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Whilst writing a book on tracing ancestors in British India, I explored the character and actions of one of the most notorious Britons in India, Robert Clive (1725-1774).

Emma Jolly, in the article The Urban Genealogist on Holiday: The Clive Collection at Powis Castle, Wales

Emma Jolly writer, historian, genealogist
  1. A British Christmas in India 1780

    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).

  2. A Hankering After Ghosts: Charles Dickens and the Supernatural

    I have endeavoured in this Ghostly little book,

    to raise the Ghost of an Idea, which shall not put my 

    readers out of humour with themselves, with each other,

    with the season, or with me. May it haunt their houses

    pleasantly, and no one wish to lay it.

    Preface to A Christmas Carol (December 1843)

    Dex.316

    If, like me, you are a fan of Charles Dickens, you have much to look forward to over the next year. In the run up to 7 February 2012, the bicentenary of Dickens’ birth, galleries all over the world are dusting off letters, books, and illustrations of the great author and his many works.

    To start us off in London, the British Library have a smallish exhibition in its Folio Society Gallery – the perfect size for a lunch break visit. The rich Christmassy feel also provides welcome escape from currently chilly London streets.

    Christmas permeates the display. There are several editions of A Christmas Carol, a theatre poster for an early performance, an oral recording by Ralph Richardson and Paul Scofield, plus a copy of the semi-autobiographical short story ‘A Christmas Tree’ (1850). Indeed, we learn that it was the ghost stories told around the fire in his childhood Christmases that first inspired Dickens’ imagination to ‘hanker’ after the supernatural.

    Childhood influences are highlighted throughout: from the supernatural imagery of The Arabian Nights to the ‘fiendish enjoyment’ of young Charles’ nurse in relaying ghostly tales. But later, more tragic events were also to inspire his writing. The deaths of loved ones, like Mary Hogarth, were said to have ‘haunted his dreams’. Similarly, Ebenezer Scrooge was to be haunted at night by the ‘ghosts’ of those he had once cherished.

    The Victorian obsession with the supernatural is highlighted through examples of spirit (or psychic) photographs and a display on spiritualism. Dickens satirized the spiritualists but was fascinated with the macabre. A close friendship with one of the finest exponents of the ghost story, Wilkie Collins, only served to further his interest. Although he sought to rationalise supernatural phenomena such as mesmerism, Dickens was not above sensationalizing them to terrify his readers. An original copy of Bleak House, for example, lies open on an illustration showing the spontaneous combustion of the alcoholic Krook.

    Amongst featured items in the exhibition are illustrations, theatre posters and a letter written by the author to his wife, Catherine. One of my favourite items was a copy of The Terrific Register – a penny weekly magazine whose tales of horror haunted Dickens throughout his life. He later remembered ‘there was an illustration to every number in which there was always a pool of blood, and at least one body . . .’

    The exhibition is free and runs from 29 November 2011 – 4 March 2012: Monday, Wednesday-Friday 9.30 – 18.00, Tuesday 9.30 – 20.00, Saturday 9.30 – 17.00, Sunday and Bank Holidays 11.00 – 17.00.

    For more on Dickens, see my article ‘Charles Dickens in Camden’ at the London Historians website http://www.londonhistorians.org/?s=articles

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Member of The Association of Genealogists and Researchers in ArchivesGraduate of the Institute of Heraldic and Genealogical Studies CanterburyMember of the Society of Genealogists