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VOL. XXIV NO. 19, January 16-31, 2015
A trail of hope
by Ranjitha Ashok

The opening lines in The Chief’s Madras Miscellany column in The Hindu Metroplus supplement of December 15, 2014 read: ‘When Virginia Jealous speaks to members of the Madras Book Club this evening she might report that midst all the tall grass in the unkempt St. Mary’s Cemetery on The Island she found the tombstones of Adele Florence Nicolson and Lieutenant General Malcolm Nicolson.’

And, as life and luck would have it, that’s precisely what travel writer, poet and essayist, Virginia Jealous, announced that evening at the Madras Book Club event.

It’s great when Life decides to show off, revealing its ability to evoke that perfect touch of drama that reinforces Humankind’s eternal belief that there are such things as ‘special moments’… unscripted, sudden, miraculous even… or just plain fun.

In the past few weeks, much has been written, both here in Madras Musings and elsewhere, on Virginia Jealous, her father John Jealous, and the latter’s attempts to unearth the story of Raj-days poet ‘Laurence Hope’, a pseudonym used by Adele Florence Nicolson – yes, we’re up to speed on all of that.

Now, your own connect with Laurence Hope is almost non-existent. Almost, because, without having a clue about their origin, you have come across the words: ‘Pale Hands I Loved Beside the Shalimar…’, the opening line of her most famous poem, ‘Kashmiri Song’. Except that it was through a character in a P.G. Wodehouse, as he ‘…sat in the bath tub soaping a meditative foot, and singing, if I remember it correctly, ‘Pale Hands I loved beside the Shalimar,….’ hardly a deeply revealing introduction.

That evening, the Book Club meet was about Virginia’s journey, a daughter’s tribute to her father’s magnificent obsession, following his trail, tracing the life of Adele Florence Nicolson, aka Laurence Hope.

John Jealous first came to Madras in 1989 on the trail of Laurence Hope, and had, in fact, found her grave, alongside her husband’s, during that visit.

Looking back, how did this particular obsession ever begin?

“I went to live in Australia in ’83, and my father wasn’t really interested in Laurence Hope back then,” Virginia Jealous, in a pretty floral kurta, is relaxed, smiling….she’s just finished addressing the Madras Book Club. A friend remarks that Virginia reminds her a bit of Meryl Streep. “But, by about the late 80s, he was obsessed with the thought of finding out more about Laurence Hope. He travelled in the Middle East, I remember, and he became friends with an Indian gentleman, Partha, a friendship that lasted for more than 25 years. I think it was Partha who introduced my parents to the works of writers from India.”

Virginia, who is described as someone who ‘lives out of a suitcase’, has travelled extensively, written guide books for Lonely Planet, and published essays and collections of poetry.

Hidden World, a compilation of her poems which grew out of a three-month Asialink writing residency in India in 2012, was published by Hallowell Press in 2013.

Virginia has presented talks and participated in writers’ festivals in India, Singapore and Australia.

Laurence Hope was the ‘second love’ of her father’s life, says Virginia.

Hope’s last collection of poems, published by Heinemann, was put together in 1904 in Madras.

Her work dealt with passion, sex, loss, death, longing and forbidden love. A 1910 review uses the words ‘feverish abandon’ to describe her writing.

Here are some lines from her poem, Afridi Love:

Some one who took last night his fill of pleasure,

As I took mine at dawn! The knife went home

Straight through his heart! God only knows my rapture

Bathing my chill hands in the warm red foam.

You can’t help thinking this must have raised eyebrows in Edwardian London.

Laurence Hope was born Adele Florence Cory in 1865. Her father was Colonel Arthur Cory, employed in the British Army at Lahore, where he was editor of the Lahore arm of The Civil and Military Gazette.

Her sister, Annie Sophie Cory, went on to becoming the author of racy, exotic novels, under the pseudonym ‘Victoria Cross(e)’.

This seems to have been a family that created, for its time, an amazingly supportive environment for its rather remarkable daughters.

In her early 20s, Adele met and married the much older Lieutenant General Malcolm Nicolson, well into his 40s. Stationed in India, she appears to have re-defined the term: ‘Army wife’. A photograph in Virginia’s audio-visual presentation shows a woman with a certain air of remote other-worldliness about her; yet her direct, searing gaze must have disconcerted the men around her, used to perhaps very different treatment. Her nickname was ‘Violet’, thanks to her violet eyes. She wore her hair in fringe bangs, and wore bangles, sarees, and was mostly comfortable reclining, barefoot, on a sofa, while smoking.

