Memoirs of a Highland Lady: Life in India and Another Sister Wed

The large house of Camballa, which [my uncle] had hired to receive us in, was of the usual Indian Construction, the large, long centre hall with broad verandahs round it; but such a hall, 80 feet long, 80 feet wide, Verandahs 20 feet wide. It stood on a platform in the middle of the descent of a rocky hill, round which swept the sea, with a plain of rice fields, and a tank, a handsome tank, between the foot of it and the Breach Candi road along the beach. From the hill end of the hall rose a wide staircase in stages; each stage led off on either hand to a terrace, each terrace on the one hand was a flower garden, on the other a covered gallery leading to offices. Top of all, and very high it was, the Terraces were covered in as bedrooms, catching all the air that blew and commanding from their latticed balconies such a view as was alone worth almost the voyage from Europe.

Dinner was served in one of the Verandahs to the great hall with such a display of plate, so brilliant a light, and such an array of attendants as were startling after our Cuddy reminiscences. I thought of the Arabian nights. The scenes there depicted were realized with a charm belonging to them quite beyond any description to paint and which now at this distance of time rouses the fancy again, and gives them back to memory with a freshness never to be impaired. There was light, vastness, beauty, regal pomp, and true affection. All was not gold, however; a better acquaintance with our palace disturbed much of our admiration. Our bedrooms were really merely barns, no ceilings, the bare rafters, bare walls, no fastenings to the doors, the bathrooms very like sculleries, the flowery terraces suspected of concealing snakes, and most certainly harbouring myriads of insects most supremely troublesome, and the tank a nuisance. Very beautiful as it seemed, with its graduated sides descending to the water, interesting, from the groups of native women resorting there at all hours with those pyramids of Etruscan shaped pots upon their heads, and their draperied clothing, and winging on with such a graceful step, the tank at night became a nuisance from the multitude of frogs—the large bull frog with such a dreadful croak as deafened us. Still these were minor evils. It was all a stage play life, and we were enchanted with it.

Mary’s Marriage to Mr. Gardiner

Mr Gardiner [also a passenger on the Mountstewart Elphinstone] was very agreeable and soon became a favourite with my father and with Mary. He was a Civilian, not young; he had been ten years in India, and was returning there now after a two years’ leave at home. He was about thirty, had held a good appointment, and expected a better. The family was Irish; the father, Colonel Gardiner, had inherited money and made more, and on dying left £100,000 to his five children.

My sister’s marriage was a grand affair. I don’t remember how many people my Aunt thought it necessary to invite to the breakfast; there were above 20 present at the Ceremony in the Cathedral. We had such a Cousinhood at the Presidency, and Mr Gardiner and Uncle Edward had so many friends, and there were my father’s brother judges, etc. Good Mr Carr, now the Bishop, married them.

For so very pretty a girl as Mary then was, so beautiful a woman as she became, there never was a less interesting, I was going to say a plainer, Bride. Her dress was heavy and unbecoming, and a very large veil, the gift of Mr Norris, hid all of her face except the large nose, the feature that had been best concealed. She was perfectly silent before the ceremony and equally silent after it, self possessed all through. She bowed without smiling when her health was drank and she went off with her husband in her new carriage to Salsette as if she had been going out just to take a drive with me.

I never pretended to understand Mary; what she felt, or whether she felt, nobody ever knew when she did not choose to tell them. Like Jane, and I believe like myself, what she determined on doing she did, and well, without fuss, after conviction of its propriety. One thing is certain, she married a most estimable man; and she made a most happy marriage, and whatever she felt towards him the day she became his Wife, she was afterwards truly attached to him and she valued him to the end of her days as he deserved.

We had had plenty to do, she and I, preparing for this event, for Mary, not content with her outfit, ordered considerable additions to her wardrobe, such things as she and our Aunt Caroline considered indispensible in her new position—near $100 my father had to pay. Then there were toilette requisites, a carriage, liveries, horses, servants, linen etc., on Mr Gardiner’s part, all to be chosen by her. A friend, Mr Elliot, lent them or rented to him his furnished house at Bycullah, which saved them both trouble and expense, he Mr Elliot being ill and ordered to the Neilgherries*; still there were many little matters to settle, and we had no help from my father and mother. They were completely absorbed in the same sort of affairs of their own. Really it was amusing to see persons of their age, who had kept house for so many years, and had full experience of such business, so completely occupied with every the minutest detail of their Bombay establishment.  Their house, its situation, furniture, number of servants, etc., one could understand would require attention; but the shape of the turbans, the colour of the cumberbands, their width, the length of the robes of the Chobdars**, all these minutiae received the greatest consideration.

