Kanpur, the industrial capital of Uttar Pradesh in India, was once known by its anglicized name Cawnpore. Here in the mid-19th century lived Fanny Parkes -“Lady of the Raj”, a maverick who flaunted Victorian norms, hobnobbed with colonized Indians and scandalized the entire British community in India with her love for all things Indian.
Frances Susannah Archer was born in Conway, Wales in 1794, to Anne and Major Edward Archer. Her father served in India as A.D.C. to Lord Combermere. Fanny married Charles Crawford Parkes, a writer for the East India Company and lived in India from 1822 to 1845. For most part, she stayed in Cawnpore and Allahabad after her husband became Customs Collector for Cawnpore in 1830.
Fanny was a woman with a striking personality and was very independent in her way of thinking. Her love affair with India began the moment she landed on the shores of Calcutta. Her early diary entry said, “I was charmed by the climate. The weather was delicious and I thought India was the most beautiful country.”
She was fascinated by Indian culture, the beauty of the countryside, temples and God men, snake charmers and astrologers and the beautiful women in their colourful costumes. She thought Indian men were ‘remarkably handsome.’ Fanny hated British arrogance in dealing with the local people, their oppression and enslavement of the Indians and the exploitation of the wealth of the country.
Not for Fanny the boring role of wife to a humorless employee of the East India Company. The wide open spaces beckoned. Emily Eden her occasional travelling companion said, “Her husband always goes mad in the cold season. So she says it is her duty to herself to leave him and travel about.”
A nature lover, she spent less time with her husband and more time roaming the country.
“How much there is to delight the eyes in this bright beautiful world!” she wrote in her diary. Fanny travelled all over the country on her horse and with her portable travelling tent. She studied Urdu, delved into Hindu mythology, learnt how to play the sitar and had a great admiration for Indian culture.
Fanny kept detailed accounts of her travels, her exploits and observations. She even had her own yacht “Seagull” on which she navigated the rivers of India. But in spite of her love for the country, she was critical of the plight of women and the inhuman practices of Sati and child marriages, the purdah system and meaningless rituals of mutilating the body. Famine, plagues and poverty were other situations that bothered her.
Fanny’s notes about the Colonial rule in India were not complimentary. She was critical of British arrogance. She lampooned the sloppy dress sense of English women with their uppity airs, and the stiff uniforms and solar topees of the men. Her powers of observation enabled her to give vivid descriptions of Hindu deities and rituals. Rib-tickling anecdotes and amusing stories were also included.
Fanny tried her hand at farming in Allahabad. Taxidermy was another of her hobbies. In her “Cabinet of Horrors” she displayed skulls of tigers, crocodiles and hyenas. She made replicas of cobras, scorpions and locusts from arsenical soap and stuffed them with cotton.
Back in England, her detailed diaries helped her compile her memoirs. They filled two bulky volumes titled “Wandering of a Pilgrim in search of the Picturesque, after four and twenty years in the East, with revelations of life in the Zenana.”
As a travel writer, she wrote without prejudice, giving detailed and honest accounts of Indian life in the 19th century. Her descriptions were so accurate that hundred years later, a resident of Cawnpore was able to recognize the Collector’s bungalow where she lived. He was instrumental in having a commemorative brass plaque for Fanny Parkes put up in April 1936, by Frank Mudie the then Collector.
Kanpur has all but forgotten this feisty, Urdu-speaking, sitar-playing, cigarette smoking British Memsahib for whom ‘Vagabondising in India’ was a pleasure, and exposing the ‘Philistinism of the English’ a duty.
Her memoirs have been condensed into a convenient paperback titled “Begums, Thugs and White Moghuls” by William Dalrymple another British writer who has made India his home.