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A Tale of Two Sisters

Life in Early British Colonial Madras The Letters of Elizabeth Gwillim and Her Sister Mary Symonds from Madras 1801–1807

Patrick Wheeler

These letters give a personal and intimate insight into the lives of two sisters living in Madras (now Chennai) in the time of Jane Austen. Both describe day-to-day life, occupations and relationships in the earliest days of British settlement, providing a rare glimpse into the social history of a place in India, far from home. Both women were accomplished artists, the older one, Elizabeth, deserving significant recognition for her extraordinary bird paintings. She also had a strong fascination for all things Indian: the people; their history; religions and languages, which she relates with enthusiasm, and then widens this with evident talent for botany and horticulture.

Her younger sister, Mary, contented herself with descriptions of places, people and surroundings, not always complimentary to her peers. Behind all this was an undercurrent of anxiety about news from home, correspondence difficulties, war with France and a terrifying sepoy mutiny in Vellore. There was also a background of tension arising from the broken relationships between Elizabeth’s husband, judge Sir Henry Gwillim, and both his Chief Justice and the Governor of Madras.

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