Hartly House, Calcutta. In Three Volumes.

GIBBES Phebe (1789)

£10000.00  [First Edition]

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First Edition. Three Volumes. Small 8vo. (151 x 98mm). Title-page of first volume very slightly shorter at the fore-edge (not touching the text), some minor light staining from the  leather corners of the binding onto the title-page and endleaves, a few spots in places but otherwise very clean. Early 19th-century northern European polished sheep-backed sprinkled boards, spine ruled in gilt with a red morocco label and a green oval morocco "EdeW" cipher label, sprinkled edges, plain endleaves, pink ribbon marker (tailcap of the spine of Vol. 2 chipped, but otherwise remarkably fine).


London: for J. Dodsley, 

ESTC records copies at BL, National Library of Scotland, Bodley; Harvard, Huntington, New York Public Library and UCLA. OCLC adds Sheffield University; University of Illinois, Minnesota and Case Western, Goettingen and one formerly at the Berlin Staatsbibliothek (War Loss). A one-volume Dublin edition was published in the same year. Aside from the present, no complete copies of the first edition are recorded on Rare Book Hub.


A rare and remarkable early Anglo-Indian novel by the long-neglected Phebe Gibbes that was reviewed by Mary Wollstonecraft. Written against the backdrop of the impeachment of Warren Hastings, Hartly House, Calcutta is a highly detailed account (based on the letters from Gibbes's own son who would later die in India) of colonial life, so detailed in fact, that it was thought by some contemporary readers to be a real-life account of the Subcontinent. The protagonist's letters to her friend in England provide a contrasting description of India as she attempts to understand the various religions and customs, the hierarchies of native and colonial rule under the problematic stewardship of the East India Company and her own search for a husband against the complexities of class, race and the horror of sexual violence.


In the first letter (addressed from the Bay of Bengal) Sophia Goldborne writes to her friend in England describing her first impressions, and the reputation, of India:


"The grave of thousands! - Doubtless, my good, girl, in the successive years of European visitation, the eastern world is, the grave of thousands, but is it not also a mine of exhaustless wealth! the centre of unimaginable magnificence! an ever blooming, an ever brilliant scene?"


Across a series of letters Sophia describes the country in great detail remarking on many of the aspects of colonial life in India including the people she sees, the temperature and weather, the time difference, food ("the palm, the cocoa-nut, the tamarind, the guava, the orange, lemon, pomegranate, pine, &c. &c.  in the highest perfection", I, p. 81), architecture, fashion, religion, and the local people.  Sophia repeatedly attempts to find a comparison between what she sees in India and an equivalent in England and so asks her friend to images the "burgeos" as like "very handsome barges on the river Thames" (I p.15) and later compares "the Bengal burying grounds" to the famous burial ground at St. Pancras in London (II, p.8).


On arriving at Hartly House - a large colonial house - Sophia describes the "musketto" curtains that adorn her bed and explains, "I must tell you, though I shudder at the bare recollection of so vulgar a nuisance, that, in like manner with the bugs in London, they mercilessly annoy all new-comers, blistering them, and teazing, if not torturing them continually..." (I, p.23).


Much of the detail on India in Gibbes's novel was provided by her son in his letters home before his death in the country. Gibbes's portrait of India was felt to be so accurate that shortly after the publication of Hartly House the Scots Magazine published a large portion of one of Sophia's letters as though it was fact rather than fiction under the title, "Picture of the Mode of living in Calcutta. In a letter from a Lady to her friend in England" (Scots Magazine, May 1789). The belief that Gibbes' novel was fact rather than fiction can perhaps be excused on the basis of passages (ostensibly between two young people) such as the following:


"No wonder lawyers return from this country rolling in wealth; their fees are enormous; if you ask a single question on any affair, you pay down your gold mohr, Arabella, (two pounds)! and if he writes a letter of only three lines, twenty-eight rupees (four pounds)! I tremble at the idea of coming into their hands; for what must be the recoveries, to answer such immense charges! - You must, however, be informed, that the number of acting attornies on the court roll is restricted to twelve; who serve an articled clerkship of three years only, instead of five as in England" (II p.47).


