As the Dawn Princess slowly makes it’s way to India, via Singapore and Kuala Lumpar, I’ve been spending my days lounging on the Promenade Deck reading about another woman’s journey to India by sea.
The Original Letters from India by Eliza Fay paints quite a different picture of ocean life than the one I am living at the moment.
On the Dawn Princess, there is no lack of food, lack of service, or lack of entertainment. The most difficult decision that needs to be made every day is where and when to eat and whether to sit and read or go to the gym.
This, of course, wasn’t the case for Eliza Fay. Her journey, by land and sea, was fraught with complications, imprisonment, near ship wrecks, and very little comfort. But as her letters reflect, it was never dull or uninteresting.
Little is known about Eliza Fay’s early life, apart from the fact that she was born in South London in 1756 and her father was mostly likely a sailor.
All we really know of her life is what happened after her marriage to Irish lawyer Anthony Fay when she was in her early twenties. In 1779 the newlyweds embarked on a haphazard journey to a new life in Calcutta, a journey that Eliza recorded through a series of letters that she sent to her family in England.
And what letters they were. Long and rambling, more like journal entries than letters, they are often hard to read due to their lack of structure. But it’s this very lack of structure – unguarded and uncensored – that make them so fascinating. Here is a woman, with limited education, who is living an adventure that would have most of us shaking in our shoes.
The collection was first published in 1817 and provides an unguarded and uncensored glimpse of their perilous adventures by land and sea across Europe and the Middle East to India.
In long, winding, letters, Eliza Fay offers up frank opinions and descriptions of those she meets, both favourable and unfavourable. No one and nothing is spared except maybe Eliza herself who she obviously sees as the stoic heroine who survives one misadventure after another.
But perhaps Simon Winchester, in his introduction in the edition put out by the New York Review Books, descirbes Eliza’s letters best when he writes that
“No calmer correspondent can be imagined than the magnificent Mrs Fay, for whom the words imperturbable, indomitable, and redoubtable might have been coined”