Eliza Fay (1756-1816) is one of the best-known female chroniclers of European life in India during the late eighteenth century. Although she was no Jane Austen, Eliza’s writing was fresh and perceptive. What her letters lack in finesse, they make up in directness and humour. And, whilst she was not sophisticated, Eliza was adventurous and keen to learn about India, its cultures and people. Her enthusiasm is conveyed through the letters she wrote after her arrival in India with her lawyer husband in May 1780.
More than a century later, it was this freshness and eye for detail that inspired EM Forster to arrange for the British publication of Eliza Fay’s letters in 1925.
After their arrival in India, Eliza and her husband settled in Calcutta. It was there that she was living at the Christmas of that year. Eliza detailed her first Christmas in India in a letter to her sister on 27th January 1781 (Letter XVIII):
My Dear Sister, Since my last we have been engaged
in a perpetual round of gaiety. Keeping Christmas, as it is
called, though sinking into disuse at home, prevails here with
all its ancient festivity. The external appearance of the
English gentlemen’s houses on Christmas Day is really
pleasing from its novelty. Large plantain trees are placed
on each side of the principal entrances, and the gates and
pillars, being ornamented with wreaths of flowers fancifully
disposed, enliven the scene.
All the servants, from the Banian down to the lowest menial,
bring presents of fish and fruit ; for these, it is true, we are
obliged in many instances to make a return perhaps beyond
the real value, but still it is regarded as a compliment to our
burrah din. A public dinner is given at Government House
to the gentlemen of the Presidency, and the evening concludes
with an elegant ball and supper for the ladies. These are
repeated on New Year’s Day and on the King’s birthday. I
should say have been, for that grand festival happening at the
hottest season, and every one being obliged to appear full
dressed, so much inconvenience resulted from the immense
crowd, even in some cases severe fits of illness being the
consequence, that it has been determined to change the day
of celebration to the 8th of December which arrangement
gives general satisfaction. I shall not attempt to describe
these splendid entertainments further than by saying that they
were in the highest style of magnificence. In fact such grand
parties so much resemble each other that a particular detail
would be unnecessary and even tiresome.
Eliza then goes on to describe a social event of ‘some time ago’ giving further insight into the social mores of the Georgian British abroad:
Mrs. Hastings was of the party. She came in late, and
happened to place herself on the opposite side of the room,
beyond a speaking distance: so strange to tell, I quite forgot
she was there ! After some time had elapsed, my observant
friend, Mrs. Jackson, who had been impatiently watching
‘ my looks, asked if I had paid my respects to the Lady
Governess? I answered in the negative, having had no
opportunity, as she had no chance to look towards me when
I was prepared to do so. ” Oh !” replied the kind old lady,
” you must fix your eyes on her, and never take them off till
she notices you. Miss C dy has done this and so have I.
It is absolutely necessary to avoid giving offence.” I followed
her prudent advice, and was soon honoured with a complacent
glance, which I returned, as became me, by a most respectful
bend. Not long after, she walked over to our side, and
conversed very affably with me, for we are now, through
Mrs. Jackson’s interference, on good terms together.
She also introduced me to Lady Coote and her inseparable
friend, Miss Molly Barrett. It was agreed between them
when they were both girls, whichever married first, the other
was to live with her : and accordingly when Sir Eyre took his
lady from St. Helena, of which place her father was
Governor, Miss Molly, who is a native of the island, accom-
panied them to England and from thence to India, where
she has remained ever since. Thus giving a proof of steady
attachment not often equalled and never perhaps excelled.
A few months after this was written Eliza Fay and her husband separated. The split left her struggling to maintain her social status. She tried her hand at a number of dubious business investments, several of which required her to continue her travels. She was later to record journeys to England, New York and India.
Sadly, after several bouts of bankruptcy, Eliza died insolvent on 9 September 1816 in Calcutta, where was buried the following day (British Library ref. IOR:N/1/9-10).