Emily Eden (1797–1869) was one of the most garrulous and keenly observant memsahibs to have written about India in the first half of the nineteenth century. Born in 1797 in Westminster to an affluent and politically well-connected family, Eden spent her youth among the literary circles of London, interacting with and reading the works of several contemporary writers. It was only in 1835 that she embarked on a voyage for India, after her brother, George Eden, the 1st Earl of Auckland, was appointed the Governor-General of the British territories. She reached Calcutta, along with her brother and her sister, Fanny; and right from the beginning of her stay, she wrote detailed and charmingly witty letters to her acquaintances back home, usually complaining of such great inconveniences as the oppressive heat of Bengal and the drudgery of having to spend days together in the company of the ‘dull’ British residents there.
Some of her most informative and, indeed, innovative works, however, are from a slightly later period, when she finally escaped the monotony of Calcutta life and embarked on a two-and-a-half-year long journey through the plains of northern India. This immensely ambitious tour was not undertaken merely for pleasure. Her brother had resolved that travelling through the territories of the native rulers with an awe-inspiring, impossibly extravagant entourage would be the best means of convincing them of the might and grandeur of the British empire. Accordingly, the Edens set off with a vast cavalcade, comprising more than ten thousand people and stretching ten miles, which included not just retainers, officers, and servants, but also camels, horses, and sundry other animals – the retinue, decorated as extravagantly as possible, would have been a spectacle indeed. During this journey, Eden maintained a regular journal and prepared innumerable sketches of the various interesting ‘kinds’ of Indians she encountered, and her subjects ranged from such ‘exotic’ natives as the man who made monkeys dance to the mighty ruler of Punjab, Ranjit Singh himself. The overall impression one gets from her vibrantly coloured, painstakingly detailed sketches is that of a colourful, indeed unabashedly exotic, country, full of people practicing quaint professions and maharajahs leading opulent lives.
The kind of gaze Emily directs at her subjects, however, is patently imperialistic – hardly surprising considering the political position she occupied and the standpoint from which she sketched and wrote. Her subjects would have appeared her to her predominantly metropolitan audience as quaint relics of a world altogether unfamiliar, where nothing ever seemed to change, and medieval customs, rituals, and professions survived well into the age of steamships and the telegraph. Significantly, most of her sketches focus almost exclusively on the ‘exotic’ native figure in the foreground, with the background either very perfunctorily sketched or completely blank. The colourful costumes worn by the natives, the various equipment carried by them, the unusual vocations they are engaged in, and the animals often accompanying them – these are the things which occupied her entire attention while she prepared her sketches. The figures, thus, stare out at us from an almost blank background, since no attempt it made to situate them in a particular locale or to highlight anything beyond their seemingly captivating exterior.
The Edens, however, did not stay in India for long. They left in 1842, in the aftermath of the disastrous rout faced by the British army during their invasion of Afghanistan, in which George Eden had played a significant role. George’s reputation was badly tarnished by the Afghan disaster, and Emily’s writings often provide valuable insight into the political climate of this period. Yet, in a way, Emily was probably glad to finally be able to escape from India, since, despite her vibrant, snapshot-like images of the varied inhabitants of the country, she never particularly liked staying here, and found the inconveniences of staying away from Britain too severe to be overcome. Besides, she regarded Indians in general with something akin to disdain, since they seemed to her irredeemably primitive. It is actually her frankness that makes her acknowledge to an acquaintance back in England that “I cannot abide India, and that is the truth.” Her sketches, however, remain vital artistic and historical documents for us, not least because they provide a glimpse into the kind of things a Victorian memsahib would have found worth sketching while journeying along the hinterlands of the empire.