The XX Factor

Book of the Week: “Original Letters From India”

“Eliza Fay is a work of art,” E.M. Forster wrote in his introductory notes to Fay’s Original Letters From India . It’s hard to disagree.  Most of the letters in this recently re-released volume recount Fay’s first voyage to India in 1779, when she was a 23-year-old bride traveling with her husband to his new post in Calcutta. The letters reveal, in the form of a young, middle-class Englishwoman, one of the braver broads ever to traipse across Europe and Northern Africa.  She keeps her cool when a mule carries her inches from a precipice and survives 15 weeks’ imprisonment by an Indian warlord, all under the “protection” of men who, in her personal opinion, are handling the situation all wrong. And when her husband turns out to be a hotheaded cad, she doesn’t think twice about divorcing him, even though doing so will hurt her financially and socially.

The early letters captivate with their enthusiasm-much Eliza Fay encounters is “stupendous”-their total honesty, and a dose of age-appropriate frivolity. From Paris, she notes that Queen Marie Antoinette is certainly gorgeous, but behaved a little below her station at the fireworks show. Fay pronounces Martin Luther, or at least his portrait, disappointingly “homely.” She apologizes only half-heartedly for her occasional schadenfreude-wouldn’t you be the littlest bit pleased when backstabbing traveling companions who thought themselves safe got captured, too?

The letters from several subsequent trips to India are more polished but not as stupendous as the first ones. Maybe that’s because Fay was writing these with publication in mind, and the self-censorship she had avoided kicked in. Perhaps the dissolution of her marriage, “the strongest tie the human heart can form for itself,” muted her joy. Still, Fay’s epistles reveal what an important space the letter was in the 18th century for intelligent, articulate women writers with no other genre available to them. Fay claimed her right to tell her own pretty thrilling story. She writes, “This story must be told in my own way, or not at all.”