So Much for Staying Single

Maya Jasanoff

  • Hartly House, Calcutta by Phebe Gibbes
    Oxford, 222 pp, £13.99, April 2007, ISBN 978 0 19 568564 0

On a February morning in 1788, dozens of spectators filed into the gallery of Westminster Hall. Among them appeared the cream of London society, headed by Queen Charlotte herself, elegant in fawn-coloured satin and a modest splash of diamonds, and flanked by three of her daughters. With three hundred guards keeping the passages clear, the peers of the realm marched in according to rank. The Prince of Wales and his brothers completed the procession, while the prince’s secret wife, Mrs Fitzherbert, looked on from the Royal Box. All had come to watch one of the great spectacles of the season: the impeachment trial of Warren Hastings, the former governor-general of Bengal, on charges of ‘high crimes and misdemeanours’.

The Hastings trial represented the most sustained parliamentary effort to regulate the East India Company government in Bengal. By the end of its seven long years, few traces remained of the pomp with which it had begun, and Hastings would be acquitted of all charges. But to watch the proceedings in those first weeks was to watch Georgian political theatre at its best. The drama owed much of its intensity to its chief player, Edmund Burke, the leader of the prosecution. For four consecutive days, Burke held his audience transfixed with a speech detailing Hastings’s alleged rapacity, corruption, blackmail and worse. Transporting his listeners to the exotic, murky realm of Hastings’s India, Burke reached his rhetorical peak in a description of the torture of Indian women, using terms, as a contemporary put it, ‘more vivid – more harrowing – and more horrific – than human utterance on either fact or fancy, perhaps, ever formed before’. Elizabeth Sheridan, wife of the playwright and Burke’s fellow prosecutor, fainted dead away in shock; Burke himself was seized with a stomach cramp and had to retire for the day. With displays of such melodramatic power, it was no wonder that when Sheridan took to the boards, tickets to the trial were said to have sold for fifty guineas each.

Burke’s lurid oratorical flights reflected his consuming, obsessive interest in Indian affairs: an issue that absorbed him for nearly twenty years and made him perhaps the leading spokesman on India to Parliament and the British public. Yet Burke had never been to India; he acquired all his knowledge at second-hand from informants such as Hastings’s arch-enemy Philip Francis. Indeed, the strangest feature of the impeachment was that Warren Hastings was the man in the dock. For in contrast to his more openly greedy predecessors, Hastings is credited with having established a genuinely enlightened despotism in Bengal. Seeking to govern India by its ‘own’ constitution, he promoted the codification of indigenous law, the study of indigenous languages, the investigation of Indian religions and history. Under his governorship, British life in Calcutta assumed the character of an established and relatively tolerant colonial society. This was hardly the realm of conspiracy, violence and plunder evoked by Burke. But how much did Britons know of that?

A year later, as the impeachment trial settled into legal routine, a novel appeared on the shelves of London bookshops that offered a rather different picture of Hastings’s Bengal. Hartly House, Calcutta, published anonymously in the spring of 1789, takes the form of a series of letters written by a young Englishwoman, Sophia Goldborne, to her friend Arabella back home. Sophia has gone to Bengal to accompany her father, an East India Company ship’s captain, and spends a year or so revelling in Calcutta society, as the guest of family friends, Mr and Mrs Hartly. Read in one light, the book belongs to the classic 18th-century genre – transposed to the East – of sentimental epistolary novels in which the young heroine overcomes her naive prejudices to land an eminently marriageable man. From another perspective, the book serves as one of a small cluster of published sources on Anglo-Indian life in this rapidly developing outpost. Sophia’s letters provide such detailed descriptions of Calcutta and its residents that they were widely assumed to be eyewitness reports. It would be hard to claim Hartly House, Calcutta as a work of high literary merit, but its Indian setting and blend of reportage with storytelling make it tremendously intriguing. This new edition, introduced and heavily annotated by Michael Franklin, should be welcomed by both literary scholars and historians.

