Friday, September 4, 2015

Mount TBR #31

I read this book for the Mount TBR Reading Challenge hosted over at My Reader’s Block from January 1 – December 31, 2015. The challenge is to read books that you already own.

Letters from India – Mrs. Eliza Fay

In the middle of the 18th century, Mrs. Fay went with her husband as he sought his fortune lawyering in India. These letters describe her journey out, a punishing year-long journey across Europe, down the Nile, through desert Egypt, and across the sea to Calcutta. This journey takes about half the book, given delays due to local wars, highwaymen, and a three-month imprisonment. When local beys acted in threatening ways, the expatriates understandably would freak out, though one is reminded in such situations, panicking and carrying on makes things worse:

On reaching my expected asylum a scene of more serious alarm (if possible)than I had left at Mr. Baldwin's awaited me. The lady and her daughter were wringing their hands and crying out in agony that they were utterly ruined; that all the Europeans would be murdered; they even appeared to think that receiving another of the proscribed race increased their danger. Imprisonment and massacre in every shape were the sole objects of their conversation and so many terrible images did their fears conjure up and communicate to my already disordered mind, that there were times when the reality could have been scarcely more appalling. Oh, England! dear England! how did I apostrophise thee, land of liberty and safety! but I must not review my thoughts : a simple narrative is all I dare allow myself to write.

I know, it’s terrible to belittle somebody’s else anxiety and getting religion and patriotism suddenly when the going gets rough. But I think this is a hoot. This kind of passage is exactly why I like travel narratives and war memoirs by utterly ordinary people, who don’t write with a jot of literary pretension but write just what they felt.

She gives a good sense of what it must have been like, cooped up on ship for a season with uncongenial people too aware of hierarchy and status. Mrs. Fay sharply characterizes:

The woman, of whom I entertained some suspicion from the first, is, now I am credibly informed, one of the very lowest creatures taken off the streets in London. She is so perfectly depraved in disposition that her supreme delight consists in rendering everybody around her miserable. It would be doing her too much honor to stain my paper with a detail of the various artifices she daily practices to that end. Her pretended husband, having been in India before and giving himself many airs, is looked upon as a person of mighty consequence whom no one chooses to offend. Therefore Madam has full scope to exercise her mischievous tales wherein he never controls her, not but that he perfectly understands how to make himself feared. Coercive measures are sometimes resorted to. It is a common expression of the lady “Lord bless you, if I did such or such a thing, Tulloh would make no more ado, but knock me down like an ox." I frequently amuse myself with examining their countenances, where ill nature has fixed her empire so firmly, that I scarcely believe either of them smiled unless maliciously.

Once in-country, there is a certain amount of totally expected material of the “these people” variety. On the servant problem:

On your arrival you are pestered with Dubashees and servants of all kinds, who crouch to you as if they were already your slaves, but who will always cheat you in every way possible; though in fact there is no living without one of the former to manage your affairs as a kind of steward, and you may deem yourself very fortunate if you procure one in this land of pillagers who will let nobody cheat you but himself. I wish these people would not vex one by their tricks, for there is something in the mild countenances and gentle manners of the Hindoos that interests me exceedingly.

I hope the long quotations give a sense of Mrs. Fay’s unique personality, enough to help a prospective reader decide to read this curious travel narrative.

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