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VOL. XXIV NO. 17, December 16-31, 2014
Laurence Hope – A life of mystery
From 'Maddy's Ramblings' – a blog by Manmadhan Ullattil

Virginia Jealous was recently in Madras on the trail first blazed by her father John Jealous in 1989, when he was in search of the story of a woman who was to become the obsession of his life as he pieced together her story during several subsequent visits to Madras and other parts of India for a book that didn’t get written; he passed away before he got to it. Now his daughter Virginia, a poet and a travel writer, hopes to write a book on her father’s journey as well as on the woman who was the second great love of his life, Laurence Hope. Here in brief is the story of Adela Florence Nicolson whom the world knew as Laurence Hope.

Adela ‘Violet’ Florence Nicolson’s story starts with her father Arthur Cory, an army man who arrived in India in January 1849. He married Fanny Griffin and Isabel was their eldest daughter. Even though they lived in Lahore, Adela Florence was born in England in 1865, near Bristol. Annie Sophie, the younger daughter, was born in 1868. After retirement in 1877, Cory joined the Civil and Military Gazette in Lahore and in time became its Editor. When he returned to London, Rudyard Kipling succeeded him. Just before her father’s retirement from the Civil and Military Gazette around 1882, the 16-year-old Adela returned to Lahore after completing her education in England.

Was this Dunmore House?

Adela married Colonel Malcolm Hassels Nicolson in April 1889 in Karachi. He was 46 years old, she was 24, virtually half his age! Was ‘Violet’, as she was called by friends, destined to follow the traditional path of the British Army wife, horses, parties, ayahs and so on? No. In 1897, when Violet was in a prestigious position as the General's wife, a fellow officer’s wife in Mhow wrote, “A tiny fair very strange woman, vilely and impossibly clothed. I always found her rather interesting, though of course everyone mocks at her, and I can't help doing it myself... sometimes at the really absurd figure she makes.” Another writer wrote in 1909, “Mrs. Nicolson loved to dispense hospitality to her chosen friends. She was of a peculiar, unconventional nature, which is reflected in her poetry, and only those who were of the same mind appealed to her. She loved the world of books, occult science, and strongly sympathised with the Mohammedans. Those friends chosen for their brilliancy of mind more than for their material wealth found in her a warm, ardent, generous friend, extremely unconventional in her views, and a woman not at all fond of social gaiety in the usual acceptation of the term.”

Adela took to wearing Indian clothes and writing poetry with a style reminiscent of the Sufi poets from the NW Province (she was fluent in Urdu), and decided to get them published. It is said that while the substance of the poems was not drawn from identifiable Indian sources, the exotic settings emphasised a passionate intensity which was seen as Oriental. Her first volumes of poetry, The Garden of Kama and Indian Love Lyrics, were published in 1901, but were not something Victorian and Edwardian England could accept from a lady and that was why they were published under the masculine pseudonym ‘Laurence Hope’. The works were well received, though the somewhat explicit nature of the contents was hotly discussed. Generally reviewed as the work of a man, her poems attracted enormous attention at a time when D.H. Lawrence was still to become the buzz name, and were repeatedly republished every year for many years.

After retirement, the couple briefly visited North Africa and then London, where they were drawn into literary circles. But London and Africa were not to the liking of the two people who had spent their entire life in India and, so, soon enough, in 1904, the couple left London (after leaving their son in London) in order to settle in the then sleepy Calicut. They found a bungalow on the hilltop overlooking the river at Feroke, a few miles out of town.

Malcolm Nicolson and Adela Florence Nicolson.

The Nicolsons lived very happily for six months in a place they stated was paradise. Adela’s poetry writing continued. She loved Malabar and wrote a lot about the land and its people. But as most people agree, her poetry was a reflection of those interesting but difficult times where there was a definite passion and obsession with forbidden love in the minds of the literate. For example, a bit from the poem Song of the Parao:

These are my people, and this my land,

I hear the pulse of her secret soul.

This is the life that I understand,

Savage and simple and sane and whole.

These are my people, lithe-limbed and tall,

the maiden's bosom they scorn to cover.

Her breasts, which shall call and enthrall her lover,

Things of beauty, are free to all.

Recurring health issues required a move to Madras for the General’s medical treatment. A routine prostate operation went wrong and the general died on August 7, 1904 at Mackay’s Gardens Nursing Home and was buried in St. Mary’s (on the Island) cemetery.

Mary Talbot Cross in a ‘factional’ biography of her wrote, “His widow was taken in by friends, the Stewarts, and for two months she stayed with them at Dunmore House (a property they were renting from Eardley Norton, the noted barrister and champion of the Indian right to self-determination). On October 4, 1904, when her final book of poetry was completed, Laurence Hope confided to a friend in London her intention of exercising her own ‘right’ to follow her husband, entrusted the letter to Sir Norman Stewart whose return to England was imminent, retired to her room and took poison. It was an English equivalent of sati, and fittingly her last poems were published posthumously, under the title Indian Love. Finally, and after her death, the poems were published in her own name.” Some say that Adela did this following a bout of acute depression. She was buried, like her husband, in St. Mary’s cemetery. Her only son, Malcolm Josceline Nicolson, subsequently edited her poems.

In her book Indian Love, she started with a poem dedicated to her departed husband. In the poem she said,

Small joy was I to thee; before we met

Sorrow had left thee all too sad to save.

Useless my love – as vain as this regret

That pours my hopeless life across thy grave.

This controversial poem addressed to her husband and a number of swirling rumours kept Hope in the limelight even after her death. While one of the rumours was based on her relationship with an Indian prince, the second was about her purported lesbian relationship with Amy Finden, a composer, and third, without any real basis, about her numerous affairs with all kinds of people. Let’s take a cursory look at them.

Somerset Maugham’s short story The Colonel’s lady is loosely based on Adela Nicolson. In fact, it is a story where the Colonel discovers all of a sudden that his wife has become a successful writer and hears of a much talked about story about an affair with a younger man. Eventually, after much soul searching and discussions with his solicitor, he concludes that he should do nothing and should ignore it as, after all, he himself had had an affair in London.

E.C. Keissling writing for the Milwaukee Journal in 1968 stated that Adela was in love with a local prince and as that would upset the English, they used to meet in secret with him dressed as a commoner and she as a dancing girl. One day, he was caught and threatened by his father the Raja. So he broke off the relationship. Nicolson heard about this while “recovering from malaria” and the news hastened his death!

Others said that after Adela returned to India the poems expressed Adela’s lesbian love for Amy Woodforde-Finden. It appears Amy wrote to Laurence stating that she had been trying out some of the songs and wanted approval. Laurence agreed and asked if they could meet – the rumour is that they did meet and they fell instantly and passionately in love, and embarked on a brief, intense affair before returning to their respective husbands as propriety demanded. Amy was known as a prolific composer of ‘eastern ditties’, which effectively captured the mood and morals of the period. But many believe that the two never met. Before this rumour heated up, Adela shifted to Madras and that effectively killed the rumour.

And now we come to Madhavi Kutty’s comment about the boatman. If you read this poem Surface rights written by Adela while in Calicut, you can see the intensity and the passion in the poetry which Kamala Das would, of course, have analysed through her writer’s eyes. Adela writes in Surface rights:

Drifting, drifting along the River,

Under the light of a wan low moon,

Steady, the paddles; Boatman, steady ...

Why should we reach the sea so soon?

Sweet are thy ways and thy strange caresses,

That sear as flame, and exult as wine.

But I care only for that wild moment

When my soul arises and reaches thine.

Perhaps she met him while going to or travelling in Malabar in a boat. A clue comes from a letter from Nilambur dated May 1904. She writes: We came here twenty-two miles through the jungle. The jungle was the jungle, but the hill climate was chilly, and there was a lot of grey in the sky, but here it is hot, it is India again. Do you know the name of Clogstoun? The tomb of Lt. Samuel Robert Clogstoun (actually of 23rd Regiment), who was drowned in 1843 in the river here at nineteen, ‘generous, high-spirited, and full of promise,’ as the officers of his regiment (the 21st Madras Infantry) have it, is here. The tomb was in a scrub jungle and almost covered. I washed the stone clean last evening and wondered if there were any of his people anywhere.

This place is perfect. I only wish one had a thousand years to live, as there are so many things one will have to leave undone.

At the age of 39, it was a tragic decision to swallow a horrible chemical that burns your mouth, lips, gullet and innards as it hastens your departure from this world. Why the torturous decision? Was it guilt or a sacrifice to her husband, or for her lover prince or Amy or, for that matter, the boatman? It’s a question that will never be answered.

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In this issue

Are we waiting for their collapse?
Madras Landmarks - 50 years ago
Crowd-funding to support social causes?
Deja vu!
Sowing the seeds of freedom
Laurence Hope – A life of mystery
The Red Hills Railway
A 2500-year-old 'industrial estate'

Our Regulars

Short 'N' Snappy
Readers Write
Dates for your Diary


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