The overwhelming majority of the "novel" is comprised of these detailed and sometimes didactic sketches of Anglo-Indian life. The essential plot is in fact quite minor and turns on Sophie's disinclination to choose a husband, much to the annoyance of her father ("My father, perceiving me disinclined to marry in the East, for wealth &c. with me old enough to make me guilty ..."). An English suitor "Doyly" is suggested and, though she finds herself attracted to a charismatic Brahmin [see below], eventually accepted prompting her return to England at the end of Vol. 3.


On the climate of India, Sophia complains that , "so great an enemy to beauty is this ardent climate that even I, your newly-arrived friend, am only the ghost of my former self; and however the lily has survived, the roses have expired: neither my lips (the glow of which you yourself have noticed) or cheeks are much more than barely distinguishable from the rest of my face, and that only by the faintest bloom imaginable" (I, p.65).


The third volume begins strikingly with the following passage:


"Henceforth, Arabella, you are to consider me in a new point of view. - Ashamed of the manners of modern Christianity, (amongst the professors of which acts of devotion are subjects of ridicule, and charity, in all its amiable branches a polite jest). I am become a convert to the Gentoo faith, and have my Bramin to instruct me per diem" (III, p.1).


Near the end of this volume Sophie also witnesses a shocking scene which seems to mirror some of the Colonial undertones in the rest of the book:


"I have, within the passing hour, beheld one of these wretches conveyed to prison - and may condign punishment be his portion! He is, my dear, an officer in the army - who having, in one of his country rides, discovered an old man's daughter to be lovely beyond whatever his country has produced, cruelly and basely resolved to rob him of her. To her father's house he went, on this diabolical design, and was received by its innocent and unsuspecting inhabitants with the utmost kindness; - in consequence of which reception, he changed his plan of outrage - and, instead of bearing her off, as he had intended, he settled it to violate the laws of hospitality - of God and of man - and accomplish his work of darkness under his paternal roof!" He killed the girl's father and then, "proceeded to fill up the measure of his iniquity." (III, p.163-4).


Very little is known about Phebe Gibbes and much of what is is taken from an application she made to the Royal Literary Fund for financial support in October 1804. Many of Gibbes's novels were published anonymously (as here) but in her application she noted that she is the author of 22 novels, a number of books for children, French translations and reviews for the London Magazine


"Her scrawled petitioning letters reveal that she was a widow with two daughters, her only son having died in India, and that she had been reduced to an impoverished condition by her father-in-law's financial mismanagement. These few concrete facts about her life resonate in the repeated concerns of her fiction." (Franklin, xiii).


Hartly House, Calcutta, was reviewed in The New Annual Register by Mary Wollstonecraft. 


Wollstonecraft remarked on the "entertaining account of Calcutta" and correctly assumeD that the novel is by, "a person who had been forcibly impressed by the scenes described ... Probably the ground-work of the correspondence was actually written on the spot" (or, as we know, the scenes impressed on her son and communicated by letters). Wollstonecraft concluded:


"These letters indeed are written with a degree of vivacity which renders them very amusing, even when they are merely descriptive, and the young reader will see, rather than listen to the instruction they contain" (The New Annual Register (1789), p.147).


Michael Franklin notes that (as of 2007) very few of Gibbes' novels have been re-printed resulting in an "exemplary case of scholarly neglect" (xiv). Isobel Grundy notes: "Gibbes is creeping into critical notice, but she is not likely to be rediscovered in the foreseeable future except by those with access to a very good research library indeed" (Isobel Grundy, "(Re) discovering women's texts", Women and Literature in Britiain 1700-1800, ed. Vivien Jones, Cambridge UP, 2000). When Hartly House was re-printed by the Pluto Press to mark the 200th anniversary of its first publication the edition was re-printed from a Calcutta edition of 1908 and the author listed as "anonymous" (see Grundy).


Provenance: Unidentified cipher "EdeW" on an oval label on the spine, no doubt from what must have once been a very handsome European library..

Stock Code: 246207

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