorship: “Many passages of this Diary, written solely for the amusement of my own family, have of course been omitted; but not a word has been added to descriptions which have little merit, but that were true and written on the spot.”[ii] Due to her failing health in 1866, her niece Eleanor carried out the task of preparing the letters for publication. Despite the editing by her nieces, who removed whole letters and excised damaging remarks, Emily’s letters still revealed an enormous variety of themes, giving details on how she understood and viewed her world.

Isolation from family and friends, distance from British society and the cultural and political stimulation severely affected her. Afraid of losing her English identity and apparent Indianization, Emily found new meaning in the receipt of her letters. Physically, India weakened her body and senses and punkhas became a part of her routine. Her servants carried her place to place in palanquins and howdahs and she indulged in airing, a walking activity for women that occurred during dusk to relieve them from the discomforts of the climate. The dearth of European women bothered Emily and created psychological discomfort as she believed that women needed to socialize while abroad. She told her family and friends never to let their daughters come to India and wrote, “It is a melancholy country for wives at the best, and I strongly advise you to never to let your girls marry an East Indian.”[iii]

In constructing the empire and particularly India, Eden presented it as an alien, strange land with no place for a woman. Apart from social stress, which stemmed from gender, there was physical stress, such as hardships of the tropical climate, danger of disease, absence of family and social activities and frequent deaths of infants. In order to maintain imperial aloofness from native Indians, the middle-class memsahib had to live an alienated, culturally marginalized life in the Indian colony. The Indian experience was intensely physical, and the climate proved to be a torment to the British body and senses, assaulted by the heat, dust, and dirt. In many cases, the physical discomforts, and diseases brought the threat of death. Emily contemplated this threat before her journey to India, in a letter dated, July 1835, she wrote, “I have been so worried, and have had so much to do with seeing and hearing the representations of friends, and taking leave of many who are gone out of town and whom I shall never see again.”[iv]

Eden’s collection of letters explores an important aspect of her life in India, the physical experience of living away from home. Her letters demonstrate a series of discomforts, and how it played a crucial role in conditioning Eden’s response to India. For some historians, climate, by creating lethargy and stagnation, had a major impact on British rule in India due to its effects on European as well as Indian political systems and the way India was governed. As Mark Harrison argues in Climates and Constitutions: Health, Race, Environment and British Imperialism in India, 1660-1850, Europeans viewed the relation of their bodies with the Indian climate in different times through history depending upon the political scenario. Eden’s experiences reveal the importance of weather-stricken bodily relations and the understanding that the physical body was central to the colonial experience. While on board Jupiter, Eden was thirty-nine years old and was accompanied by her brother George, her sister Fanny and nephew William Osbourne. She had never travelled, nor had she lived alone, far away from Britain. In preparing for her journey, both psychologically and physically, she was aware of the discomforts of sea-journey and the cultural transitions that were to take place. While on board Jupiter, Eden expressed her struggles and discomforts, “That in the middle of February, when we ought to be shivering in a thick yellow fog, George and I should be established on a pile of cushions in the stern window of his cabin, he without his coat, waistcoat and shoes, learning Hindoostanee by the sweat of his brow. I, with only one petticoat and a thin dressing-gown on, a large fan in one hand and a pen in the other.”[v]

With her keen sensibility, aristocratic background, and more than average education, she did not fit the stereotype of the Victorian ideal of an upper-class woman. Emily Eden chose to remain single; she rejected the Victorian woman’s ideal of happiness and Victorian notions of feminity and womanhood. The series of correspondence that she wrote were well-informed and critical with fine streaks of wit, humour, and irony. Her free spirit allowed her to notice the eccentricities and oddities of the Empire in India.

It is my contention that the epistolary mode allowed the writer a sense of freedom to express herself and, in the process, reveals nuances of colonial life in India. However, the process of editing and removal of letters from the volumes that Eden wrote pose a major challenge in analyzing the inner dynamics and the private space of her life in India. The Victorian travel narrative, written by women, has resonant symbols of sacrifice and speaks of the civilizing mission. In this light, it is possible to see how writing about empire both appropriates and elaborates Victorian gender politics. There exist powerful codes that govern the British woman – her cultivating the private, domestic space, her moral superiority, and capacity for sacrifice were available in an emerging discourse of writing the imperial nation. In writing the nation about women, women themselves participated in its construction, sometimes in consonance with the British rule and sometimes skeptically alongside androcentric voices that governed the empire.  When Emily Eden talks about the heat, dust, and the unfavourable climate, she means that the Englishwoman who go out to India are sacrificed to the climate and to the native threats precisely in response to Victoria’s ideology to civilize the barbaric societies. It is evident that a relationship between race, gender, and politics exists in these narratives – Victorian women may rule the empire, may write the empire, and must suffer for the empire.

[i] Census of India, 1901
[ii] Emily Eden to Lord William G Osborne, (Dedication) Up The Country, 1866
[iii] Letters from India, 1837
[iv] Miss Eden to Lady Campbell, July 1835, Miss Eden’s Letters.
[v] Miss Eden to Miss Campbell, February 18, 1836, Miss Eden’s Letters.

Ankita Das is a PhD Research Scholar at the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, Indian Institute of Information Technology, Guwahati, Assam. This article is part of her doctoral research under the supervision of Dr. Rajarshi Mitra, Assistant Professor, IIIT-G.


For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.

One Comment Post a comment
  1. Sneha Mohanty #

    A beautiful article! 😊

    June 16, 2018

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