Excerpted from A Bengali Lady in England: Annotated Translation with Critical Introduction to Krishnabhabini Das’ Englandey Bangamahila. Translated by Nabanita Sengupta: Published by Shambhabi, 2020.
From the Introduction
Englandey Bangamahila is an important text that highlights the socio-cultural history of that period and conforms to the dominant ideologies of the nineteenth century. But beyond all these, there is a distinctive woman’s voice, sympathetic to her fellow sufferers. In fact, her concern about other Bengali women, trapped in the traditional Bengali society is the driving force behind this text. Krishnabhabini Das’ overwhelming concern about the fate of the Bengali women visible in the issues she chose to represent in her text makes her narrative one about the subjugated women of Bengal. The persona of Krishnabhabini is built up through the way she perceives the existence of her fellow sisters as opposed to the relatively free women of England. The author becomes inseparable from other women of India who faced the doubly bonded life at every moment of their existence. It reminds us of Rowbotham’s concept of ‘collective consciousness’ that goes into the making of a woman’s self, as discussed in Susan Friedman’s essay, “Women’s autobiographical selves: Theory and Practice”. It is this collective consciousness which constitutes Krishnabhabini’s psyche and identity.
In Friedman’s words it is actually a “sense of shared identity with other women, an aspect of identity that exists in tension with a sense of [her] own uniqueness” (44). It is this tension between the individual identity and the shared identity which adds to the complexities of women’s life writings. The individual identity of Krishnabhabini as a woman enjoying relatively greater freedom compared to her fellow sisters contradicts the identity that she gains in solidarity with them. These issues together make Krishnabhabini’s work more complex than a mere travelogue.
Nationalism and travel writing being two important concerns of the nineteenth century Englandey Bangamahila has often been examined under these lenses. As pointed out by Simonti Sen, “Krishnabhabini clearly resided with her co-travellers in the space constitutive of the nation. Her travel account is cast in the usual frame that separates the ‘backward East from the ‘progressive West’ and engages with all the stock-in-trade nationalist questions” (Travels to Europe 23). But what has been ignored under the impact of these more dominant concerns is the effort that underlies the making of this travel narrative. It is more than evident that for a lady with her background and situation it was not possible to have access to all the places and details she describes in the text. She must have had recourse to other texts on England. The question is how did she use them? Does her use of such text add a special dimension to her narrative?
Among the affluent there are many women who are completely given to luxury. They leave their home and children to their servants’ care and spend their time indulging in music, fashion or reading novels. But how can I blame them for this? In almost every country it is seen that the rich women are lazy. Everywhere, surfeit of wealth is the root cause of a luxurious living. Women build the foundation of a family. So if the women in general had been lazy here, then the British household could not have run efficiently and England too would not have developed so much. I feel that they are the true counterparts of their men. The way these women help their men and at times even do men’s work are things that we almost never see in our country. Apart from their own work, these women can also execute men’s jobs efficiently. They often run shops, work as clerks, teachers, write books and contribute in newspapers, arrange meetings and accomplish much more. Women constitute half of a country’s population: their aversion to work and inclination towards laziness harm the whole nation. British women have not restricted themselves to just household chores. They cooperate with men in many other works; great tasks are being accomplished here and there is so much of progress.
British women who live in India are extremely lazy because everything they need, including servants, come quite cheap in this country. Also, they do not care much about money as their husbands earn a high salary. Food, fashion, gossiping, music and strolling in the open air are their chief preoccupations. Taking these women as models, the Indians consider all British women to be babu[i]. There was a time when I too believed that all British women were lazy, but after seeing everything here, that impression has changed. I have been greatly surprised to see them capable of as much hard work, tolerance and diligence as men. Instead of just aping the manners of these women if we can imbibe their virtues, then perhaps we shall be truly benefitted.
England provides a lot of opportunity for women’s education. There is no dearth of good schools or colleges for girls in cities here. In almost every neighbourhood in London there are two to three girls’ schools. Nowadays in the universities of London, Oxford and Cambridge, women can get the same education as men. In the University of London[ii], women receive education together with men, attending the same classes and under the same professors. They pass the same examinations and receive the same degrees. Though the examinations here are tougher than the B.A and M.A examinations of our country, many women competing with men pass these and often score much higher marks. In London, there is no dearth of women who hold university degrees like men. One can often hear names such as Miss Smith, B.A, Misses Jones, M.A, etc. Now women do not hesitate to participate even in those tough examinations which few men take up. This proves that women are not inferior to men in terms of intelligence; the fact that they have achieved as much as men in spite of all the hurdles they face actually prove their superiority. I have heard that in North America, women can attain the high posts of judge, barrister etc, and preside over legal cases as men do. All the upper-class women are quite well-educated! The British women yet do not take part in professions that might require higher degrees of efficiency than teaching or practicing medicine. But here too, there is such a progress in the field of education that it seems quite soon the British women will surpass the American ones in this regard.