A short honeymoon satisfied our lovers; they returned after a retirement of 10 days, and then began a round of entertainments to the newly married pair. Every incident was seized on by the community to give excuse for party giving. There was so little to interest any one going forward at any time, the mails being infrequent then, that we all gladly turned our attention to the trifles which filled up our lives for want of better things. An Indian life is very eventless; very dull it was to me after Mary married and John left us. Uncle Edward continued so unwell after losing the gout that he was recommended to try a year at the Neilgherries; John went there with them, proceeding afterwards from there by Bangalore to Madras and so to Calcutta, his nomination being to Bengal.

A Single Lady

…[O]ld as I was,  I was quite in fashion—a second season of celebrity, a coming out again! Like my father, I have all my life looked 10 years younger than my age; nobody guessed me at 30, and beng handsome, lively, obliging and a great man’s daughter, I reigned in good earnest over many a better queen! than myself. Of course every eligible was to be married to me, not only that but everybody was busy marrying me. ‘Now, don’t mind them, Eliza, my dear,’ said uncle Edward very early in my Indian career; ‘don’t fix yet, wait for Smith, my friend Smith; he’ll be sure to be down here next season, and he’s just the very man I have fixed on for yu.’ Then my Aunt, ‘I don’t mind your not liking old so and so and that tiresome this, and that ill humoured that, I had rather you married Colonel Smith than any body.’ Then my cousins, ‘Oh you will so like Colonel Smith, Eliza, everyone likes Colonel Smith, he will make such a kind husband, he is so kind to his horses.’ ‘My goodness, Miss Grant,’ said Mrs Norris, ‘is it possible you have refused—the best match in the Presidency—will certainly be in Council. Who do you mean to marry, pray.’ (Every body must marry, they can’t help it here.) ‘I am waiting,’ said I, ‘for Colonel Smith.” Great laughing this caused, of course, none laughing more than the intending Bride, to whom this Colonel Smith was no more than a bit of fun, just as likely to be her husband as her most particular admirer, a great fat Parsee.

One morning I was sitting at work; the cooler weather had restored us our needles and I was employing mine for Mary’s expected baby, early in November, my Mother lying on the sofa reading, when the Chobdar in waiting announced Colonel Smith. It is customary for all new arrivals to call on the Burra Sahibs. He entered, and in spite of all the nonsense we had amused ourselves with, we liked him. ‘Well,’ said Mary, on hearing who had called, ‘will he do?’ ‘Better than any of your upsetting Civilians,’ answered I, ‘a million of times, I never liked the Military at home and here I don’t like the Civilians. Colonel Smith is the most gentlemanly man I have seen in India.’ Mary and Mr Gardiner laughed and neither they nor I thought more about him.

Next Week: Colonel Henry Smith

*This photograph of a waterfall in the Nilgiri Hills was taken by an unknown photographer in the 1860s as part of an album entitled ‘Photographs of India and Overland Route’. The British established resort towns in the Nilgiri Hills during the nineteenth century where they could retreat from the harsh Indian summers. These hill stations suited the Victorian taste for the ‘picturesque’. This notion was so ingrained in the Victorian imagination that it was imperative for a successful landscape photographer to capture the right elements. This included any view endowed with scenic charm and normally meant strategically framed views of rugged mountain scenery, forests, rivers, lakes and rural dwellings.

**Chob-dar or mace bearer, in livery decorated with gold lace, holding a mace of gold or silver. Handcoloured copperplate engraving by an unknown artist from “Asiatic Costumes,” Ackermann, London, 1828.

Memoirs of a Highland Lady

‘I was born on the 7th May 1797 of a Sunday evening at No. 5 N. side of Charlotte Square, Edinburgh, in my father’s own lately built house and I am the eldest of five children he and my mother raised to maturity.’ Thus opens one of the most famous set of memoirs ever written. Since its first bowdlerised edition in 1898, they have been consistently in print. This is the first ever complete text. Written between 1845 and 1854 the memoirs were originally intended simply for Elizabeth’s family, but these vivid and inimitable records of life in the early 19th century, and above all on the great Rothiemurchus estate, full of sharp observation and wit, form an unforgettable picture of her time. The story ends with the thirty-three-year-old Elizabeth finding her own future happiness in marriage to an Irish landowner, Colonel Smith of Baltiboys. ‘A masterpiece of historical and personal recall.’ Scotsman

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Memoirs of a Highland Lady

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