A 1908 reprinting gave Hartly House the very apt subtitle ‘A Novel of the Days of Warren Hastings’. When the book originally appeared in 1789, Hastings’s defence team was busily producing Indian testimonials to the governor’s character: testimonials Burke dismissed as forgeries or lies. So it could not have hurt the governor-general to receive another endorsement – was it unsolicited? – in a respectable British novel. Telling Arabella about the imminent departure of ‘our Governor’, Sophia gushes about Hastings’s merits:

The Company … will, by this event, be deprived of a faithful and able servant; the poor, of a compassionate and generous friend; the genteel circles, of their best ornament … Nor possibly can a successor be transmitted, of equal information and abilities. For, Arabella, he has made himself master of the Persian language, that key to the knowledge of all that ought to constitute the British conduct in India.

Sophia disingenuously avoids treading further ‘upon political ground’, but she has already said her piece.

One could read the entire novel as an extended tribute to the cosmopolitan Calcutta that Hastings helped build. This was a flourishing city in which Britons saw themselves as reproducing the finer aspects of European life, while cultivating an open attitude to Indian society and cultures. On her first morning in the Hartlys’ magnificent mansion, Sophia encounters something of Bengal’s cultural blend when she visits the ‘country-born’ – i.e. mixed-race – ‘young lady’ in the room next door: ‘Judge my surprise, Arabella, when … I found her … actually smoking a pipe.’ Hookah-smoking was one of the most obviously ‘orientalised’ (Sophia’s term) habits of Britons in India, and would later be phased out in polite circles. Sophia, however, praises the lady’s ‘genteel air’, compares the practice favourably with the British custom of ‘perusing the daily prints’, and, with an absence of ethnic snobbery that would have alarmed many Victorian memsahibs, promptly makes a close friend out of the mixed-race Miss Rolle. (‘Her complexion’, Sophia marvels, is ‘near the European standard’.)

In Sophia’s view, the real risks of the East reside elsewhere. The very first sentence of the novel speaks to one of them: ‘The grave of thousands!’ Sophia’s mother dies on the voyage out, and is laid to rest among the ‘monumental erections’ of ‘obelisks, pagodas, &c’ that characterise Calcutta’s South Park Street cemetery. Illness and death preoccupy Sophia throughout the book; falling sick at one point, she promptly anticipates her own demise. ‘Death again!’ she muses later. ‘It is a subject that insensibly forces itself upon my notice.’ All this may have been a nod to the Gothic tastes of a British readership, but it also echoed a widely-held perception of Bengal as a disease-ridden place where death struck quickly and too soon.

The other danger that Sophia skirts lies in an equally common fate for British women in India: marriage. Condemning the ostentatious new wealth of Anglo-Indian ‘nabobs’, and the women who travel to India to marry them, Sophia vows repeatedly ‘never to marry in Indostan’: ‘I will not violate to be a nabobess.’ Her will is tested by the constant stream of male attention she receives (and coquettishly enjoys receiving), and by her guardian Mrs Hartly, who ‘thinks matrimony the duty of every young woman, who meets with an offer she cannot disapprove’. Yet even when she meets the captivating Edmund Doyly, ‘the best male companion I have met with at Calcutta, the Governor and Mr Hartly excepted’, Sophia sticks to her guns: ‘if nabobism was not the stumbling block of my ambition … there is no saying what might happen.’

Ultimately, we are led to interpret Sophia’s insistence not as feminism but as childishness: Doyly leaves, and she belatedly realises the foolishness of her vow. She also learns to overcome her jealousy at her father’s courtship of a rich widow, Mrs D –, and to admire her future stepmother. All is happily resolved when Doyly comes back to India – now an heir, and thus untainted by Indian wealth – to reclaim the newly mature Sophia. Goldborne daughter and father are married at Hartly House on the same day, and the couples sail home together, with a suitor for Arabella in tow. So much for staying single.

