Fanny Parks Case Study: Who was Fanny Parks?


Bengali woman Wanderings Vol I

Figure 2. ‘A Bengalee Woman’, Wanderings of a Pilgrim in Search of the Picturesque, Vol. I (London: Pelham Richardson, 1850).

Who was Fanny Parks?

Frances Susanna Archer was born on 8 December 1794 in Conwy, North Wales, and baptised there on 22 January 1795. Her father was Captain William Archer, formerly of the 16th Lancers, her mother Ann Archer (née Goodhew). She had an older sister, Anne Augustine, who, like Fanny, lived in India. On 25 March 1822, Fanny, twenty-seven years old, talented and beautiful, married twenty-three-year-old Charles Crawford Parks, a Writer in the East India Company.

Arriving in Calcutta in November 1822 after a non-stop sea journey of five-and-a-half months, Fanny and Charles rented a house in Chowringhee. Charles attended Fort William College and worked as assistant to the Collector of Sea Customs, Calcutta while waiting for a more permanent and better-paid position up country. Fanny learnt how to run a house with a multitude of servants, enjoyed riding her Arab horse on the Maidan at dusk after the heat of the day, took lessons in Hindi and Sanskrit, and started to explore the intricacies of Indian culture. She also became ‘very anxious to visit a zenāna’, and to witness the lives of the high-class Indian women kept in seclusion behind its closed doors.[1]

Charles Parks has been described as ‘a mild and conscientious official’ whose wife ‘was plainly too much for him’.[2] Fanny was thirty-five years old in 1830 when they moved to the mofussil, to Cawnpore, where Charles had the post of Acting Collector of Customs. Childless, with servants aplenty (in 1831 Fanny calculated that they had fifty-seven, and needed an additional fourteen in the hot months), there was little to occupy such a spirited and adventurous woman in Cawnpore’s limited social setting.[3]

Fanny’s restlessness found a temporary cure in travel, preferably on horseback: ‘Roaming about with a good tent and a good Arab [horse], one might be happy for ever in India,’ she wrote in her journal in 1838. ‘Oh! the pleasure of vagabondizing over India!’[4] Fanny Eden, sister of Governor-General Lord Auckland, commented acidly that ‘[Mrs Parkes] has a husband who always goes mad in the cold season, so she says it is due to herself to leave him and travel about… she informed us she was an independent woman and was going to travel to Simla by herself – which sounded very independent indeed.’[5] Fanny herself never mentioned Charles’s reaction to the weather, hot or cold; from remarks in her journal, it’s clear that it was Fanny who suffered most from the heat – and boredom.[6]

Finally, in September 1832, Charles was appointed Collector of Customs at Allahabad, a permanent posting. Fanny, temporarily back from her travels, enthused about the place which was an enormous improvement on Cawnpore. There were ‘dinner-parties more than enough; balls occasionally; a book society; some five or six billiard-tables, a pack of dogs…and (how could I have forgotten!) fourteen spinsters!’[7] What’s more, there were officers aplenty to ride with, even if she and her horse ended up in quicksand or she was inadvertently dunked in the river, adventures she related with great gusto in her journal.[8] She was clearly a woman whose company young officers sought, in spite of Fanny Eden’s barbed opinion that she had ‘once been a beauty’ but was now ‘abundantly fat and lively’.[9]

But the dinner parties of Allahabad were not enough for Fanny, and for the rest of her time in India she travelled frequently and extensively. In August 1835 she went to Fatighar where she met – and became friends with – the Baiza Bai, ex-Queen of Gwalior, returning to Allahabad in October. By July 1836 once again she was finding life ‘weary and heavy… one’s mind and body feel equally enervated’.[10] In September 1836 she was invited to accompany Sir Henry Fane’s party and to act as interpreter for the Baiza Bai in Benares, then carried on to Calcutta and did not return to Allahabad until March 1837. By August 1837 she was bored again (‘nothing to relate in the monotony of an Indian life at home…I… must go to the hills to recruit my weary frame’) and in September she started preparing for a march ‘up the country’, leaving in December 1837.[11] Lord Auckland and his sisters, Emily and Fanny Eden, were en route up country too, stopping in Allahabad in early December. Fanny was introduced to the sisters, then became something of a camp follower, shadowing the Auckland camp wherever it went on its leisurely progress, her presence irritating the Edens and prompting a satirical account by (the very thin) Fanny Eden in one of her letters home: 

