I first heard about the great early Victorian travel writer Fanny Parkes when I was given a first edition of her book, Wanderings of a Pilgrim in Search of the Picturesque, by an old lady who in many ways resembled Parkes, and whose life had been greatly influenced by her writings.
Iris Portal was in her late 70s when I met her, a feisty yet remarkably liberal and intelligent relic of the Raj. She was the younger sister of the politician Rab Butler and had grown up in an academic family in Cambridge, where her father was the master of a college. But in her teens, to her family's horror, Iris had fallen in love with a dashing polo-playing cavalry officer, and suddenly found herself transported from the bookish banks of the Cam to a bleak military cantonment in central India. There the commanding officer's wife soon warned her not to let it be known that she wrote poetry, "as it might give the wrong impression".
Iris was, however, far too intelligent and independent-minded a woman to let the CO's wife get in her way, and she soon took to riding out to the bazaars and ruins that surrounded the army camps where she was based, learning the languages and exploring the history, a trajectory that eventually turned her into the distinguished biographer of, among others, the British governor general Lord Wellesley.
It was as a young army wife that Iris discovered the writings of Fanny Parkes, and immediately recognised a kindred spirit. A century before her, in the early 1830s, Parkes had also become a bored young wife in India, in her case married to an official in Allahabad whose job was to make ice. Like Iris, she ran away from the stiff officialdom of the Raj and immersed herself in the country. Soon Parkes was exploring the length and breadth of the country, and, on returning to England, she wrote possibly the most enjoyable and exuberant travel book to come out of the south Asia of the East India Company.
It was Parkes's curiosity and enthusiasm that distinguished her approach to India, and her journal traces her journey from prim memsahib, married to a minor civil servant of the Raj, to eccentric sitar-playing Indophile, critical of British rule and passionate in her appreciation of Indian culture. All this in time provided inspiration and a template for Iris's own life.
I had known Iris for a decade or so when she sent a postcard asking me to come and see her in Cambridge, as she had something for me. By this stage of her life, Iris was a widow in her early 80s. She had given up her house in Norfolk and had moved to a sheltered housing complex off the M11 in Cambridge, an institution she hated and found far more constricting than cantonment life. She had begun to prepare for her final journey, and was distributing her last things to her friends. She wanted me to have her copy of Parkes, she said, as she thought that I, like her, would find in it a kindred spirit. Maybe, she suggested, I would even like to try to get the book back in print, as unlike her more famous contemporary Emily Eden, Parkes had never had another edition.
That night, I opened up the two heavy volumes, filled with the author's own illustrations, and immediately fell under Parkes's spell. While Eden was witty and intelligent but waspish and conceited, Parkes was an enthusiast and an eccentric with a love of India that is imprinted on almost every page of her book. From her first arrival in Calcutta, she wrote how "I was charmed by the climate; the weather was delicious; and I thought India a most delightful country ... could I have gathered around me the dear ones I had left in England, my happiness would have been complete."
That initial intuition was reinforced the longer she stayed in south Asia. In the 24 years she lived in India, the country never ceased to surprise, intrigue and delight her, and she was never happier than when off on another journey, exploring new parts of the country: "Oh the pleasure," she wrote, "of vagabondising in India!"
Partly it was the beauty of the place that hypnotised her. She found Indian men "remarkably handsome", while her response to the landscape was no less admiring: "The evenings are cool and refreshing ... The foliage of the trees, so luxuriously beautiful and so novel, is to me a source of constant admiration." But it was not just the way the place looked. The longer she stayed in India, the more Parkes fell in love with the culture, history, flowers, trees, religions, languages and peoples of the country, and the more she felt possessed by an overpowering urge to pack her bags and set off to explore: "How much there is to delight the eye in this bright, this beautiful world! Roaming about with a good tent and a good Arab [horse], one might be happy for ever in India."