Reading modern criticism on Hartly House, one would be forgiven for thinking that the central romantic plot is altogether different. Largely during Doyly’s absence, Sophia indulges her curiosity about Hinduism by receiving personal instruction from a young Brahmin man. Critics have made a meal out of this relationship: Kate Teltscher has even portrayed the novel as ‘the earliest depiction of a European woman’s romantic involvement with an Indian’. Yet the Brahmin figures about as much in the novel as Hastings does. The whiff of ‘romantic involvement’ consists of a passage in which he sighs ‘that you are the loveliest of women’, and Sophia reflects on how sad it is ‘that young men and women … cannot form a friendship of the tranquil and liberal kind, a friendship that ends not in an exclusion of all other attachments’ – that is, a platonic friendship. The chasteness of her fantasy is bolstered by her belief that the Brahmin, like Catholic priests, leads ‘a life of voluntary celibacy’. When ‘my Brahmin’ dies, Sophia mourns him as her contemporaries might a beloved pet, preserving a lock of his hair, and ostentatiously declaring that she ‘will erect a pagoda in Britain’ to his memory.

That Sophia forms any sort of sentimental connection with an Indian man can be seen as a significant disturbance of accepted sexual and racial codes: she is ‘playing with fire’, as Franklin puts it in his introduction. Sophia solicits the Brahmin’s attentions and is flattered by them, just as she later gloats about the fact that the Nawab of Bengal singles her out of a crowd with his gaze, ‘and constituted me the envy of the women, and the torture of the men’. But we’ve all met women who assume that all men are interested in them. Isn’t the more noteworthy flirtation here also the more obvious one? Sophia does not have an affair with the Brahmin; she has an affair with Hinduism: ‘I am become a convert to the Gentoo faith,’ she says. (This is after a sickbed scare, when she avers that she will die ‘in the true faith of an European’.) Her carefree declaration offers further testament to the tolerant climate of British India in ‘the days of Warren Hastings’, when many Britons studied with Indian pandits and munshis, and the Asiatic Society of Bengal was founded to foster Orientalist scholarship. Yet Sophia’s remark also touches on an age-old fear about the corrupting power of the East: the fear that Europeans might ‘turn Turk’ or ‘go native’, losing their faith, racial identity and political and moral values. And that was exactly what Burke, among others, found so alarming about India in the days of Hastings.

This must be the only book currently on sale that carries a blurb by Mary Wollstonecraft on its jacket. Reviewing Hartly House, Calcutta in the Analytical Review, Wollstonecraft praised the novel’s ‘entertaining account of Calcutta … apparently sketched by a person who had been forcibly impressed by the scenes described. Probably the groundwork of the correspondence was actually written on the spot.’ For Wollstonecraft, as for other reviewers, the primary virtue of the novel lay in its informative account of Indian life – an account that many took to be based on personal experience.

So who was behind this richly detailed narrative? Though Hartly House, Calcutta was published anonymously, Franklin attributes its authorship to Phebe Gibbes. More or less the only information we have about Gibbes consists of petitions she sent to the Royal Literary Fund in 1804. In them, she stated that she had published ‘22 sets’ of novels, but that her father-in-law’s profligacy and the death of her only son in India had left her and her two daughters destitute. Of the ‘22 sets’ Gibbes claimed, 14 have apparently been identified, though the author’s name appears in only one. Her career, in Franklin’s words, ‘presents a fascinating example of anonymous authorship’. So how have scholars come to identify her as the author of this book? The strongest circumstantial evidence Franklin cites – tucked away in a footnote – is a payment by her publisher James Dodsley to ‘G. 20 pounds for Hartly House, Calcutta’. There was also Gibbes’s known connection to India through her son. Frustratingly, Franklin never addresses this question directly. His jargon-heavy introduction reads far more like a specialist academic article than like the broadly contextualising essay many readers need.

