Touring the Dead Lands: Emily Eden, Victorian Famines, and Colonial Picturesque

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Spoiling the 'Picturesque'

There is a striking tonal similarity amongst those who reviewed Emily Eden's account of her journey with her brother George Auckland--the recently appointed Govenor-General of British India--across the northern provinces of the country between 1837 and 1840. On its publication in 1866, the Athenaeum decided that like Lawrence Sterne's Sentimental Journey, Eden's book had no information of interest to the Statistical Society. (1) The Fortnightly Review agreed: 'it is true that very little of what is commonly called "useful knowledge" will be found in these volumes'. (2) Yet, it is precisely Eden's failure to provide 'useful knowledge' that was seen as the strength of her work. Freshness, humour, feminine vivacity, grace, and charm were the typical adjectives employed to describe Eden's prose. Moreover, the reviewers seem to have decided that Up the Country was best evoked in visual terms. The Athenaeum praised Eden for capturing the 'picturesque appearance of Indian life' and representing her 'picturesque misery and magnificence'; the Fortnightly Review applauded the book as 'a series of pictures true to life. In her letters we do not read about India; we see it'. (3)

This split between 'useful knowledge' and the 'picturesque' corroborates Nigel Leask's analysis of the two dominant modes in British imperial travel writing of the Romantic and early Victorian eras. Whereas 'useful knowledge'--comprising topographical details, population statistics, administrative and political analysis--was a mark of what Leask calls the 'survey modality', the 'picturesque' was marked by its explicit anti-utilitarianism, antiquarianism, and 'associationist ethics'. (4) Thus, drawing from British visual arts theory that had fused Italianate landscape with the details of the Dutch school, the anti-utilitarian strain of the picturesque eschewed any representation of industry, modernity, or technological 'improvement'. Its peculiar antiquarianism focused attention on ancient ruins, not to celebrate their splendour, but to view them with a mixture of nostalgia and melancholy about the inevitable passage of time and the cyclical rise and fall of civilizations. Finally, the picturesque perspective sought to find echoes of the perceived peace and beauty of the English and Celtic rural fringes in the hills, ruins, rivers, and villages of the exotic imperial possessions, in order to link these into an associative embrace. (5)

Yet, consider a famous passage from Eden's text:

   Perhaps two thousand years hence, when the art of steam has been
   forgotten ... some black Governor-General of England will be
   marching through its southern provinces, and will go and look at
   some ruins, and doubt whether London ever was a large town, and
   will feed some white-looking skeletons, and say what distress the
   poor creatures must be in. (6)

Eden's musings here at first sight confirm Leask's diagnosis about the picturesque artist's curious melancholic attachment displayed towards the antiquarian. The visual evidence of the inevitable decay of past civilizations brings to mind a salutary reminder of the fragility of the present dispensation, leading to dark musings about its apocalyptic slide into oblivion--here figured as the colonisation of England by India in the near future. The charge of this passage has been registered by a host of contemporary critics. Jo Robertson has commented on how Eden's writing first casts India as a burial ground of British imperial decay and then, 'in a fascinating geographical and temporal displacement', imagines a future where Britain is now a land of the decaying and the dead colonised by imperial Indians. (7) Angelia Poon concurs, seeing in the passage 'an apocalyptic picture of an England in decline where the roles of coloniser and colonised have been switched'. (8) I suggest that it is passages such as these that turn the picturesque, which Leask sees as the organizing principle for the representation of British India for metropolitan British consumption, into a slightly different animal. …