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Review: Up the Country: Letters from India, by Emily Eden


Pages: 410

Original date of publication: 1860

My edition: 1997 (Virago)

Why I decided to read: LibraryThing recommendation

How I acquired my copy: Amazon UK, March 2011

Emily Eden’s name has been floating around in my literary consciousness for a while—many years ago I read a novel called One Last Look, which apparently is based on Emily Eden’s travels in India; and then a couple of years ago I read Women of the Raj, a historical overview of British women in India in the 18th, 19th, and early 20th centuries. So when I found out that her letters home to her sister were available, this became a must-read for me.

The book is a collection of letters that Emily wrote between 1837 and 1841, when Emily’s brother George, who was Governor-General, set out to tour the Upper Provinces of India; Emily and her other sister, Fanny, came with him. Historically, Emily’s travels were important because she was able to witness the beginnings of the First Afghan War, although she wasn’t aware of its importance at the time and is a bit flippant about the political goings-on.

Nonetheless, Emily’s account of British life in India at the start of Victoria’s reign is wonderful. She has a wonderful, biting sense of humor, especially when talking about the other people they traveled with (on “Mrs T”: [she wears long thick thread mittens, with black velvet bracelets over them. She may have great genius, and many good qualities, but you know, it is impossible to look for them under those mittens”). Apparently, the caravan they traveled with had about 20,000 people in it, and the atmosphere at times seems like British society on a smaller scale—complete with romantic intrigues (not for Emily; it seems that she was quite the matchmaker and confidant). I do love that Emily was well-read; Dickens seems to be her favorite author and she is continually waiting with bated breath for the next installment in The Pickwick Papers… in addition to her sister’s letters from England, which are always two or three months late.

At the time Emily Eden traveled with her brother and sister to the Upper Provinces, she was in her forties, definitely a spinster by Victorian standards; and yet she seems completely unfazed by the life she leads (quite unlike the main character in Alas, Poor Lady). Part of Emily’s independent lifestyle stems from the fact that her family was wealthy and she had opportunities available to her that others didn’t; but it also has a lot to do with Emily’s dynamic personality; she was the type of person who made things happen rather than have them happen to her. That’s part of the charm of Emily’s personality, and why her letters make such entertaining reading.

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