The paucity of biographical evidence about Gibbes leaves a crucial point teasingly uncertain. Did the author of Hartly House, Calcutta ever go to India? Franklin thinks not: ‘it is doubtful that Gibbes herself ever made the passage to India.’ He supports this suggestion with an impressive excavation of contemporary printed sources on which Gibbes based some of her descriptions. Her discussion of the ‘five tribes’ (varnas) of Hindus, for instance, comes straight from a passage in Alexander Dow’s The History of Hindostan. A section on Mughal history draws on William Guthrie’s A New Geographical, Historical and Commercial Grammar of 1785. In writing of India’s sacred rivers, she paraphrases William Macintosh’s Remarks on a Tour through the Different Countries of Europe, Asia and Africa. In a nicely postmodern turn, Gibbes acknowledges her debt to such works by having Sophia warn Arabella ‘not to set me down for a plagiarist, though you should even stumble upon the likeness, verbatim, of my descriptions of the Eastern world in print; or once presume to consider such printed accounts as other than honourable testimonies of my faithful relations’.

But what were the sources for the novel’s descriptions of everyday habits, of the look and feel of the city and the way people lived in it? Consider Sophia’s remark that ‘the streets of Calcutta … are distinguished by the name of the beisars, or traders, by which they are occupied.’ Franklin observes that ‘Gibbes’s error’ in using the term beisar (‘bazaar’) to refer to tradesmen as opposed to markets ‘would seem another indication that her knowledge of India was second-hand’. Yet foreigners on the spot could routinely slip up on such linguistic niceties – and Gibbes’s phrasing is sufficiently unclear as to make both interpretations possible. In fact, the passage goes on to provide a strikingly accurate series of transliterated and translated Bengali words, and stands out as one of many remarkable examples of the rich local knowledge in which Hartly House, Calcutta abounds. Sophia writes not only about Calcutta’s major monuments and landmarks; she describes the kinds of garden statuary people prefer, the availability and price of different vegetables, what it is like to go to the theatre, the races, or just to have an evening nautch (‘dance’) at home.

These observations correspond well with roughly contemporary descriptions in the memoirs of William Hickey, the travels of William Hodges and the letters of Eliza Fay. Yet not one of those sources would have been available in published form to Gibbes in 1789. So if the author of this novel did not spend time in India, then she – like Burke – must have had access to remarkably detailed evidence from local informants. And if, as Franklin intimates, Gibbes’s major primary source was the ‘treasured letters of her son’, then this opens up a fertile line for analysis: the novel may represent a tour de force of gender ventriloquism, as Gibbes reimagines the Calcutta social world through a woman’s eyes, body and voice.

Given its seeming authenticity, it’s little wonder that Hartly House, Calcutta became a source for plagiarists. Franklin has identified two places where contemporary British magazines directly paraphrased the novel, passing off Sophia’s letters as first-hand accounts of Indian affairs. An issue of the Aberdeen Magazine lifted one letter to explain ‘the mode of living at Calcutta’. More strikingly, the distinguished New Annual Register poached the novel’s description of a procession by the Nawab of Bengal and listed it under ‘principal occurrences’ as a piece of news. This was not the sort of copying that Sophia had warned Arabella about: the kind that Gibbes had performed by lifting passages of non-fiction. Instead, by quoting Gibbes’s fiction as fact, these journals seemed to suggest that, when it came to information about India at least, the two genres may as well have been interchangeable.

Precisely this slipperiness helps make Hartly House, Calcutta so beguiling today. For all our sensitivity to the ubiquity and limits of representation, we seem to expect our truths – in science, journalism or politics – to be ever more rigorously defined. Hartly House provides a reminder that the imagined and the real have never been easy to disentangle. Were Burke’s evocations of India any more or less plausible than Sophia Goldborne’s?

One is also struck, reading this book more than two hundred years later, by how little enduring fiction emanated from British India, despite its commanding hold on the imperial imagination. With the exception of Kipling, many novels about colonial India have fallen between the cracks: who reads Meadows Taylor or Flora Annie Steel now? (More often, India glints in the background of British domestic fiction, as readers of Vanity Fair, The Moonstone and Sherlock Holmes know.) It is tempting to see Sophia Goldborne’s girlish engagement with Indian culture as a foreshadowing of a better-known fictional Englishwoman’s efforts to ‘see the real India’. Adela Quested’s attraction to India results in grave, and explicitly sexualised, misunderstanding – typical of a place in which, as A Passage to India portentously concludes, even the earth and sky stand in the way of cross-cultural rapprochement. By then, the days of Warren Hastings were long past.