Sophie Croft is possibly my favourite of all Jane Austen’s female characters. Intelligent, kind, shewd, witty and self sufficient(as long as she is near the Admiral).

Mrs. Croft, though neither tall nor fat, had a squareness, uprightness, and vigour of form, which gave importance to her person. She had bright dark eyes, good teeth, and altogether an agreeable face; though her reddened and weather-beaten complexion, the consequence of her having been almost as much at sea as her husband, made her seem to have lived some years longer in the world than her real eight-and-thirty. Her manners were open, easy, and decided, like one who had no distrust of herself, and no doubts of what to do; without any approach to coarseness, however, or any want of good humour.

Pesruasion,Chapter 6

She is very much part of the Admiral’s world and their relationship is one of the most balanced and loving in all Jane Austens works:

The Crofts knew quite as many people in Bath as they wished for, and considered their intercourse with the Elliots as a mere matter of form, and not in the least likely to afford them any pleasure. They brought with them their country habit of being almost always together. He was ordered to walk to keep off the gout, and Mrs. Croft seemed to go shares with him in everything, and to walk for her life to do him good. Anne saw them wherever she went. Lady Russell took her out in her carriage almost every morning, and she never failed to think of them, and never failed to see them. Knowing their feelings as she did, it was a most attractive picture of happiness to her. She always watched them as long as she could, delighted to fancy she understood what they might be talking of, as they walked along in happy independence, or equally delighted to see the Admiral’s hearty shake of the hand when he encountered an old friend, and observe their eagerness of conversation when occasionally forming into a little knot of the navy, Mrs. Croft looking as intelligent and keen as any of the officers around her.

Persuasion Chapter 18

And of course, Mrs Croft is the most travelled of any of Jane Austen’s female characters:

“What a great traveller you must have been, ma’am!” said Mrs. Musgrove to Mrs. Croft.

“Pretty well, ma’am, in the fifteen years of my marriage; though many women have done more. I have crossed the Atlantic four times, and have been once to the East Indies and back again, and only once; besides being in different places about home: Cork, and Lisbon, and Gibraltar. But I never went beyond the Streights, and never was in the West Indies. We do not call Bermuda or Bahama, you know, the West Indies.”

Persuasion Chapter 8

(Map of the East Indies circa 1805 from my collection, not included in the book. Please click to enlarge it)

And it is her travels that interest me, for this recently published book, Birds of Passage edited by Nancy K Shields, details just the type of journeying Mrs Corft would have undertaken when she traveled to the East Indies, via the cape of Good Hope.  I have been waiting since Christmas for the oportunity to tell you of this book. I thought today was perfect timing with the airing of Persuasion on PSB tonight.

Birds of Passage records the journey to India made by Lady Henrietta Clive- seen on the cover of the book, above as portrayed by Sir Joshua Reynolds- and her two daughters, Harry (Hernitetta) and  Charly (Charlotte). She was married to Lord Edward Clive, son of Clive of India. Lord Edward was Governor of Madras. Accompanying them on their journey was the children’s  governess, Anna Tonelli, and her paintings of the  places they encountered on the whole expedition  illustrate this book.

This is one of the Government House and Council Chamber in Madras.

The book consists of extracts from Lady Henrietta’s diaries and letters written to her  brother, Geroge Herbert, second Earl of Powis, a rather Byronic figure. Extracts from Charly’s journals are also presented. They detail the journeys to and from the East Indies, stopping at the Cape of Good Hope en-route, and at St Helena on the return journey to England.

(Simon’s Bay, the Cape of Good Hope)

When in India Lady Henrietta and her children made a journey of over 1000 miles from Madras via Bangalore, Mysore, Coimatoor,Tranquebar and Ponidcherry, returning to Madras seven months later. Her aim was to see  the recently conquered Seringapatam and the remains of Tipu Sultan’s capital – the fall of which was part of the foruth Anglo-Mysore cmpaagin. In 1799 the English Army had attacked Seringapatam. Lady Henrietta’s original plans to vist  Seringupatam  were  postponed by Lord Mornington- Wellington’s brother, and the Governor General of India-a difficult character by Lady Hernietta’s account.

The journals are chock full of  interest for those of us  who like the teeny-tiny details of life in the early 19th century, and are of extra special interest to those of us who adore Mrs Croft, for naturally Lady Henrietta chronicles many of the sights, sounds and experiences that Mrs Corft must have shared.

The book recounts, in some great detail, life on board ship-sadly unlike Mrs Croft Lady Henrietta never felt entirely well while at sea. We accompany her while she learns Persian(the language of the India Courts) and she frequently expresses her exasperation with the limited role that women could play in this and indeed the wider world, dominated by men.

We learn from the journals what was considered  to be essential travelling equipment in India for an aristocratic party: harp and  pianoforte of course; fourteen elephants; a hundred bullocks to carry provisions and, not forgetting a train of  camels which were essential for the delivery of express messages.

The trials if family and domestic life  is also related. Unlike Sophie Croft, Lady Henrietta’s marriage was not entirely happy. Lord Edward Clive was not at all lively and was a poor intellectual match for his spirited wife. As Wellington noted-he was also part of their world in India, leading the British Army’s campaign against Tipu Sultan- Lord Edward was :

A mild moderate and remarkably reserved man having a bad delivery and apparently heavy understanding…

We learn of Lady Hernitta’s maid becoming pregnant as a result of a dalliance with an officer and  discretion is the key: mother and prospective child are treated with utmost kindness, a way life for them both being provided by Henrietta, and discretion  at home in England  being insisted upon by Henrietta to save the poor girl’s reputation. She thinks very ill of the officer involved indeed.

She was, of course, viewing India from the standpoint of 18th century British colonialists: this is not a treatise on the Indian way of life, but notes of the lives of British in India. She was interested in the people, the flora and fauna, their religion and language but clearly on her terms. In no way did she “go native” as you can see from this small extract:

March 16th 1800

We breakfasted in the commanding officer’s fort -house..I went at seven o’clock to the fort and an old pagoda, magnificent and well carved, constructed of granite now converted into a military storehouse. The sculpture is much better than any I have yet seen, some of the open work is extremely neat and well executed…I breakfasted at the commanding officer’s house and afterwards the Princes came to see me…The Padshaw begin  a legitimate son is extremely interesting. I understand that Col Wellesley was much pleased with his manners in Seringapatam….

(Map of India circa 1815 from my collection)

That being said, I adored this book,  and was grateful for the glossary explaining the Indian words Lady Henrietta used often.  If anything is lacking I would say it is  some more explanatory footnotes…but then I’ve been thoroughly spoiled by the extreme  notation of the excellent Deirdre le Faye;-)

This book is a bargain. Buy it and revel in the fascinating details with which Lady Henrietta regales us: of the plants she collects and sees, the travails of  travel by sea-leaks, mutinies, prize taking-all are recounted here;  the strangeness of travel within India itself; the social life of the British at the Cape and in India all of which would have been familiar to my favourite Austen lady, Sophie Croft.