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An Englishwoman in Calcutta

Ranjana Kaul

By Phoebe Gibbes
Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2007, pp. 222, Rs. 475.00


Hartley House, Calcutta is one of the earliest British novels of India and its depiction of expariate life during the early years of colonial presence in India is all the more remarkable for having been written by someone who had, possibly, never set foot in the country. The novel was first published in 1789 and was favourably reviewed by Mary Wollestonecraft who called it ‘An entertaining account of Calcutta, and the different inhabitants of the country, apparently sketched by a person who had been forcibly impressed by the scenes described.’ Phoebe Gibbes’s strongest connection with India lay in the fact that her only son died in the country which is often represented in her novels as the land of opportunity for enterprising young men, though the threat of death is never far away. Sophie Goldborne, the heroine of Hartley House, Calcutta, calls India ‘the grave of thousands’ but quickly adds that it is also, ‘a mine of exhaustless wealth ! The centre of unimaginable magnificence! An ever blooming, an ever brilliant scene.’   The novel is written in the epistolary form popularized by Richardson in his novels and narrates the experiences of Sophie, a young lady who travels to India as the companion of her sea captain father. Sophie’s letters make it evident that her response to India is strikingly different from that of the majority of the memsahibs who populated the pages of popular colonial fiction of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. She is enchanted by the ‘splendor’ of Hartley House and on disembarking from the ship she says, ‘my astonishment and delight so abundantly increased at each advanced step, that the European world faded before my eyes, and I became orientalized at all points.’ Sophie’s letters deal with themes and concerns similar to those which reappear in later novels describing the minutae of life in British India, but are surpisingly free from the prejudices of race and colour which impacted subsequent colonial responses to the subcontinent. Her positive attitude towards the ‘Gentoo’ religion and her statement that ‘I am become a convert to the Gentoo faith’ may be the responses of a romantic sensibility to an exotic new cultural experience but they represent a far more inclusive appreciation of an alien culture than is to be found in subsequent colonialist fiction written by women.   Sophie’s sympathetic attitude towards India, however, does not preclude an active ...

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