Tuesday, December 2, 2014

yet this story must be told in my own way - Eliza Fay's Original Letters from India

I read some books related to India. One of the was Original Letters from India by Eliza Fay (1816), which is exactly what it says it is.  And yet the title is deceptive.  The content of the book is almost entirely about Fay’s travels to and from India – to Calcutta, specifically – beginning in 1779 rather than her intermittent life in India.

E. M. Forster discovered Fay’s book while researching A Passage to India.  I doubt it was much help to him, given that it is from a century before his own book and is only barely, see above, about India, but he loved it, especially the flavorful, demanding voice of the author (“Eliza Fay is a work of art,” 7), a Strong Female Character if I have ever seen one, so Forster got the Hogarth Press to put his edition in 1925.

The ways of Providence are inscrutable!  But to revert to my main subject, – glad shall I be when it is concluded; for I detest matter of fact writing, almost as much as matter of fact conversation: – yet this story must be told in my own way, or not at all.  (129)

Other than the unusually eventful voyages themselves, the reason the book exists is that Fay and her husband, arriving in India, were seized by a warlord as hostages in some game he was playing with the English and French, who were currently at war.  Their captivity is described in indignant detail:

… here we lay down, comparatively happy in the hope of enjoying a tolerable nights rest; my husband being provided with a long pole to keep off the rats; but surely never were poor mortals so completely disappointed and for my own part I may add, terrified…  The rats also acted their part in the Comedy; every now and then jumping towards the beds, as we could hear; however Mr. F–  on these occasions laid about him stoutly with his pole, and thus kept them at bay; but our winged adversaries were not so easily foiled…  (135-6)

I have cheated a bit by quoting a bit that could almost come from a Gothic novel, although one with an unusually resourceful heroine.  She does faint on occasion, though.  That Gothic heroine fainting is drawn from life.  Tight clothes, I suppose.  Regardless, an extraordinary woman.  She seems to have spent much of her life working as a speculative trader in India, a high risk occupation, but she was the sort of person who relished risk.

A good part of the fun of Forster’s edition of Eliza Fay’s book is in his notes:

JOHN HARE.  How she loathes this chattering mannikin!...  We must never forget that she herself was a most trying woman, particularly on a boat, and that Mr. Hare would not have found her table manners funny, or appreciated her contempt for the violin.  (note 17, p. 276)

Or maybe this is the best note:

FOOD.  From various passages it is clear that our heroine was of the hungry type.  People who write long letters often are.  That very June “the Surgeon of an Indiaman fell dead after eating a hearty dinner of beef, thermometre being 98°”… but the warning did not deter her.  She ate and ate till the end – asparagus, pork, tunny, turtle, preserved peaches, ghi.  (note 28, 280)

Eliza Fay is my new gluttonous role model.

Page numbers refer to the 2010 NYRB reprint of Fay and Forster’s book.


  1. I have a simple-minded question -- that is my métier -- how do you come to read such off-the-beaten path books? My intensive reading pattern (I think that is what you or someone else called my reading choices) is so different from your extensive reading pattern that I remain baffled about how you come to find so many singular (dare I say obscure?) books. So, you see, I told you it was a simple-minded question.

  2. This question has an easy answer. I pay attention to what NYRB Classics publishes. If it's a 19th century (or older) book, I take special notice.

    I actually bought the Eliza Fay book in a genuine bookstore, but I already knew what it was. Or mostly knew. I did assume there would be more about India.

  3. Curious how the characters of some people come across loud and clear so much later. Anyway, I liked the sounds of this until the eating of turtles.

  4. The book also contains descriptions of the shocking mistreatment of human animals.

    Fay does have a pleasingly sharp voice.

  5. I was chuckling at your "tight clothes, I suppose" fainting explanation wondering whether to make a salad bar joke when I read on and saw Forster's comment about the heroine being "of the hungry type." Great notes, sure, but no salad bar jokes from me now!

  6. I believe Fay was the sort of person who expends a great deal of energy. So she needed a lot of calories.

    The fainting bit only occurred to me as I was writing, when I realized that the imprisonment section had a lot in common with Gothic fiction.

  7. The pole does not seem to promise much in the way of 'a tolerable night's rest" for the husband, does it? It will hardly serve any purpose while he sleeps. Forster's note, especially the sentence on long letter writers has displaced his novels as my favourite Forster!

  8. The Forster notes are so good that they are wholly inadequate - more, please, more!