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.

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