Review of Translation of the Letters of a Hindoo Rajah (1796)

Review of  Elizabeth Hamilton's Translation of the Letters of a Hindoo Rajah; written previous to, and during the Period of his Residence in England. To which is prefixed a preliminary Dissertation on the History, Religion, and Manners of the Hindoos [unsigned]. 2 vols. Robinsons. Analytical Review 24 (October 1796), 429-31.

     The author of these letters seems to have taken the hint of conveying her sentiments to the public in the present form, from Montesquieu's and lord Lyttleton's Persian Letters, Goldsmith's Citizen of the World, the Turkish Spy, &c. It might be invidious to draw comparisons, but we confess, with pleasure, we have received entertainment from the perusals of this lively and amusing little work.

     The writer displays, both in the letters and preliminary dissertation on hindoo mythology, history, and literature, considerable knowledge of india affairs: but it is doubtful, whether the generality of readers will perfectly accord with her in opinion, respecting the happy change which the long-suffering hindoos have experienced under the dominion of Great Britain. Many, it may be, will be rather inclined to believe, that, however mitigated in some respects by the more tolerant principles of the british legislature, on the subjects of law and religion; these injured people have merely changed masters, and one species of oppression for another. The interference of foreign states in the internal government of nations is generally equivocal in it's motives, and always mischievous in it's tendency. A simple, commercial intercourse would perhaps have been attended with more beneficial consequences to both countries. The compliments which are paid by our author to governor Hastings, to whom her production is dedicated, will be adjudged by the reader, either as just, or the grateful language of private obligation or friendship, according to his own preconceived opinions on the subject. We expected from the title of this work, to find the follies and vices of our contemporaries satirized by the fictitious indian prince, nor [430] were we disappointed: a vein of ingenious pleasantry runs through it, mingled with a number of judicious, and sensible observations, on various subjects, especially on the female mind and manners, from which we select the following as particularly just and important.  Vol. 1. p. 137.

     'From what I have formerly said, you will observe, that women do actually, sometimes, carry on certain branches of trade; but to infer from this, that they are generally esteemed capable of business, or receive such an education as to enable them, if left destitute of the gifts of fortune, to enter into it, would be doing them great injustice. No, in that country, as well as in this all men allow that there is nothing so amiable in a woman as the helplessness of mental imbecility; and even the women themselves are so well convinced of this, that they would consider it as an insult to be treated like rational creatures. The love of independence is, therefore, a masculine virtue, and though somehow females are unamiable enough to dare to enter upon some employment for their support, the conduct is very much discouraged, and not only properly discountenanced by the men, but held in abhorrence by all women, who entertain a proper sense of the amiableness of female weakness. The females, who belong to the cast of people of style, are particularly zealous in reprobating the exertions of female industry, and are careful to employ men only in all these branches, in which fortuneless women have audaciously endeavored to procure subsistence; for this reason, when a family, by any of those misfortunes occurring in a commercial country, happens to be reduced to poverty, the daughters of the family are either left a prey to haunt-eyed indigence, or doomed to eat the bitter bread of dependance, administered with sparing hand, and grudging heart, by some cold relative! Equally ignorant, and equally helpless, as the females of Hindostan, their situation is far more destitute and pitiable. By the admirable institutions of our laws, it is ordained, "that a woman shall by no means be left to herself, but that, in case her nearest relations are incapable of taking care of her, that duty shall devolve upon the magistrate."* [at foot of page, 'See Gentoe laws.'] But, among the christians of England, they are as destitute of protection as of instruction.'

     After some humorous remarks on novels and novel reading, our author observes, vol. II. p. 21. that

     'From the whole tenor of these books, it appears evident, that with these islanders, marriage is a certain passport to never failing, and never fading bliss! A state nearly resembling that divine absorption of the soul described by our yogis, which entirely excludes the cares and concerns of life, and in which the mind is wrapt in a delirium of perfect and uninterrupted felicity! -- Happy country; where the prudence and fidelity of the women of high rank, so plainly evince the care that is bestowed on their instruction, and where the piety, learning, and morality of the men, is only to be equalled by their humility.'

     p. 23. 'From the authority of these authentic memoirs, it appears [431] that marriage in Europe is never contracted, but from the most pure and disinterested motives. Every young woman who is handsome and accomplished, however humble her birth, or small her fortune, is there certain of attracting the love and admiration of numbers of the highest rank in the community. What a glorious encouragement is held forth to the females of that happy island, who must be blind indeed not to perceive that it is their own obstinacy and folly, that alone can possibly prevent their advancement to the very summit of felicity!

     'For such folly and obstinacy, whenever it occurs, a very peculiar and extraordinary punishment is reserved. After a few years, spent, as it is generally believed, in vain repentance, and useless regret, they all at once, without any exceptions in favor of virtue, merit, useful or ornamental accomplishments, undergo a certain change, and incomprehensible transformation, and became what is termed old maids. From all that I have hitherto been able to learn of these creatures, the old maid is a sort of venomous animal, so wicked in its temper, and so mischievous in its disposition, that one is surprised that its very existence should be tolerated in a civilized society.'

     Had the design of these volumes been less evidently systematic, they would have been more generally interesting. In the writer's laudable, because apparently sincere, zeal for christianity, she sometimes betrays a spirit not perfectly consistent with the mildness and simplicity of the religion of Jesus: railing is substituted for reasoning, and a frightful picture help up of the adversaries of revelation, in which truth and soberness are sacrificed, as is not unusual with controversialists, to undue alarm. A sceptic is described a s monster, for whom 'the fair face of nature has no charms' -- who must necessarily have a shallow understanding and a cold heart,' -- who confounds all distinctions between vice and virtue, and preaches profligacy and suicide as conducive to general utility. Candid and calm discussion, not abuse, is the proper method of making rational converts: if conscious of the justness of our cause, we surely injure it by having recourse to calumny. Our author is still less successful, and equally illiberal in her attack upon moral philosophy and metaphysical inquiry, in which little knowledge and great assumption are manifested. Pursuing these subjects, which can interest or be understood but by a few readers, a wide field of fashionable follies, which might have yielded an abundant harvest, remains untouched, or is but slightly passed over. The style of these letters is agreeable and appropriate, though less glowing and metaphorical than the admired oriental compositions of Drs. Johnson and Hawkesworth; some incorrectness, and occasional harsh and ill-constructed sentences, have escaped the writer's pen: but upon the whole, her production manifests a cultivated understanding and benevolent affections: and is one of those publications, which are calculated to undermine and destroy the barbarous, sensual prejudices, which have hitherto been indulged respecting the female mind and manners, and to confute the pertinacious sophisms of witlings.