How odd of me not to have told you that the very first person I saw at the very first ball at Meerut was Mrs Parkes. How she got there nobody knows and nobody will ever know. The day after we got here they got up a morning review for us – blew up mines and took a fort, and not only a fort but Mrs Parkes, for as the smoke blew off she was discovered riding. If she were not so fat I should say she was something supernatural. My spirit is broke about her. I dare say we shall find her settled in our home at Simla and shall not have strength to turn her out.[12]

Fanny Eden’s comments may have been underpinned by a certain amount of envy of her namesake’s apparent freedom from the claustrophobic demands that were her lot as the Governor-General’s sister as well as the frustrations of the provincialism of the British in India with whom she was obliged to socialise.[13]

In September 1838, while Fanny was travelling in the Himalayan foothills, she received word from Charles that her father had died the previous May.[14] She returned to Allahabad immediately and sailed by the next available ship from Calcutta, arriving in England in May 1839. England, to Fanny, ‘looked so wretchedly mean, especially the houses’,[15] while Fanny, to her mother – who had not seen her daughter for seventeen years – had changed completely: ‘My child, I should never have known you, – you look so anxious, so careworn.’[16] Another sign of how different England was from India – and how much India had changed Fanny – was revealed to her when she visited a horticultural show in Plymouth: ‘I went to the place alone, and the people expressed their surprise at my having done so – how absurd! as if I were to be a prisoner unless some lady should accompany me – wah! wah! I shall never be tamed, I trust, to the ideas of propriety of civilized Lady Log.’[17] It is ironic that it was precisely by travelling to India, where Britons believed women to enjoy few rights, that Fanny was to enjoy exceptional freedom of movement.

Her mother died in December 1841 and Fanny remained in Europe until early 1843 when she heard that Charles was ill in Cape Town and went to look after him; they had been apart for four years. They returned to India, and finally to Allahabad, by December 1844. As Charles’ health did not improve, he applied to go to England on furlough and they left India nine months later, in September 1845. They would never return. Charles did not recover from the illness that brought him back to England. He died in 1854 while Fanny lived on for another twenty years. She died, aged eighty-one, in 1875 of ‘shingles and exhaustion’ at her home in Cornwall Terrace, Regent’s Park.[18] She was buried in Kensal Green cemetery where she shares a grave with her husband See figure 3).[19]

Fanny Parks grave with flowers

Figure 3. Fanny and Charles Parks’ grave, The General Cemetery of All Souls, Kensal Green. Image courtesy of Joanna Goldsworthy.


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[1] Wanderings, I, 59.

[2] Narindar Saroop, Gardner of Gardner’s Horse: 2nd lancers: Indian Army (New Delhi: Palit and Palit, 1983), 144.

[3] Wanderings, I, 209-10.

[4] And, she forbore to add, many servants. Wanderings, II, 191-2.

[5] Fanny Eden in Janet Dunbar, Tigers, Durbars and Kings: Fanny Eden’s Indian Journals 1837 – 1838 (London: John Murray, 1988), 106.

[6] ‘Nothing is going forward, stupid as possible, shut up all day, languid and weary…’ Wanderings, I, 303.

[7] Wanderings, I, 238.

[8] Wanderings, I, 247

[9] Tigers, Durbars and Kings, 106.

[10] Wanderings, II, 57.

[11] Wanderings, II, 124.

[12] Tigers, Durbars and Kings, 133. Fanny Parks’ account of this episode is rather different: ‘I like playing at soldiers, and it gave me an excellent idea of an attack, without the horror of the reality… The sun was high and very hot, — we rode home as fast as our horses could carry us…’  (Wanderings II, 196).

[13] ‘There are moments when a feeling of desperation comes over me to think I must dream this dream so distinct from all my past life, for five years…’ Fanny Eden, quoted in Dunbar, Introduction, Tigers, Durbars and Kings, 4.

[15] Wanderings, II, 330.

[16] Wanderings, II, 331.

[17] Wanderings, II, 334.

[18] 21 December 1875 at 7 Cornwall Terrace, Marylebone, London, in the presence of Clement R. Archer, first cousin. Death Certificate, General Register of Deaths, England.

[19] Grave No 5975,The General Cemetery of All Souls, Kensal Green, London.