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A Glimpse of Writings of Colonial Women

In Their Own Words: British Women Writers and India, 1740-1857 by Rosemary Raza;


A Glimpse of Writings of Colonial Women

indrani sen

The book under review is the latest addition to the rapidly-growing field of gender and colonialism In Their Own Words: British Women Writers and India, 1740-1857 by Rosemary Raza; Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2006; Hardback; pp xxxi + 289, Rs 595.
studies. The first thing that is striking
about it is the period that has been taken home giving their families and friends de
up for scrutiny. This is a 117 year period, tails about their life in India. In addition,
starting from the mid 18th century up till they wrote accounts of the long journey to
the year preceding the rebellion of 1857. In India around the Cape of Good Hope, as
other words, the book seeks to address well as descriptions of travels made all over
just over a century of colonial presence the subcontinent. Thus, writing became an
which was strongly marked by great and important, recognised female activity. Sub
radical changes in colonial perceptions as sequently, many of these narratives which
well as in colonial interactions between were originally meant for personal con-
Indians and the English. sumption were sometimes published by the
In the introduction which maps out the women themselves. Noting the importance
contours of the study, it is mentioned that of women’s “status as observers and writ
since the book is meant for the “general ers”, Raza also discusses a minority of
reader” (p xiv), it does not adopt any of the “learned” women whose writings appeared
current theoretical perspectives, such as in journals like the Asiatic Journal (Emma
literary, feminist or colonial theory. The Roberts), Oriental Herald (Marianne
point made is that there is a “danger of im- Postans) and Calcutta Review (Honoria
posing a straitjacket when they adopt a Lawrence). Special attention is also given
theoretical perspective” (p xiv). This stand to missionary writings which became im
seems difficult to defend since in recent portant especially from the 1820s onwards,
years some of the most illumi nating read with their different thrust and their specific
ings have emerged from precisely such in journals, e g, the Missionary Chronicle and
termingling of theoretical pers pectives – Oriental Christian Spectator.
notably landmark studies like Nupur The next four chapters – indeed the ma-
Chaudhuri and Margaret Strobel’s West jority of them – focus on aspects of British
ern Women and Imperialism (1992) or domestic life in India. Anglo-Indian dome-
Jenny Sharpe’s Allegories of Empire (1993). sticity is, of course, an area which has been
well-documented in studies on women and
Roots of Colonial Women Writing colonialism – notably in Margaret Macmil-
Among the book’s eight chapters, the open lan’s empirical study, Women of the Raj
ing one offers a refreshing discussion on (1988). In tune with this kind of perspective,
the publishing aspects of “white women the present book too touches upon wom
writings”. Locating these writings as a rich en’s negotiations with the travails of gen
source of social documentation, it takes up dered life in the colonies, such as the rais
the fascinating theme of women’s entry ing of children, the frequent shifting of resi
into publishing as well as the genres that dence on different postings, as well as the
they helped to introduce. It is suggested long “marches” spread over several months
that the entry of colonial women into the which had to be under taken by military
domain of published writing may have wives who accompanied their husbands.
been almost inadvertent or accidental. The However, an unusual feature which
roots lay in the letters that they wrote is touched upon here – and one that is
home. With “only too many lonely hours to generally not found in studies on colonial
spend” many of these women kept diaries domesticity – is the medical aspect of
and journals and wrote long letters back gendered European life. The problems
Economic & Political Weekly april 26, 2008

pertaining to European maternity, including childbirth, high infant mortality and the callousness of misogynistic male doctors, especially army doctors are mentioned. Attention is also drawn to the yawning gap that existed between the medical practices available to middle class

colonial women and the rough and ready methods which lower class soldiers’ wives in the barracks were subjected to. As a part of the social history of colonial medicine, these insights are interesting.

