British Fiction, 18001829

HOCKLEY, William Browne. Zenana, The (1827)

Contemporary Reviews

La Belle Assemblée, 3rd ser. 5 (Apr 1827): 176.

The Zenana; or, a Nuwab’s Leisure Hours; by the “Author of ‘Pandurang Hari, or Memoirs of a Hindoo,’ ” ’ is a work of three volumes, admirably calculated to sustain the well-earned fame of the writer. Painted in the most vivid and glowing colours, a splendid picture of Eastern manners is here presented.

Monthly Review, n.s. 6 (Oct 1827): 166–72.

To the author of these volumes belongs the merit of having first attempted, under the agreeable form of fictitious adventures, to illustrate the character and manners of the native population of India. In noticing his Memoirs of Pandurang Hari [1], we welcomed that new effort to familiarise the English reader with the peculiarities of Hindostanee life; and we offered rather a favorable estimate of the general qualifications of the writer—who, we understand, was formerly an officer in the Company’s army—for the amusing design in which he had engaged. We recognised the intimacy of his acquaintance with the people, and the localities of India, though he appeared to us to have formed a prejudiced and exaggerated opinion of the universal depravity of the native community. We admired the liveliness and spirit which he occasionally threw into his sketches of particular customs and places; and we bestowed some tribute of praise upon the variety and interest of the imaginative narrative, in which these faithful pictures were interwoven. But, in some respects, we could not felicitate him upon his originality: for Pandurang Hari was a palpable copy of Hajji Baba, and far inferior in execution to its prototype; nor had the author succeeded in infusing into the memoirs of his Hindoo, any portion of that perfectly oriental cast of thought, which made the great charm of Mr. Morier’s admirable portrait of the witty and mercurial Persian. In Pandurang Hari, there was no ‘good keeping’ of eastern sentiment, or even of eastern phraseology; and in every sentence, in the turn of idea and expression, in dialogue, narrative, and description, the European mind was perpetually and unpleasantly appearing.

We recur to this enumeration of the merits and defects of the memoirs of ‘Pandurang Hari,’ because the volumes now before us form, avowedly, the continuation of the author’s purpose of ‘illustrating the manners and habits’ of the natives of India, and are distinguished by very nearly the same characteristic. But we are compelled to add that, so far from exhibiting an improvement, they are, on the whole, inferior in materials and composition to his former production. They are written with less animation, and vigour; they present us with fewer vivid [166/167] delineations of local scenes and customs; and they are still more deficient in the consistent preservation of a true oriental colouring of feeling and diction. The ordinary machinery of narrative and plot, too, is here far less skilfully applied, than in the memoirs of Pandurang Hari: the incidents are often devoid of interest and dramatic probability, and sometimes even absurd and puerile.

How far, indeed, our author himself is, in the present work, chargeable with these defects of narration, must be determined by the degree of credence which he may seriously mean us to attach to the following statement in his preface. Observing that ‘shortly after his arrival in India, he had the good fortune to be nominated to a civil appointment at an out-station, a considerable distance from the Presidency,’ where, to enable him to discharge his duties properly, it was indispensable that he should acquire a thorough knowledge of the Persian and Hindostanee languages; and that, for this purpose, he found it necessary to direct his attention to colloquial intercourse with the natives, as well as to private study, he proceeds:—

‘Having conquered the first and greatest difficulty, viz. proper pronunciation, the author was naturally led to desire a further intimacy with the languages, as well as mariners and customs, of the people amongst whom he was placed. As well, therefore, for amusement as instruction, when evening closed in, he assembled the natives of his establishment, and those who felt competent to the task, requiring from them the relation of some entertaining tale, which the author’s moonshee (or tutor), who was invariably present on such occasions, committing to writing, was on the following day translated, by his assistance, into English. At first, considerable hesitation was evinced by the people called upon for this purpose; some pleading ignorance, others want of courage to appear before Master in his own apartment, to narrate tales; a promise of reward, however, to him who should relate the most amusing story, removed all difficulty. Although but one man in the author’s establishment could claim any pretension to ability, nevertheless the report having gone abroad, in a few days others, offering their services, related several popular and traditional tales, with evident willingness and good humour.

