Eden, Emily (1797–1869)

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Eden, Emily (1797–1869)

English political host and author whose paintings and writings depict the splendors and hardships of life in imperial India during the 1830s and 1840s. Born on March 4, 1797, in London, England; died on August 5, 1869, in London, England; daughter of William Eden, 1st Baron Auckland, and Eleanor Elliot; educated privately; never married; no children.

Emily Eden accompanied her brother George, the British governor-general of India, on a two-and-a-half-year tour through Northern India in 1837. To impress the local princes and rajahs with the power of British imperialism, they traveled with a ten-mile-long procession of camels, elephants, horses, carriages, bamboo carts, soldiers and camp followers. Twelve thousand people strong, this cavalcade could travel only about two hours in the early morning before the sun became too strong. Emily Eden, the witty and learned daughter of a politically well-connected Whig family, commented wryly on her participation in this gigantic daily parade:

We feel so certain that people who live in houses, and get up by a fire at a reasonable hour and then go quietly to breakfast, would think us raving mad, if they saw nine Europeans of steady age and respectable habits, going galloping every morning at sunrise over a sandy plain, followed by quantities of black horsemen, and then by ten miles of beasts of burden carrying things which, after all, will not make the nine madmen even decently comfortable.

Certainly nothing in Emily Eden's early life had led her to believe that she would spend five years in India (despite the fact that one of her uncles was Lord Minto, an early governor-general of India). Eden was a daughter of Eleanor Elliot Eden and William Eden, a retired diplomat and the 1st Baron Auckland. Born in London, she was tutored at home by a series of governesses. Eden was quite well-educated, especially for a woman of her day, and was avidly involved in the political life of Britain.

Her older brother, George, who had assumed the title of Lord Auckland upon the death of his father, was a well-connected Whig. In 1818, after their mother died, Emily and her younger sister Fanny Eden set up housekeeping for George, a lifelong bachelor. George served as commissioner of Greenwich Hospital and in 1834 was appointed First Lord of the Admiralty. The Edens' home became a meeting place for Whig politicians, and Emily Eden was an active and equal participant in the lively political discussions among her brother's colleagues.

In 1835, the prime minister, Lord Melbourne, appointed Lord Auckland governor-general of India, a prestigious and potentially lucrative position but one that required residence in India. Although reluctant to leave her stimulating life in England and leery of any long sea voyages, Emily Eden resolved to accompany her dearly loved brother to India. Fanny Eden, too, agreed to make the journey.

Prior to the opening of the Suez Canal, the trip from England to India around the Cape of Good Hope took approximately five months. The Edens arrived in Calcutta, the seat of British administration in India, in March 1836. Although Lord Auckland was often occupied with official government business, his position also required that he and his sisters, as his hostesses, participate in many social activities. Emily and Fanny Eden presided weekly at official dinners, "Open Houses," balls and "At Homes" at Government House in Calcutta.

As Emily Eden revealed to her many correspondents back in England, she intensely disliked her new life in India. She found the British inhabitants dull and gossipy. The weather was oppressive, especially as the Edens had arrived at the beginning of Calcutta's hottest season. Eden wrote, "I have not been able yet to live five minutes, night or day, without the punkah [large ceiling fan], and we keep our blinds all closed as long as there is a ray of sun." The heat and humidity, aided by the insects, caused books, clothing and furniture to rot. Eden was uninterested in Indian culture and viewed the Indians with "aversion." Her brother was so occupied with governmental responsibilities that she rarely saw him. In sum, Eden averred, "I cannot abide India, and that is the truth."

In 1837, however, the Edens abandoned their boring Calcutta routine and embarked on their two-and-a-half-year tour through Northern India. The official purpose of the trip was to impress the Indian rulers in the region with the power of British imperialism and to solidify friendly relations with Ranjit Singh, ruler of the Punjab. Emily Eden's trenchant and witty letters to her sister describing this trip, which were published in 1866 under the title Up the Country, describe the magnificence and pomp associated with British imperial power in the mid-19th century. Eden, however, was also a shrewd observer of the incongruities of imperialism. Describing a ball at Simla, the Himalayan retreat that would become the fashionable summer capital of the British Empire in India, Eden wrote:

Twenty years ago no European had ever been here, and there we were, with the band playing and eating salmon from Scotland. [W]e, 105 Europeans, [were] surrounded by at least 3,000 mountaineers, who, wrapped in their hill blankets, looked on at what we call our polite amusements, and bowed to the ground if a European came near them. I sometimes wonder they do not cut all our heads off, and say nothing more about it.

The ten-mile-long procession of elephants and soldiers that made up the governor-general's entourage probably succeeded in its purpose of impressing the local princes and rajahs. At durbars (formal ceremonies for the governor-general to meet with the local ruler), Lord Auckland and his sisters received elaborate presents from the Indian princes. They were obliged by law, however, to turn these gifts over to the East India Company, nominal ruler of British India. Eden captured many of these local rulers in sketches and paintings, which were later published as a highly praised book entitled Portraits of the Princes and People of India.

Lord Auckland's tenure as governor-general ended on a disastrous note. A contingent of British soldiers, sent to Afghanistan to forestall Russian advances that might threaten the British presence in India, were massacred by the Afghans. The new prime minister, Robert Peel, recalled Lord Auckland to England in 1841. Emily Eden apparently retained a deep-rooted enmity against her brother's successor for many years after.

Back in England, Emily, Fanny and George continued to live together at their house in London. After yet another change in government, Lord Auckland was again appointed First Lord of the Admiralty. Emily Eden's voracious interest in politics continued unabated, but her health, damaged by the years in India, worsened. After her brother and sister died within a few months of each other, Emily Eden became a chronic invalid. In 1859, however, she published her first novel, a comic work entitled The Semi-Detached House, which was followed in 1860 by another satirical book, The Semi-Attached Couple. Although she rarely left her house, leading figures in the Whig Party continued to visit Eden to pay their respects and to seek her advice.

Emily Eden died at Eden Lodge on August 5, 1869. Through her writings and paintings, she memorialized an imperial lifestyle that was fast receding in the face of railroads, limited-liability companies and hotels. Her works preserved for posterity what Eden called the "contrasts of public grandeur and private discomfort [that] will probably be seen no more, on a scale of such magnificence."

Mary A. Procida , Visiting Assistant Professor of History, Temple University, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania