Original Letters from India

Meandering through the shelves at the library for a different book, I stumbled on these letters by Eliza Fay, written at the end of the 18th century during the year it took her to get from England to Bengal, and with a second section including letters from her subsequent voyages to and from India. Her first voyage in 1779 is in the company of her husband,  “foolish and unreliable fop of an Irish lawyer named Anthony Fay, bound for service in the court in Calcutta,” as noted by Simon Winchester in the introduction to this volume. We can thank E.M. Forster for keeping her words alive—he discovered her 1817 volume in a 1908 reprint when he was researching Passage to India and persuaded the Woolfs to publish a Hogarth Press edition in 1925.

One thing that stuck out for me was the importance of letters of introduction, yet another custom gone extinct. These precious papers were clutched to their person even in the most dire of circumstances, since they would open doors and create opportunity for people who were strangers in a strange land.

During the voyage out in 1779, they stop in Paris and caught a glimpse of Marie Antoinette:

She is delicately fair and has certainly the sweetest blue eyes that ever were seen; but there is a little redness, a kind of tendency to inflammation around them, and she is likewise slightly marked with the small pox; both which trifling blemishes were then imperceptible, and she appeared perfectly beautiful.

A few days later, stopping in Fontainbleau, she rails against Christina, Queen of Sweden:

I cannot bear that woman. She abdicated her crown from sheer vanity but retained that passion for despotism which shewed what kind of feelings she had cherished, while seated on the throne… Christina may have been an accomplished female; but she can never be called great, even by her admirers.

Yikes, Eliza! I have a more tender spot in my heart for Christina who decided she didn’t want to marry, thus chucked the throne back at her family,  focused on her books and moved to Rome.

Eliza loves writing about food, and is even taunted a bit by E.M. Forster in the liner notes that people who write long letters often have an unhealthy obsession with food. She, her husband, and a male companion cross overland from Paris through the Alps to Italy, and raves about the asparagus in Lyons, “I think [Lyons] ought to be [known] for its asparagus which is the finest I ever tasted; and remarkably cheap. Being a vegetable I am very fond of, and having found it at all time beneficial to my constitutions, I wished to eat it freely; but was almost disgusted by the manner in which it was constantly brought to the table at the Inn, covered with a thick sauce composed of eggs, butter, oil and vinegar.” She sent for the chef and asked for it to be simply boiled.

In Italy, they get on a boat and in about a month end up in Egypt. In Cairo she describes a wedding:

… a gay and amusing spectacle, from the procession which accompanies that Bride in all her movements, drums, haut-boys and every other kind of noise and parade they can make, seem indispensable: but the circumstance of completely veiling not only the face but the whole figure of the woman, in the enveloping mantle of black silk, before described, gives an air of melancholy to these exhibitions. To show the face is considered here an act of downright indecency; a terrible fashion for one like me, to whom free air seems the great requisite for existence.

Six more weeks at sea, hoping to reach Calcutta in a few days, she writes again to give detail of the people with whom she’s been cooped up for weeks. No one is spared her poison pen but special venom is used for John Hare, ravaging his appearance and ridiculing his pomposity. The other passengers are not particularly well-treated either, including the captain who seems bent on starving his ship. Eliza soon learns to elbow her way to the grub on the table:

I soon learnt our genteel maxim was ‘catch as catch can,’ —the longest arm fared best; and you cannot imagine what a good scrambler I am become,—a dish once seized, it is in my care, to make use of my good fortune: and now provisions running very short, we are grown quite savages; two or three of us perhaps fighting for a bone; for there is no respect of persons.

Soon after landing in Calcutta, she and her husband are imprisoned for nearly three months by Hyder Ali, the king of Mysore once he realizes the ship is mainly British interests although flying under a Dutch flag. Once freed, they head to Bengal and her husband gets set up with lawyering at the bar, but Eliza is concerned that he’s not doing enough to further his career by ignoring social invitations and snubbing important people. They eventually separate and she lives with friends, then renews her perpetual wandering.