Original date of publication: 1817
My edition: 2010 (NYRB Classics)
Why I decided to read: it’s an NYRB Classic
How I acquired my copy: Joseph Fox Bookshop, Philadelphia, January 2012
Eliza Fay was 23 when she accompanied her husband Anthony Fay, a lawyer, to India in 1779. Not much is known about her early life, but her editor, EM Forster, surmises that her father might have been a sailor. On her first journey out to India, she traveled through France and Egypt, and she and her husband were imprisoned when they arrived in Calcutta.
Due to Anthony Fay’s mismanagement of money and infidelity, Eliza Fay split from her husband a few years later, and set herself up briefly as a milliner. Over the next 30 years she was to travel to India a few more times, and each time she traveled, she kept a journal of her journey. It was a time when the British turned from mere merchants and traders in India to a major imperial power. Eliza Fay wasn’t of the wealthiest class, but she nonetheless was an active participant in middle-class social life.
Most of the contents of this diary were from her first journey. Eliza Fay was an astute observer of her surroundings and undaunted by new experiences. She proves herself to be courageous and resourceful where her weak-willed husband is not. For example, during their captivity, the couple hid their valuables in an old glove and hid them under the eaves of the house. When a rainstorm came and washed the glove away, her spineless husband whined about it… while Eliza used a bit of common sense and footwork in order to find the glove lying in the grass nearby.
Judging from her “letters to friends back at home,” Eliza Fay wasn’t particularly educated, but she had the capacity to learn, particularly foreign languages. Her observations are astute, and while she wasn’t a particularly skilled writer, her style is all her own: immensely entertaining and energetic. Eliza Fay was a precursor to other colonial-era English female travelers to India—Emily Eden primarily among them. It’s fortunate that EM Forster accidentally stumbled across this book while researching A Passage to India.