Racial Intolerance

The chapters on gendered British life in India touch upon several other features which are well-established by now – such as the shifts in white women’s role from the free and easy days of the 18th century to the female moral policing of Anglo-Indian society from the 19th century onwards. Also mentioned is the amplification of racial intolerance and prejudice that was reflected, among other things, in the changing attitudes to Eurasians.

Other aspects discussed include the diversity of roles that white women played. Not rooted in domesticity alone, some of them engaged themselves in teaching, social and missionary work. Moreover, as the period progressed, women also gained confidence to move around the country as avid and energetic travellers, especially from the 1830s onwards – visible, most notably, in the case of the intrepid Fanny Parks.

An interesting and perhaps less known feature of gendered colonial life that is revealed is the manner in which artistically talented women found ways of entering the public sphere. Thus, women like Martha Browne, Sophia Belnos, Drummond and Reid in early 19th century Calcutta used their artistic skills to earn money and practised as professional portrait painters.

Only two of the chapters in this study examine issues pertaining to inter-racial transactions between the coloniser and the colonised. While touching upon the subject of European’s women encounters with Indians (especially zenana women), mention is also made of their interactions with Indian men. It is pointed out that the writings of some of the early 19th century memsahibs, like Eliza Clemons, Marianne Postans or Julia Harvey, record their warm friendships with Indian men. Given the fact


that English men were denied access to the zenana, the argument presented here is that it was precisely this unique ability to interact with both Indian women and men that gave white women “a role which has not been fully appreciated” (p xv).

British attitudes of course changed over the years from the earlier period’s orientalist romanticisation of the east to a narrow intolerance under the impact of utilitarianism and evangelism. How such shifts in perception coloured cultural representations is also examined. In contrast to 18th century writings, such as Phebe Gibbes’ Hartley House, Calcutta (1789) or Elizabeth Hamilton’s Letters of a Hindoo Rajah (1796), later texts published after the 1850s, denote changes in attitudes to race, sexuality and religions. Among other changes, the sympathetic admiration for the “noble brahmin” that can be seen in Hartley House came to be replaced by a suspicion of idolatrous Hindus and a corresponding enhanced interest in Islamic culture.

Plurality of Perceptions

The book concludes with the valid argument that white women in India display a plurality of perceptions. While the majority of the women may have colluded with colonial values, several others questioned British superiority (although they did not question the British colonial presence in India). Many, like the “disengaged spectator” (209) Emily Eden, Emma Roberts or Marianne Postans “often used the written word as a means of conveying their alternative point of view” (p 210).

The chief merit of In Their Own Words is that it covers a historical period (1740s1850s) that has remained relatively un- explored as far as colonial writings are concerned. Moreover, it marshals together a wide range of 18th and early 19th century colonial writings. Narratives ranging from Eliza Fay’s famed Original Letters from India (1817) to lesser-known works such as Jane Smart’s A Letter from a Lady at Madras to her friends in London (1743) or Mariana Starke’s A Widow of Malabar (1791) are brought under the spotlight. Other writers include Jemima Kindersley, Fanny Parks, Emily Eden and Julia Maitland (the bulk of the writings being drawn from the early 19th century). Both fictional writings (mostly novels) and non-literary works, such as letters, diaries, memoirs and journals feature in this study. Also included are Sketch Books by amateur and professional women artists like Sophia Belnos, Alicia Scott or Emily Eden (better known for her amusing and witty writings). Besides, a useful biographical index containing details about these writers and artists is also provided.

However, there is a pervasive failure to adequately engage with the texts that troubles the study. Writings are often not adequately analysed, nor arguments always fully developed. Given the fact that relatively less work has been done on this period – Ketaki Kushari Dyson’s A Various Universe (1978), and Kate Teltscher’s India Inscribed (1995) being two key studies that one can mention offhand – this lacuna is indeed disappointing. Nevertheless, these shortcomings apart, one can say that In Their Own Words, with its excavation of hitherto unexplored writings, is certainly a useful addition to the existing studies on the interface between gender and colonialism in India.


april 26, 2008

Economic & Political Weekly

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