I’ve just been reading a quite remarkable novel – a bestseller of its day which is utterly transgressive about gender, sex and (in part) race… though class barriers, need I say, remain largely immutable.
It’s set in India – “nowhere on earth is there a more dazzling or brilliant arena for life to play itself out than in India”, the author, woman who used the pseudonym Victoria Cross, declares. The book was published in 1901. According to Gail Cunningham’s introduction to a modern reprint, the book “sold six million copies, ran through more than 30 editions and remained in print until the 1930s”.
Anna Lombard is the name of the woman whose exploits dominate the novel – not a fine literary novel which will make the twentieth-century canon, but readable and gripping.
The novel is narrated by Gerald Ethridge, a handsome, proper and eligible young man in the Indian Civil Service. He serves at a major military and administrative base on the coast – somewhere between Karachi and Bombay at a guess – and tentatively begins a romance with Anna, the confident, refined and attractive daughter of a general. That’s interrupted when he is transferred to a tiny town in Burma, where there are no European women and the English men routinely take young (pre-teen) Burmese girls as their temporary wives. Gerald – out of loyalty to Anna – refuses all offers of a local girl, prompting the suicide of one of them, a young snake charmer. Anna, meanwhile, is not quite so chaste…
After a year mouldering in the sort of Burmese town where Orwell once shot an elephant, Gerald is both recalled to his previous base and at the same time receives a large inheritance. He becomes engaged to Anna – but discovers that she has a lover… her handsome Pathan servant, Gaida Khan. Anna declares that Gerald is her real love but that she cannot bring herself to break off her passionate relationship with Gaida, with whom she has undertaken some form of ‘native’ marriage ceremony. Gerald is appalled but decides not to end the engagement, because he loves Anna and believes she will in time forsake her Pathan beau (for whom he feels deep contempt as well as jealousy).
Out of regard for Anna, Gerald tries, and fails, to save Gaida from a cholera epidemic – he has more success in his treatment of Anna, who (having kissed her lover’s corpse) also becomes acutely ill. Anna then discovers that she is pregnant with Gaida’s child. Gerald says they must marry immediately, and they do – and then promptly move to another town, somewhere on the plains we are told, where they once more become a fulcrum of the English social scene. Although Gerald has resolved not to have sex with Anna until she is fully and completely his, in a temper he peremptorily consummates the marriage.
When Anna gives birth to a boy, her maternal instincts kick-in and she cannot bring herself to go through with her intention of giving the baby away. Seeing Gerald’s agony, and his inability to accept a child who is a perpetual reminder of his wife’s lover, Anna suffocates the baby. She is filled with remorse and tells Gerald he must move out for a year while she lives as a penitent – which the long-suffering Gerald agrees to do. At the end of the year, he returns to discover his wife with her beauty and composure fully restored and the reader is led to believe that all is going to be well in their marriage.
I did say transgressive, didn’t I!
Anna Lombard has passages which are very sensual, bordering on the erotic, and that no doubt was designed to boost sales. It’s sometimes described as a ‘New Woman’ novel – and that’s probably fair enough. Gender is the main theme: an Englishman foregoes socially sanctioned sex with local girls to keep himself pure for his intended, while she embarks on a full-on, secret and forbidden romance with a local man. And what’s more, the Englishman stands by his beloved (who is racked with guilt but keeps on making his life more and more difficult)..
The infanticide is one of the more remarkable aspects of the novel – not least because the storyline makes clear that Gerald is quite dark and so could pass for the father of the baby. Perhaps the author was getting tired and wanted to end the novel with a bang rather than a whimper. Of course setting the story against the backdrop of India hugely adds to the interest. This is not a novel which argues that Indians are being hard-done-by under imperialism, or one that is in any way proto-nationalist. Anna’s relationship with Gaida Khan is presented as being based much more on lust than love. It is not a relationship of equals. Anna doesn’t greatly like or admire Gaida, apart from his body and bearing. Gerald’s views on Gaida and on Pathans – and we get a lot too much of his internal monologues – are decidedly racist. There is virtually no interaction based on mutual respect between Europeans and Indians at any stage in the novel. Neither Gaida nor any other Indian is depicted with any depth or understanding. And although we are told that Anna and Gaida are lovers, there is no description of their intimacy.