It is this joy, excitement and even liberation in travel that Parkes managed to communicate so well, in striking contrast to the haughty ennui of so many of her male contemporaries. In the same way, it is her insatiable curiosity and love of the country that immediately engages readers and carries them with her as she bumbles her way across India on her own. She is wilfully dismissive of the dangers of dacoits or thugs or tigers, as she turns her hand to learning the sitar, enquiring about the intricacies of Hindu mythology, trying opium and collecting Hindu statuary, butterflies, zoological specimens preserved in spirits, Indian aphorisms and Persian proverbs - all with unstoppable glee.
Even when she disliked a part- icular Indian custom, she often found herself engaged intellectually. Watching the Churuk Puja, or "hook swinging", when pious Hindus attached hooks into the flesh of their backs and were swung about on ropes hanging from great cranes for the amusement of the crowds below, she wrote: "I was much disgusted, but greatly interested."
The longer she stayed in India, the more Parkes became slowly Indianised. The professional memsahib, herself the daughter of a colonial official (Captain William Archer), who came to India to watch over her colonial administrator husband, was gradually transformed into a fluent Urdu speaker, who spent less and less of her time at her husband's mofussil (up-country) posting, and more and more of her time travelling around to visit her Indian friends. Aesthetically she grew slowly to prefer Indian dress to that of the English. At one point, watching celebrations at the Taj Mahal, she noted how "crowds of gaily dressed and most picturesque natives were seen in all directions passing through the avenue of fine trees, and by the side of the fountains to the tomb: they added great beauty to the scene, whilst the eye of taste turned away pained and annoyed by the vile round hats and stiff attire of the European gentlemen, and the equally ugly bonnets and stiff and graceless dresses of the English ladies."
Gradually, over the years she lived in India, Parkes's views began to change. Having assumed at first that good taste was the defining characteristic of European civilisation and especially that of her own people, she found her assumptions being challenged by what she came to regard as the philistinism of the English in India, and by the beauty of so much of the country.
At the end of her travels, Parkes looked forward to seeing her family in England. Yet when she finally set foot on English soil again, her return was a moment not for rejoicing, but for depression and disappointment: "We arrived at 6am. May flowers and sunshine were in my thoughts. But instead [...] it was bitterly cold walking up from the boat - rain, wind and sleet, mingled together, beat on my face. Everything on landing was so wretchedly mean, especially the houses, which are built of slate stone; it was cold and gloomy . . . I felt a little disgusted."
When she arrived home, her mother barely recognised her. It was as if the current of colonisation had somehow been reversed: the coloniser had been colonised. India had changed and transformed Fanny Parkes. She could never be the same again.
In due course, I did manage to persuade a friend to produce a new edition of Parkes's Wanderings of a Pilgrim in Search of the Picturesque, and a few years ago I spent a very happy three weeks rereading her book and editing down her two huge volumes into one manageable paperback containing all my favourite passages - Begums, Thugs and White Mughals: The Journals of Fanny Parkes (Eland). Sadly, Iris died shortly before the book appeared, and I was never able to tell her that I had kept my promise.
Parkes is an important writer because she acts as a witness to a forgotten moment of British-Indian hybridity, and shows that colonial travel writing need not be an aggressive act of orientalist appropriation - not "gathering colonial knowledge", as Edward Said and his followers would have us believe, but instead an act of understanding. As Colin Thubron has pointed out, it is ridiculously simplistic to see all attempts at studying, observing and empathising with another culture necessarily "as an act of domination - rather than of respect or even catharsis ... If even the attempt to understand is seen as aggression or appropriation, then all human contact declines into paranoia."
When reading travel accounts by early visitors to the east, such as Parkes, we should certainly try to resist the temptation, felt by so many historians, to project back on to it the stereotypes of late Victorian and Edwardian behaviour and attitudes with which we are so familiar. These attitudes were clearly entirely at odds with the actual fears and hopes, anxieties and aspirations of the early travellers in India, who did not look at south Asia with the hauteur of the high colonial, as much as with the pleasure and surprise of the inquisitive wanderer, in search, as Parkes would have it, of the picturesque.
· Radio 3's The Essay will be celebrating iconic British travel writing from June 11-14