‘Returning to his native land, the author ventured to offer the public a sketch of Indian manners and habits in a former production, entitled “Pandurang Hari.” Gratified by the flattering reception that work has with, and remarking that an episode therein contained appeared to afford satisfaction, he was led into the idea that a set of Indian tales would probably be acceptable. For the accomplishment of this purpose, therefore, he searched his MS. translations of stories (acquired in the manner above-mentioned), which for many years had remained untouched. Conceiving the plea of originality to be no justification for the publishing an improper or uninteresting tale, it required no little time and attention to separate the dross from the more worthy particles contained in the genuine stories, amongst which are many of birds and beasts, giants and magicians, extravagantly childish or extraordinarily absurd. On the other hand, there are some replete with deceits and intrigues of women, both [167/168] immoral and improper, and far from either instructive or amusing. The former were rejected; the Author being anxious to avoid insulting an enlightened public by offering such absurdities to them; and the latter, being unwilling to offend their delicacy: independent of which, ample information respecting the infidelity of Asiatic women is already before the public in a work lately published, entitled “The New Arabian Nights Entertainments.”

‘Having selected what appeared to the author the best amongst the collection, he proceeded to form on the basis and leading features of them, the following Tales, which may be more approved of than if sent forth in their original shape.’—vol. i. Preface, pp. iv.-viii.

We confess that we are usually prepared to receive with very sceptical distrust, such grave explanations of the authentic origin or discovery of MS. materials, with which romance-wrights have in all ages seemed to think themselves required and privileged to usher in their veracious histories. It is always difficult to know whether a modern novelist, in thus prefacing his matter, is in earnest, or merely intends that his preliminary declarations shall be received as a part of the fiction, to heighten the illusion and increase the attractions of the story. But if, in the instance before us, the author be indeed seriously given in his preface, we can only regret that, instead of attempting to build his invention upon the framework of his ‘genuine stories,’ and to improve the rude workmanship of those originals, he had been contented to publish his first translations precisely in their most literal condition. As ‘popular and traditional tales’ of the natives of India, they might have been valuable: however ‘extravagantly childish, or extraordinarily absurd;’ they must, if only in their illustration of the puerilities of the Hindostanee mind, have been exceedingly curious; however inartificially or wretchedly constructed, they would at least have afforded some insight into the real state of manners and feeling among the people to whom they appertained. But our worthy author may rest assured that, in having altered their shape and modified their substance, he is very far from having increased their value or interest. If they have been formed from any Indian materials, all oriental quaintness of relation and sentiment has been utterly destroyed in the transmutation: if he is not responsible for the tame and feeble character of the incidents, he is blameable in judgment for having divested them of the only attraction which they could possess—that of their pristine simplicity. And whether the weakness of the invention has been wholly his own, or in part borrowed from the popular tales of the natives, he has produced only a composition of incongruous patch-work, in which the colours of European taste and oriental expression, English ideas and Indian scenery, are grotesquely admixed and strangely confounded.

