Lady of the Raj
By William Dalrymple
The Guardian, Saturday 9 June 2009
Fanny Parkes's exuberant journals trace her journey from prim memsahib to sitar-playing Indophile and provide one of the most enjoyable accounts of colonial India, discovers William Dalrymple.
I first heard about the great early Victorian travel writer Fanny Parkes when I was given a first edition of her book, Wanderings of a Pilgrim in Search of the Picturesque, by an old lady who in many ways resembled Parkes, and whose life had been greatly influenced by her writings.
Iris Portal was in her late 70s when I met her, a feisty yet remarkably liberal and intelligent relic of the Raj. She was the younger sister of the politician Rab Butler and had grown up in an academic family in Cambridge, where her father was the master of a college. But in her teens, to her family's horror, Iris had fallen in love with a dashing polo-playing cavalry officer, and suddenly found herself transported from the bookish banks of the Cam to a bleak military cantonment in central India. There the commanding officer's wife soon warned her not to let it be known that she wrote poetry, "as it might give the wrong impression".
Iris was, however, far too intelligent and independent-minded a woman to let the CO's wife get in her way, and she soon took to riding out to the bazaars and ruins that surrounded the army camps where she was based, learning the languages and exploring the history, a trajectory that eventually turned her into the distinguished biographer of, among others, the British governor general Lord Wellesley.
It was as a young army wife that Iris discovered the writings of Fanny Parkes, and immediately recognised a kindred spirit. A century before her, in the early 1830s, Parkes had also become a bored young wife in India, in her case married to an official in Allahabad whose job was to make ice. Like Iris, she ran away from the stiff officialdom of the Raj and immersed herself in the country. Soon Parkes was exploring the length and breadth of the country, and, on returning to England, she wrote possibly the most enjoyable and exuberant travel book to come out of the south Asia of the East India Company.
Painted by Fannny Parkes