Excerpts from Anna Lombard
To give you some idea of the novel, I am including a few excerpts. Do bear in mind this is a popular novel of almost 120 years ago …
While in Burma, Gerald muses about his relationship with India.
“I leaned on the rail of the balcony and looked down, realising how truly the East was in my blood. It seemed my home, its air my native air. With all its miseries and its sins, I loved it and I knew that I did.”
But set alongside that Gerald’s thoughts on Gaida Khan – in whom he finds ‘stately grace and dignity’ but no other virtue. At one point, he compares himself directly with his love rival:
“Two men who represented nearly completely the two extremes of humanity… I, rich in all the world values, with my brain crammed with all sorts of learning, useful and useless, accustomed to the best this world can offer. He, without one anna or a hut, unable to read or write or understand any tongue but his own and a few words of another.”
When Anna goes to watch Gaida and about 40 other Pathans perform a sword dance at a fete organised by her father, Gerald thinks to himself:
“No one… could have dreamed that this fair-skinned, light-haired Saxon girl… with, apparently, all the cold pride of the English, had come to see her husband dance his barbaric dance.”
And about Pathans, Gerald acknowledges their “male beauty” and “physical perfection”, but –
“Who could believe that these men are the most bloodthirsty, perhaps the most fiendishly cruel, and certainly the most depraved and vicious race of the earth.”
And then of course there’s the sex. At one point Gerald, trying to nurse Anna through a bout of cholera, has to tear off her sweat-ridden nightgown:
“Soo, for one brief instant, the lovely form met my eyes which had ached so long for the sight of it in vain.”
And Anna comments:
“I am glad your eyes have rested on me once, before the grave closes over me forever.”
… though of course she recovers.
And here’s the description of Gerald’s first, and precipitate sexual encounter with his pregnant wife:
‘I was sitting upright at the end of the couch, looking at her, and bending to breaking point, a paper knife between burning fingers. The next I had thrown myself forward on her. My arms were round her. Her face looked up at me from the couch. I seemed to see it through a mist. The lips were faintly smiling, the eyes were luminous with a new light. She gave herself to me willingly. As she had said, my will was hers. Her conscience, also, she was content for me to guard. What I did was right. And it was this that saved me. Had she resisted me in the least, that resistance would have challenged the brute force within me that longs to dominate by force. Her passivity, her trust in me spoke to the mind that seeks its victories in other ways.’
On Gaida and Anna’s baby… this is Gerald’s crude observation:
‘It was hideous with that curious hideousness of aspect that belongs usually to the fruit of Eurasian marriages. As it lay on Anna’s arm now the peculiar whiteness of her skin threw up its dusky tint.’
This may be a New Woman novel in that it transposes the approach of English men and women in India to sex with Indians, but on the issues of race and Empire, it is not in the least challenging or progressive.
And if you want to read the novel, it’s available online here.
And the author? Well, Victoria Cross was the pseudonym of Annie Sophie Cory, sometimes known as Vivian Cory and as V.C. Griffin. Her father was a colonel (and a poet of sorts) in the British army in India and later went into newspapers in Lahore and in Karachi. She and her sisters were brought up, it seems, largely in England. While her two sisters made their lives largely in India, it’s not clear how long Annie spent there – and some of her descriptions of the geography of the place feel ill-informed. But it seems that either directly or indirectly she had a feel for the place.
The novels of Victoria Cross appeared in a torrent from the mid-1890s into the 1930s and are set in many parts of the world, including the Klondike. She was not at all a writer who focussed on India. That sets her apart from her sister, Violet Nicolson – who wrote as Laurence Hope and about whom I have blogged in the past. Violet was a poet. Her writing was again suffused with the sensual and erotic and on occasions dwelt on transgressive relationships. Whether Violet herself engaged in such relationships (she eventually married a much older British general in the Indian army) is not at all clear – I suspect not. Violet’s first book of poems appeared in the same year as Anna Lombard.
How did the sisters get on? Did the work of one infuse the other? And why was Violet much the more sensitive to India and its people? I want to explore these issues in due course. The one thing they had in common was their enormous popularity – some of Violet’s books of poems also sold a million copies or more.
What a family!