One Last Look

Elizabeth Oliphant, her brother Henry, sister Harriet, and their cousin Lafayette arrive in Calcutta in 1836 after a horrific sea passage, ready to defend the Empire’s interests and make a fortune. Henry has just been appointed Governor-General. Elizabeth is there to act as his official hostess, but also because, as she confesses, she cannot bear to be away from him.

The first days in India batter her with continuous shock. Giant insects are everywhere; appalling sounds and smells fill the morning air; the ladies’ fashionable gowns wilt and mildew in the heat. The natives themselves seem both simple and unfathomable to Elizabeth. (Of course she refuses to join Henry in his Hindi lessons, fearing that if she knows her servants’ language, they’ll beg her for favors.) Meanwhile, Harriet delights in the exotic fauna and monuments, and Lafayette plays man-about- town.

London wants a more friendly regime in Afghanistan, so Henry organizes a Great Progress, ten miles long, to set up the invasion. The long trek from Calcutta to Delhi takes them into famine and plague areas, and brings many deaths. Yet during this trip, Elizabeth’s attitude changes. At first she had contempt for anything Indian. Now she reaches a point where she can say “Surely there is nothing so lovely as an evening in a village in India—what the people call cow-dust time.”

The story is written as Elizabeth’s diary. Susanna Moore has drawn material from the diaries of three Englishwomen, including two sisters of the actual Governor-General of the time, George Eden. Her word-pictures of India are so vivid and sensuous that the reader falls into the scene almost upon opening the book. For those who prize vicarious experience in their novel-reading, it is an unsettling experience, for Elizabeth is a hard person with whom to identify. Most of her observations are barbed, with her fellow Europeans judged even more harshly than the Indians. Perhaps this style passed for wit in her circle.

Yet eventually she adds sharp comments on her contemporaries’ racism and sexism, as well as noting the folly of imperialism. The book’s Afghanistan connection is timely as well. Altogether, One Last Look offers an unusual glimpse into the past.