Imperial Book Club

Whilst I was slowly wading my way through Viceroy Curzon’s correspondence this summer, I came a across a letter sent in 1901 from the Secretary of State for India, George Hamilton, in which he recommended a novel. Well, sort of.

I have been reading a clever but disgusting book named Anna Lombard; it deals with sexual intercourse between Europeans and Natives. It is worth reading, ridiculous as the plot is. The part that interested me was a description of the loneliness and desperation which overtakes and overcomes British officials in the swamps of Burma, almost compelling them to have some companionship in their dreary compounds. It may be exaggerated, but it seemed to me to have some truth in its contention.

Needless to say, I was straight on to see if there was a digitized copy. Happily, there was. It was swiftly onto my Kindle, and it was devoured over a weekend. It is a fascinating book, written by the New Woman novelist Annie Sophie Cory under the wonderful pen-name Victoria Cross.

annalombard00crosiala_0007I found myself genuinely shocked by it. The vivid descriptions of white British female (and in some passages, male) sexual desires for Indian men were so atypical of novels written at that time that, although I didn’t catch a glimpse of myself, I’m certain it made me blush. Immersed as I was in the staid world of imperial bureaucratic prose with its rigid racial hierarchies, it was a surreal read. The society it described was at once very familiar to me from my research, but the plot described imperial psycho-sexual dynamics in a manner that I had never previously found laid out so plainly.

Whilst it is littered with racist imagery and assumptions, it was simultaneously a call for a radically new form of masculinity to compliment the Victorian New Woman. Set in British India, there are moments when an anti-colonial feminist subject seems to be forming in the book, but these are fleeting. It contains no deep critique of empire. However, its portrayals of sexual transgressions across the racial divide are not the most shocking parts of the book – the plot takes some very dark turns…

Since reading it I’ve been wanting to write a post on it, but I’ve not wanted to spoil the book for anyone else. Naively, I want other people to experience the same surprise I did. However, Hamilton managed to keep the most shocking details out of his recommendation, perhaps hoping not to ruin the book for Curzon. I seriously doubt that Anna Lombard was Curzon’s cup of tea. What he would have found ‘disgusting’, we might find most interesting about it. And, what we find disgusting about its racism, he would have considered its most palatable content. But like Hamilton, I just hope to pique your interest.

Why have I included a painting of the controversial medieval Italian countess Caterina Sforza? You'll have to read the book to find out...
Why have I included a painting of the controversial medieval Italian countess Caterina Sforza? You’ll have to read the book to find out…

4 Comments Add yours

  1. pau1morgan says:

    Gosh, that’s caught my interest. ‘Clever but disgusting’ sounds rather appealing in 2013! Hamilton clearly ‘forced himself’ to read the book despite his disapproval.

    1. jonathansaha says:

      Thanks Paul! I think you’re right – he was probably more attracted by the taboo subject-matter than he was repulsed.

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