- “What strikes the eye”: The Forgotten India Sketches of Maria Graham
When I first began work on my doctoral dissertation—an examination of travel narratives by British women who lived in early colonial India—I was overwhelmed by the prodigious body of archival material related to these women and how little of it was accessible to me in the United States. The scholarship of Rosemary Raza, Indira Ghose, and Felicity A. Nussbaum had made the names Jemima Kindersley, Eliza Fay, Maria Graham, and Fanny Parks familiar to me, and Raza’s In Their Own Words: British Women Writers and India, 1740–1857 (2006) had introduced me to dozens of other Anglo-Indian women who have received little critical attention.1 Although few of these women’s narratives have been published in modern editions, many are available as downloadable PDF facsimiles through Google Books, which makes a trip to England unnecessary for those who wish to read, for example, Parks’s massive two-volume opus Wanderings of a Pilgrim, in Search of the Picturesque, during Four-and-Twenty Years in the East; with Revelations of Life in the Zenana (1850). However, the more I read these women’s accounts of life in India—many of which claim to be based on their original letters and journals—the more interested I became in the process by which they turned personal life writing into published travel narratives. I wanted—and needed—access to their letters, journals, drawings, and various ephemera, all of which were housed in British archives, more than four thousand miles from Auburn University, where I was in my third year of the doctoral program.
Such an opportunity presented itself when my dissertation director, Paula R. Backscheider, invited a handful of her doctoral students to join her in London for a month-long introduction to archival research. We spent much of the spring semester preparing for our summer abroad by prioritizing our research needs and planning our itineraries. I developed an overly ambitious list of first editions, personal letters, and East India Company records that I wanted to read in the British Library, and I also planned a side trip to Oxford to examine Graham’s journals and personal papers at the Bodleian. This agenda would have to wait until the second half of the trip, however, since we planned to spend our first two weeks getting to know the facilities in which we would be working, including the [End Page 513] National Archives, the London Metropolitan Archives, the National Art Library, and Guildhall Library.
During those first two weeks, we met with archivists, collection curators, and conservationists, who gave us behind-the-scenes tours of storage facilities and conservation studios and who showed us some of their rarest and most interesting eighteenth- and nineteenth-century artifacts, including carnival scrapbooks, women’s trade cards, and the first London map with house numbers. For the most part, we traveled as a group, and our research was restricted to whichever archive we happened to be touring, but one Wednesday our assignment was to “scout a collection.” We were each assigned a slightly more obscure archive—Lambeth Palace, the Wellcome Institute, the St. Bride Printing Library—and asked to set up a private tour and report back on what we learned about the collection that might be useful to the rest of the group.
I was assigned the Institute of Commonwealth Studies Library, but since my meeting with a library director was not until after lunch, I decided that morning to tag along with another eighteenth-century literature student who had been assigned the British Museum’s Prints and Drawings Study Room. I made this decision more for logistical reasons than for scholarly ones—the British Museum is around the corner from the Institute of Commonwealth Studies—but the decision proved auspicious. It was there that I made one of my most important research discoveries—Maria Graham’s original watercolors and sketches of her trip to India.
Rosemary Mitchell’s Oxford Dictionary of National Biography entry on Graham briefly mentions that the British Museum houses some of Graham’s India drawings, but these sketches have drawn little interest from scholars.2...