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S. Muthiah

By Julia Maitland
Oxford University Press, New Delhi with introduction, notes and appendices by Alyson Price.  First published by John Murray, London, 1843, 1846 then by Woodstock Books, England, 2003, 2003, pp. 218, Rs. 395.00

VOLUME XXIX NUMBER 2 February 2005

From the early years of the 19th century, it almost seemed as though anyone from Britain who had spent any time in India and who had any literary pretensions was bent on writing his or her impressions of the country to a public at home seeking more and more information about parts of a newly opening out subcontinent that was becoming the first stepping stone to the Empire. The experiences of the British in India was soon to prove a popular theme for books and found a ready market. One of the early books of this type that was successful enough to survive for many years was a collection of letters written in the 1830s “by a young married lady who had accompanied her husband to Madras for the first time”.   The letters, which were published verbatim (except for references to family matters), were attributed in the first edition to “A Lady”. Right through the book she favoured anonymity for her cast of characters. However, the editor of the 21st century re-issue of the book has lifted the veil. The author was Julia Thomas (nee Barrett), the wife of a civilian, James Thomas, who was much older than her. He had come out to India in 1812, rose fast, became Collector of Coimbatore District, then Senior Judge in Rajamundry District and died in 1840, even as the family was planning to return to England on account of their daughter Etta’s ill-health. In 1842, Julia Thomas married Charles Maitland, a clergyman and a scholar, who encouraged her to edit the twenty-seven letters she had written Home and have them published. Julia Maitland went on to become a well-known writer of fiction for young children.   Shorn of details about the Barrett and Thomas families, of her husband’s career, the political situation, and their friends, the letters focus on life around them, educa- tion, and missionary activity by the British, which was then comparatively new. Described by an early reviewer in England as “the very lightest work that has ever appeared from India”, it nevertheless “tells us more of what everybody cares to know than any other”. Nearly 160 years later, Alyson Price says that “apart from the insights Julia’s letters can provide into one privileged woman’s experience of early nineteenth century British India, the Letters are quite simply an enjoyable read, witty expressions of what was ‘curious and characteristic’.”   Enjoyable they certainly ...

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