In the choice of a vehicle of introduction for his series of Indian tales, our author has at least been a free agent; nor can we say [168/169] that the details of his contrivance here reflect more credit upon his ingenuity or inventive resource. The tales are supposed to have teen related about the middle of the last century, in the Zenana or harem of the Nuwab, or Muhammedan viceroy of Surat, for the amusement of his ‘leisure hours.’ That an oriental ruler should seek to break the tedium of his indolent repose, with the recitations of the story-tellers for whom the East has ever been famous, is in itself a supposition as natural and appropriate, as that an European party should have recourse to the same mode of cheering their refinement in the gloomy season of a pestilence, or of beguiling their wayfaring hours during the stages of a pilgrimage. If, therefore, our author had been contented with so simple an idea, it would have formed a sufficient connexion for his series of tales. But he has aimed, more ambitiously, at weaving the occasion itself of their relation into a regular romance; and nothing can be more ridiculous or improbable than the expedient upon which he has fallen. A Persian fair one, of distinguished birth and transcendent beauty, has been iniquitously kidnapped from her own country and consigned to the captain of an Arab ship, who brings her to Surat, where she is purchased by the minister of the Nuwab, as an acceptable addition to his master’s seraglio. But the Nuwab, awed into a respectful passion by the virtuous dignity of her deportment, treats her honourably, and intimates his design of making her his wife, or, as it is expressed in a marvellously uneastern figure of speech, of ‘offering her his hand.’ The fair Mheitab, however, having left her own true love in Persia, and not daring positively to decline the distinction reserved for her by a Nuwab, invents various pretexts for evasion; and at last, after all other excuses are exhausted, she informs him that, according to the astrological laws of her destiny, she is forbidden to entertain any offers of marriage before the close of the year, when, provided no other male person than himself shall have been suffered in the interim to look upon her, she shall be at liberty to communicate her final answer to his proposals. The Nuwab, with exemplary patience, submits to the delay; and time rolls on, until the fatal year is near its expiration. But, at this juncture, the lady expresses a desire to visit the gardens of a country palace, and is gratified by indulgent suitor, who, to prevent the possibility of her being seen by any male person, commands ‘that all the houses of Surat all be shut up, and not an inhabitant appear in the streets under pain of death.’ Notwithstanding this precaution, Mheitab succeeds in her secret design of being seen in the palace gardens by some unknown male intruders, who immediately escape; and she then protests that her answer to the Nuwab’s suit must be deferred for another full year. The enraged despot, unable to discover the offenders, resolves to wreak his vengeance for this new disappointment on the whole population of his city, and dooms one in every thousand to the lot of death. But the lovely cause of his fury [169/170] interposes against this ferocious sentence, and suggests that, in lieu of its execution, and in order to beguile away the new year of delay, the chief persons of each trade and profession should be compelled to attend at the Zenana, and each to relate in succession some entertaining story, when he who should prove to have told the least amusing one, might be selected to make by his punishment the atonement required for the city. In lieu of the lively pastime of cutting off an assortment of heads, the Nuwab is thus induced to forget his chagrin in the less exciting occupation of listening to an equal number of stories; and thus were produced the tales of the ‘Zenana, or the leisure hours of Nuwab!’ At the conclusion of the third volume, Mheitab discovers that her Persian lover has been murdered; and she then obligingly ‘accepts the hand’ of the Nuwab; to cut short both the number of the tales and the period of his suspense.

Such is the main story of the Zenana, in which the others are inserted; and such the best scheme which the author has been able to concoct for the exhibition of his ‘traditional and popular Indian tales.’ Upon the wretched clumsiness and elaborate impotence of the whole design, it would be idle to waste further words: yet the development of this precious plot engrosses full one volume out of the three, with no other relief than some overstrained description of the paltry intrigues which occupy the Nuwab’s rival ministers, and a long and uninteresting retrospect of the history of Mheitab and her first lover. In short, this tale, which forms principal subject of the book, is altogether worthless: its humour vapid and forced, its narrative prolix and dull, and its incidents not so much merely improbable, as absolutely silly and childish But putting aside the absurdity of the occasion on which the stories are supposed to be related, there is also a violation of consistency and dramatic propriety in the mode in which they are assigned to their several narrators. Sentiments are ascribed to speakers utterly in opposition to the character, the habits, and religious belief of their order. Thus one of the tales is related by the captain of the Rajpoôt guard, necessarily therefore a high-cast Hindoo, and as a Hindoo, in fact (vol. i., p. 296), specially described. Yet, in referring to a subject of Hindoo superstition, this man (vol. ii., p. 156), is made to speak of the ‘cruel Hindoos’ as an ‘ignorant and superstitious people,’ and in another place to make respectful mention of the ‘pious Moslems’ and the ‘ordinances of Islam’ So again, Tambadass, the coppersmith, another of the story tellers, is also mentioned as a Hindoo; but in his tale in speaks of Gunputty and Juggernaut as idols, and reverentially quotes the ‘laws of the holy prophet’ against indulgence and wine: while, in describing a jatra, or purification of the Hindoos, one of the most solemn of their religious festivals, he observes of it, in the spirit of an European, or at least, of a Mussulman, as if were a matter of curiosity foreign from his own worship, that [170/171] (vol. iii., p. 20), ‘the mode which the idolatrous people adopted to ensure such absolution and forgiveness, is of so singular a nature that it demands full explanation.’ But this is only one example out of a hundred, of the manner in which the author is perpetually forgetting the proper language of the character which he has undertaken to represent, and suffering the English dress of his mind to appear under the imperfect covering of his oriental disguise.

