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Updated: June 6, 2013 14:37 IST

The muse did not disappoint Thackeray, Maugham

Sriram V.
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The city contributed to 19th century English literature in a big way

William Makepeace Thackeray (1811-1863), though born in Calcutta, set some of the action in his famed Vanity Fair in Bundlegunge, a fictional military station in Madras Presidency. The novel has a fairly faithful representation of rivalry between the civil services and the army in Madras, as depicted in the contests between Lady O’Dowd, wife of the garrison commander and Lady Smith, wife of the judge.

Sir Walter Scott (1771-1832) wrote a short story, The Surgeon’s Daughter, wherein much of the action was set in Bangalore and Mysore with Tipu Sultan and Hyder Ali playing key roles. The villain Paupiah is directly inspired by Avadhanam Paupiah after whom a street in Purasawalkam is named. Paupiah was a notorious dubash. Reams have been written of his duplicity, his attempts to bribe members of the governor’s executive council and his forging the bonds of the Nawab of Arcot.

E.F. Benson (1867-1940) wrote of upper middle-class snobbery in the British countryside. His first novel Queen Lucia has a hostess showcasing a yoga guru from Madras and making her home the centre of society on account of this curiosity. The whole village goes around breathing deeply and saying Om until someone points out he was a cook at an Indian restaurant in London.

Bithia Mary Croker (1849- 1920) wrote In Old Madras, a purely fictional account in which a nephew comes in search of an uncle who vanished years ago in Madras. Croker’s husband was a military officer and the couple spent 14 years in India, including in Madras.

W. Somerset Maugham’s short story, The Colonel’s Lady, is about an aristocratic Colonel who looks down on his wife only to see her become an acclaimed poet overnight. More shame follows when it transpires that most of the poems refer to the lady’s dalliances with a young man. This was loosely based on the life of Adela Florence Nicolson who committed suicide on October 4, 1904, at Dunmore House, Murray’s Gate Road, Alwarpet.

The wife of Col. Malcolm Hassels Nicolson, her work was of a nature that Victorian and Edwardian England would never accept from a woman. She published her works under the masculine name of Laurence Hope. The works were received with great acclaim, though the explicit nature of the contents (nothing by today’s standards) came in for immediate attack. The pseudonym however protected Adela.

It was privately said the poems expressed Adela’s love for Amy Woodforde-Finden, the wife of an Indian army officer. Amy had set four of Adela’s works to music. Before any details could be revealed, Adela shifted to Madras to recuperate following her husband’s death. She committed suicide here and her death was attributed to the loss of her husband. That ended the earlier rumours once and for all.

Ours is a city that has indeed contributed to English literature. More so, post-Independence.

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