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  • Book Review: Begums, Thugs and Englishmen: the Journals of Fanny Parkes


    Fanny Parkes was the daughter of a British colonial officer and the wife of a civil servant who came to India with her husband in 1822 and stayed for twenty four years, traveling extensively throughout Raj India, often on her own, and assimilating all aspects of Indian society and culture.  When she returned home she published her memoirs at the behest of her mother, producing an 800 plus page edifice called Wanderings of  a Pilgrim in Search of the Picturesque, During Four and Twenty Years in the East; With Revelations of Life in the Zenana.

    Fanny Parkes did not have the social standing of her glamorous and well connected peers Fanny and Emily Eden, the sisters of the Governor General of India, Lord Auckland, and thus her Wanderings quickly passed into obscurity while the latter's works Up the Country and Journals were celebrated and have rarely been out of print since they were first published.  However, thanks to William Dalrymple, Fanny Parkes' writings have recently been edited and republished under the title Begums, Thugs and Englishmen: the Journals of Fanny Parkes, and are now easily accessible to the modern reader.

    Fanny was an eager and passionate woman who entered into her Raj life wholeheartedly and eloquently recorded her thoughts and observations of India during the 1800's, as well as her own sometimes hair-raising experiences while traveling through the Indian countryside.  She also became a fluent speaker of Urdu and translated many Indian and Persian proverbs, poems and invocations in her writings.  Here she translates a wonderful prayer to Ganesh, beloved elephant headed god and patron of the arts, writing and auspicious beginnings:

    Work-perfecting Ganesha!  Salamat.
    Ganesh! - Ganesh!
    Two-mothered! One-toothed!
    Portly-paunched!  Elephant-faced Ganesha!
    Moon-crowned!  Triple-eyed!
    Thou who in all affairs claimest precedence in adoration!
    Calamity averting Ganesh
    Thou who art invoked on the commencement of a journey,
    the writing of a book,
    Oh! Ganesh, put not thine ears to sleep!
    Encourage me, and then behold my bravery;
    Call me your own fox, then will you see me perform
    the exploits of a lion!
    What fear need he have of the waves of the sea,
    Who has Noah for a pilot?
    First born of Mahadeo and Parvarti!
    God of Prudence and Policy!
    Patron of Literature!
    May it be said,
    'Ah!  She writes like Ganesh!'

    Fanny Parkes' Journals may be regarded as a great travel book of its time, filled with exciting descriptions of Indian life and customs.  But more importantly, as an independent female traveler in the Indian Raj, Fanny was uniquely placed to record her observations on many fascinating subjects pertaining directly to women, including that of life in the Zenana, or harem, and the process of suttee, ritual suicide performed by Indian widows to this day.  Her legacy is, as Dalrymple puts it, an important historical text for its record of the last moments of a hybrid world between two ancient cultures, forever frozen in time.


    References and FurtherReading 

    Parkes, F 1850.  Wanderings of a Pilgrim in search of the Pictureseque, During four and twenty years in the East, with revelations of Life in the Zenana♦. Pelham Richardson, England.

    Dalrymple, W 2002.  Introduction to Begums, Thugs and Englishmen: the Journals of Fanny ParkesPenguin Books

    The Guardian, Saturday June 9, 2007

    Wikipedia Fanny Parkes.  Accessed May 2010.  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fanny_Parkes


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