September 07, 2008

"A Story of Indian Life: The Story of a Child's Life in India During the Mutiny" by Grace Ogilvie

Besides hearing about new research and meeting other people working in similar areas, if there's one thing conferences are good (or dangerous!) for, it's the book stalls. In addition to a number of journal publishers at the BAVS conference, there was also a second-hand book stall with a number of Victorian editions- which is how I came across "A Story of Indian Life: The Story of a Child's Life in India During the Mutiny" by Grace Ogilvie. I've never heard of the author before -and a bit of internet searching hasn't revealed much either, this looks like her only story and I have no idea where she's from or why/how/when she travelled to India - but when it comes to beautiful old books I have very little willpower, and was willing to part with £20 for a copy of this book. The book was published by The Religious Tract Society in London, and there's no date of publication, just a hand-written inscription inside the cover which reads "Clara A.M. Hadgrove(?). Awarded for good conduct and general improvement, June 16th 1876. Miss Lowley's (?). St Albans Place".

The book is a piece of travel writing for children, with a very simple story but interesting narration that uses many of the tropes familiar to travel writing of the period. The narrator is the aunt of the central character, a little girl named Grace Ogilvie, born in India to English parents- her father is a Colonel. The first half of the novel establishes the peaceful and idyllic life of the young Grace in the family's large white house in colonised India; the second half charts the disruption to this order with the breakout of the mutiny of 1857, forcing the family into hiding in the depths of forests, through which they travel to reach Calcutta. The flight from the Edenic land of plenty into the uncivilised wilderness of the country has clear religious parallels, and the book indeed seems to have primarily been written as an instruction book to teach young girls how to be good Christians: there is much explanation of the ways of God, the importance of prayers and Bible-reading, and the aunt-narrator figure frequently reminds Grace of her religious duty. Grace is depicted as the perfect child, good, virtuous, and with "a higher love for all things holy and good"; her teaching of Christianity to the native servants and her early death, following the suffering of illness, at the age of twelve, locate her as a saintly, even Christ-like, figure in the text who remains eternally pure and virtuous through her death. In this, the text strongly resonates with the Eva St. Clare narrative in Uncle Tom's Cabin, which similarly depicts a young girl as the epitome of religious faith, finding redemptive power in her early death.

As is to be expected from travel writing of the period the novel is imbued with colonialist discourse, constructing India as an "other" space which, by strongly contrasting with the British ideal of "civilisation", providing a testing-ground in which the ideologies of imperialism are challenged, but ultimately strengthened through this testing. This is most noticeable in the portrayal of religion; India figures in this Christian narrative as an "othered" space in which the ideals of religious purity are emphasised against a backdrop of "heathen" behaviour: Chapter 3 depicts a "frightful" festival of "heathen gods", the idols of which are "hideous, terror-inspiring creaters adored and venerated by the Hindoo". Against this "darkness" and evil, Grace's purity stands out as all the more virtuous through the contrast: the narrator notes of Grace standing next to the servants that their "dark complexions and jet-black hair formed a strange contrast to the little golden-haired fairy before them". The descent into the wilderness of the jungle is not only a religious parody but a challenge to colonial order, challenging imperial values to withstand a journey through the uncivilized jungle- in which the darkness becomes "deeper and deeper" until the tall trees are "like shades of evil". That the family come through this symbolises the ability of "Britishness" to uphold such testing (a recurrent feature of travel writing). However, the mother dies as a result of exposure in the jungle, suggesting the danger, disease and contagion associated with uncivilised spaces, as well as the weakness of femininity to withstand physical ordeal. With the exception of the narrator/aunt, only the Colonel remains alive at the end of the book, thereby re-asserting the ideal of civilisation with the white, male, British, imperial subject as the sole survivor of the trials of the book. The closing lines also reiterate the strength and importance of the family unit, with Grace's gravestone inscription joining "Grace, child of Robert and Annie Ogilvie".

There's a lot more to say about this narrative in the context of Victorian travel writing, and it provides an insightful supplement to the texts I've read thus far as it is written for children- specifically girls, as the narrative reiterates the importance of being a "good girl" several times and appeals to Victorian discourses on femininity with emphasis on beauty, purity, and the family. It would be interesting to think more about how travel writing has been aimed at children and how this goes about reinscribing colonial discourse for a younger generation.

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