Notwithstanding these general discrepancies; and the little worth of the main story, we are, however, far from intending to pass a sweeping sentence of condemnation against the tales themselves which compose the series. As pictures of Hindostanee life, they are amusing and curious; and though doubtless neither altogether genuine nor unadulterated, there is a great deal in their character which disposes us to think that they may really have been constructed on the ground-work of some of the popular stories of the country. They all turn, more or less, upon the subject of love; and the discovery of hidden treasure, the operations of magic, the vicissitudes of foundlings of high birth, and scenes of bloodshed strife, are the varying incidents of the successive plots. Almost all the pieces exhibit the workings of the baser passions which form the ordinary vices of the Asiatic mind: avarice, dishonesty, cunning, and cruelty. Miserly and hard-hearted parents, and faithless children, are stock characters; and the hero and lover is often no more than an exemplary knave. Every species of roguish chicanery and duplicity is in fact assumed as a matter of course in the ordinary business of Indian life: but all this is not so extravagantly overdrawn as in Pandurang Hari; nor is it coloured with the enormous villany, to the delineation of which, in that work, we objected as so unnatural and incredible.

The stories in the series are seven in number, and are supposed to be related successively by the cotwall or police minister, the captain of the Rajpôot [sic] soldiery. and the chiefs of some of the crafts of Surat—the barbers, the butchers, the tailors, the coppersmiths, and the dyers. Of these by far the best is the coppersmith’s tale, of a certain Sanscrit ‘book of knowledge,’ whose contents direct the fortunate owner to the discovery of caverns full of untold treasure, but require of him the observance of precepts of virtue, the neglect of which will convert all his wealth only to his destruction. This book is first possessed by a pious Brahmin, from whom it is stolen by a young Mussulman, at the instigation of a Jew. The Israelite obtains the fatal prize, and in attempting to use it, perishes by a violent end, the victim of his avarice and fraud. The volume then passes into the hands of the young Mussulman, who enriches himself enormously from the stores of the cavern, weds his betrothed, and for some time endeavours to make a good use of his theft: until growing proud and unmindful of the duties of charity and humility, the retribution foretold in the volume overtakes him. [171/172] His wife, in clandestinely visiting the cavern to rob it of a sum which he had refused to her pleasures, is ignorant of the mystery which regulates the egress, and dies there miserably of hunger; and the husband, discovering her lifeless body, is overwhelmed with grief and repentance, and restores the book to the injured Brahmin. This is the only tale in the volumes in which there is any defined attempt at a moral: the chain of intrigue by which the ‘book of knowledge’ is stolen from the Brahmin, is very amusingly told; and the whole story reminds us, not unpleasingly, of some of the pieces in the Arabian Nights.

The dyer’s tale is also worth perusal: it embraces the separate history of three maimed beggars, who each relate to the emperor Aurungzebe, the course of fortune whereby they have been reduced from respectable stations in society to their mendicant and crippled condition. Mingled with the evil exploits of a magician—again forcibly reminding us of the style of the far-famed thousand and one nights—there is, in parts of this tale, a great deal of wild and shifting viscissitude [sic], which gives a lively and, doubtless, a natural picture of the adventures of a vagabond life in the East.

[1] Monthly Review, vol. i., p. 83.

Notes: Format: 3 vols 12mo; no price. Publisher: Saunders & Otley.

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