Fanny Parks Case Study: Wanderings of a Pilgrim in Search of the Picturesque


Spider Wanderings vol I

Figure 4. “The Camels were being branded for the Public Service and the Spider came to be marked also”, Wanderings of a Pilgrim in Search of the Picturesque, Vol. I (London: Pelham Richardson, 1850). Fanny represents herself as a large spider holding a book titled ‘The Pilgrim’; books hanging from three camels’ necks are titled ‘Luard’, ‘Princes and People’ and, interestingly, ‘Afghanistan’.

Wanderings of a Pilgrim in Search of the Picturesque

Fanny and Charles settled first in St Leonards-on-Sea in Sussex on their return from India in 1845. The town, which had been farmland as recently as the 1820s, was developed as a seaside resort by James Burton, and it seems that Fanny and Charles were living in a seaside villa.[1] Fanny constructed her account of her travels in India by using her journals and the long letters she had written to her mother, finishing her tale with a revealing ‘Farewell’:

And now the pilgrim resigns her staff and plucks the scallop-shell from her hat, – her wanderings are ended – she has quitted the East, perhaps for ever: – surrounded… by the curiosities, the monsters, and the idols that accompanied her from India… the pleasure she derives from her sketches, and the sad sea waves, her constant companions, form for her a life independent of her own life.[2]

Fanny had ‘collected an empire’ for herself that liberated her from the constraints of life in the metropole, and through the exotic objects she had acquired she gained an independence – ‘a life independent of her own life’ – that opened a new world for her.[3] Her detailed and valuable knowledge of another culture and her understanding of its social world – particularly that of the zenana, a world closed to men – gave her status in a metropolitan, masculine, society. Her collection, initially a jumble of ‘the curiosities, the monsters, and the idols’ she describes and that she acquired haphazardly, as the fancy took her, now assumed an importance as a discrete entity, allowing those British men and women who saw it to visualise their empire.[4]

Wanderings of a Pilgrim was published in a handsome two-volume edition in 1850, price £2 12 s 6d, illustrated throughout with Fanny’s own sketches and paintings. The contemporary reviews of the book ranged from generous to ecstatic  – ‘Fresh, intelligent, and minutely interesting’(The Court Journal)[5]; ‘This… is a very splendid, very attractive work’ (The Asiatic and Colonial Quarterly Journal);[6] ‘The tone of bold and careless frankness in which this interesting and instructive work is written, is singularly attractive’ (The English Review);[7] ‘…one of the most beautiful monuments of genius, taste, feeling… without parade, ostentation, or intrusive aims at vulgar popularity…’ (Blackwood’s Lady’s Magazine)[8] – to violently critical: ‘The flippancy and levity… with which she refers to her own faith, savour more of the cock-pit than the boudoir… in future editions… we trust to see every thing undeniable indecent or profane carefully expunged from the work.’ (Calcutta Review)[9]

Nowadays, however, it is Fanny Parks herself and other writers at that time who are grist for the mill of critics of colonialism, these critics using accounts such as Wanderings of a Pilgrim in Search of the Picturesque as examples of the way in which the British portrayed their colonial subjects.[10] But a focus on Fanny Parks as an avid collector of Indian material culture is a reminder that some men and women within the Company’s ambit also engaged enthusiastically with multiple aspects of Indian society, seeking out meaningful ways of communicating with indigenous peoples and entering with enthusiasm into the Indian Ocean World even in the nineteenth century. Fanny shared her love for India with others through the journals and letters which were to be published as Wanderings of a Pilgrim; she painted and drew vivid scenes which were reproduced in her book; and she created a visual journey for the public with her ‘Grand Moving Diorama of Hindostan’.

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[1] Wanderings, II, 496. For seaside British communities of returned ‘Indians’ later in the century see Elizabeth Buettner, Empire Families: Britons and Late Imperial India (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), Chapter 5.

[2] Wanderings, II, 496.

[3] Jasanoff, 5.

[4] Maya Jasanoff, ‘Collections of Empire: Objects, Conquests and Imperial Self-fashioning’, in Past and Present No 184, 109-135 (August 2004), 112.

[5] Quoted in Grand Moving Diorama of Hindostan (London, 1851), 72.

[6] Grand Moving Diorama of Hindostan, 72.

[7] Grand Moving Diorama, 72.

[8] Blackwood’s Lady’s Magazine, January 1852, 195.

[9] Calcutta Review, 15:30 (1851), 476-77.

[10] See, for instance, Sara Suleri, The Rhetoric of English India (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992); K.N. Panikkar, ‘History as a Site of Struggle’, The Hindu, 15 August 2007.