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Culture Watch

One Last Look
Susanna Moore

Alfred A. Knopf, 288 pp


Susanna Moore's heroine, Eleanor, is part of the retinue that her brother, India's new Governor-General, brings to India. She comments, complains, criticizes and narrates their stay as colonialists and draws you into an erotic, mesmerizing world seen, smelled, tasted and, ultimately, unforgettably experienced. (Eleanor's character is based on the diaries of Englishwomen Emily Eden and Fanny Parks*.)

The Indian climate is inhibiting to Eleanor, as it must be to all who arrived from England in the 1830s: "Two punkahs run the length of my sitting room. Censers in every corner dispel plumes of incense. Large cupboards called almirahs hold everything from my Sèvres chocolate cups to my Windsor soap. At the door are ribboned reed blinds, very pretty, wetted through the date to render the rooms a trifle less fiery than a kiln. As the windows are kept tightly shut from morning to night, a deafening contraption called a termantidote blows iced air through the rooms. No effort is spared at Government House to assure our coolness; thirty-two men have no other concern than to keep us from dying of the heat. Night and day, they water the paths, pull the punkahs, dampen the blinds, moisten the mats."

The descriptions are vivid and surreal: "Instead we are besieged by conjurers, snake men, puppeteers, fire breathers and mendicants who lunge halfheartedly at the carriage...Every evening we see two elephants, each carrying sick Europeans to hospital."

Warnings of corruption are issued by European and English women too long on the continent themselves: "The first telltale sign, of course," she said, "is when a lady discards her stays and takes to layout about in a soiled morning gown. The dew of arrival is quickly exchanged for — how shall I say? — a certain sordidness."

Cures and distractions are also suggested: Burton recommends chess as a cure for melancholy. Fit for idle gentlewomen, soldiers, and courtiers that have naught but love-matters to busy them.

Descriptions and indeed, the reality of the dress of the privileged noblewomen are lush in detail: I wore a gown of gros de Naples the colour of bruised peaches with bunches of organdy lily-of-the-valley sewn by my Dacca children, white satin slippers with crisscross ribbons and a bonnet dashed with egret plumes. I carried the fan with my monogram in yellow diamonds...

Occasionally, Eleanor refers to a book that rarely will be referred to such as The Memoirs of Babur which Daniel Waugh describes as "The memoirs offer a highly educated Central Asian Muslim's observations of the world in which he moved. There is much on the political and military struggles of his time but also extensive descriptive sections on the physical and human geography, the flora and fauna, nomads in their pastures and urban environments enriched by the architecture, music and Persian and Turkic literature patronized by the Timurids." Another character reads The Adventures of Peregrine Pickle by Smollett and Sleeman's Vocabulary of the Peculiar Language of Thugs.

One Last Look is indeed worth just that.

*Wanderings of a Pilgrim in Search of the Picturesque by Fanny Parkes

Tigers, Durbars and Kings: Fanny Eden's Indian Journals by Frances Eden

Up the Country: Letters Written to Her Sister from the Upper Provinces of India by Emily Eden

— T.G.

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