I cannot express the extent of happiness that I feel when I see girls and young women going to schools and colleges in groups like the boys and young men. Here the girls too go to school from the age of six or seven till they are twenty to twenty-five. Many women are not satisfied even with this. Like the educated British men, they continue their pursuit of education till the end of their life. Here there are many women who are authors, scholars and scientists. In certain aspects the women dominate men. Best of the novels of recent times have come from women authors[iii].
In the provinces girls not only study but also learn stitching, knitting, music, physical exercises and at times even cooking. British parents take good care so that their daughters can learn all these skills. They take equal care to impart education to both their sons and daughters. There is no lack of female teachers here and that is why while appointing teachers for their sons they do the same for their daughters as well, spending almost an equal amount of money for both. Not just in the rich households, but even the daughters of middle class houses pursue education and learn music and other necessary art forms till they are eighteen or nineteen. Parents spend liberally till their daughters become skilled enough in all these subjects. They feel happy to have done their duties towards their daughters. Compared to India, here the girls belonging to lower classes are much better educated and more intelligent than their counterparts in India. In this country, barring the lowest strata of society, almost everybody’s daughters and wives can read, write and play on the piano. Almost everyone is skilled in household chores and dress making etc.
Along with their intellect, British women take adequate care of their health. In almost every girl’s school there are facilities for physical exercises and games. In many cases, women are as expert as men in games like gymnastics which require physical stamina. They are also at par with men in walking, horse riding, running, and lawn tennis. I have often seen many such women who are stronger than many Bengali men in terms of both physical and mental strength. I doubt whether an Indian man would be able to walk as much as an upper class British woman does. Also, the women here are stronger and more industrious than the women of other European races. It is said that an Italian lady does not walk as much in a year as a British lady walks in a day. So it is not surprising that such strong and industrious mothers will bear healthy and strong children who, will later grow up to be brave, spirited and hard-working British men.
[i] The word babu discussed earlier, refers to those nineteenth century men who spent their time and money in luxury and foppery. But interestingly, though it is used for men in Bengali society, Krishnabhabini confers this on the rich and idle English women given to laziness.
[ii] Though the author presents an almost utopian view of women’s education, it was not until 1878 that the University of London opened its doors to women. According to the brief history of the institution provided in their official website “in 1880, four women passed the BA examination and in 1881 two women obtained a BSc.”
[iii] Victorian novels were dominated by women authors, many of whom have obliviated from public memory in the later years. Nineteenth century saw prolific novelists like Mary Elizabeth Braddon (1835-1915), also known as the “queen of circulating libraries” who authored about eighty books; George Eliot (1819-1880), one of the most learned and scholarly writers of her times, whose chief concern was the contemporary society and women; Elizabeth Gaskell (1810-1865), immensely popular in her times though not remembered much by posterity, her most popular work was Mary Barton, her contribution to the ‘condition of England’ novels along with Dickens, Disraeli and others. There were many more women novelists in this period, the Bronte sisters, Jane Austen, Mary Shelley, Fanny Burney to name a few.
About the Book
Englandey Bangamahila is the first travel writing by a Bengali woman in England, published in 1885. This book is a documentation of the 19th century England—its strength and prejudices, as seen through the eyes of a twenty-year-old woman, Krishnabhabini Das, a housewife belonging to an orthodox Hindu family. Krishnabhabini did not believe in social taboos and went against quite a number of them like travelling abroad, educating herself, not adhering to the 19th century views of motherhood. Her book too was iconoclastic in a number of ways, including its bold criticism of British imperialism and other aspects of British culture. Written from the perspective of a doubly marginalised individual, this book is a rich study of ethnography, culture studies, postcolonial studies, 19th century nationalism and gender studies.
Born in 1864, Krishnabhabini Das was an iconoclast woman who, in spite of being married into an orthodox Hindu family, worked for the development of women throughout her life. She travelled to England in the 1880s with her husband, leaving behind her nine-year-old daughter. Though the trip enriched her in various ways, it also led to a long separation from her daughter who was married off at a very early age. She, being far away in another country, could not stop her child’s marriage. Krishnabhabini wrote a detailed account of the British lifestyle during her stay in England in her book Englandey Bangamahila and after returning to India continued with her social work and writings in the leading periodicals of her times. She died in 1919 leaving behind a lifetime of work regarding upliftment of women.
A translator and creative writer by choice and teacher by profession, Dr. Nabanita Sengupta is presently employed as assistant professor in English at Sarsuna College, affiliated to the University of Calcutta. She is also associated with two literary societies – Intercultural Poetry and Performance Library and Kolkata Translators’ Forum. Her poetry, fiction and non-fiction have been variously published at places like SETU, Borderless Journal, Muse India, Coldnoon, Café Dissensus, NewsMinute.in, News18.com, Kitaab.org and Different Truths. She also has a number of critical writings to her name and has presented papers at various national and international seminars and webinars. Her latest publication is A Bengali Lady in England: Annotated Translation with a critical Introduction to Krishnabhabini Das’ Englandey Bangamahila.