She also liked dressing up like a Pathan Boy.

No one knows why she chose this particular pseudonym. But choose she had to, given that it just wasn’t okay back then for a woman to write the way she wrote.

Laurence Hope, says Virginia, was “extraordinarily famous” by 1901.

By 1904, she was dead.

The couple, having realised that they were most at home in India, left their only son in England, as was the practice in those times, and settled down near Calicut. Tragedy then struck, with a routine surgery going horribly wrong, resulting in the General’s death. Friends in Madras looked after Adele, tried to comfort her. But on 4th October 1904, at 4.30 pm she committed suicide, swallowing mercury. A verdict of suicide, ‘while insane’ was brought in. She was 39.

She was buried in St Mary’s, Madras, next to her husband.

While John Jealous, back in ’89, had found well-tended graves, Virginia, in 2014, found the going more difficult, and had to search for the graves extensively, with the help of Raja who, by one more of those playful coincidences, happens to be the son of the old caretaker who had once helped her father. She finally found them on the morning of December 15, 2014…. not so well-tended this time.

Virginia admits that her father had died before her own interest in this search peaked. You get the feeling that this search seems to be as much for her father as it is for the long gone poet.

You are told of Dunmore House, here in Alwarpet, where Adele and her husband lived briefly. The house no longer exists, and part of the property surrounding it became, decades later, Venus Studios, and is now Venus Colony. You can’t help thinking Laurence Hope, given the central motif in her work, would have been amused by the happy aptness of this name.

Virginia followed the trail to Calicut, and found their house, 10km out of town, using a 1995 sketch made by her stepmother.

Recalling certain lines in Laurence Hope’s poems, which speak of a lonely place with sunshine and the sea, Veronica says she had to fight back tears while walking around the property, gazing at tiles dating back to more than a century, imagining Laurence Hope walking on them. Tender passion seems to follow the poet, now in the form of graffiti on the old walls, telling of tales of love in the present time: “Arjun loves so-and-so forever….”

Hope’s most famous poem: Kashmiri Song was set to music around 1902 by Amy Woodforde-Finden, a composer well-known for her ability to link diverse cultures through music, and from then on till 1945, the song was heard in tea houses and parlours, becoming a drawing room standard. The Chief, in his welcome address, recalls hearing the song in London.

Rudolph Valentino has sung it. And now Finden’s great-granddaughter sings a modern version.

The years haven’t reduced the poignancy of the words. The longing remains, sighing that while love never goes, it can, and does, go horribly wrong.

And Laurence Hope prefers Death to Farewell.

Pale hands I loved beside the Shalimar,

Where are you now? Who lies beneath your spell?

Whom do you lead on Rapture's roadway, far,

Before you agonise them in farewell?

I would have rather felt you round my throat,

Crushing out life, than waving me farewell!

The poem first appeared in Hope's first collection of poems, ‘The Garden of Kama (1901)’, also known as India's Love Lyrics. The illustrations that accompanied her work were done by people with little or no experience of India, and so were full of stereotypes of what the stay-at-home British imagined India to be like.

Laurence Hope was the highest selling poet in the early part of the 20th century, in both UK and in USA, the music adding a lease of life to her poetry. Then, in 1945, she disappeared from the scene. The world changed, and she went out of fashion.

Perhaps what keeps the interest going is the fact that so very little is known about her. She has always been a mystery, so theories and rumours abound. Of affairs. Of possible lesbian relationships. Her best known poem had people speculating about a fling with a young, unknown Kashmiri. Somerset Maugham based his story, ‘The Colonel’s Lady’ on her life and work. Over the years, there has been some imaginative writing on her, like ‘That Bloody Female Poet (a book before Google)’ by Tim Orchard.

Her son, Malcolm, did inherit her effects. With access to early manuscripts, he wrote a play based on his mother’s life, ‘An Unusual Woman’.

A very reclusive person, Malcolm Nicolson moved to Majorca.

Years later, the BBC tried to make a documentary on the life of Laurence Hope, but with no success. Virginia admits there appears to have been a certain ‘Family Silence’ firmly in place.

Malcolm died last year – in his 80s. His care-giver, Alejandro, inherited all the documents, with little idea what to do with all the unpublished material he found in boxes in the attic.

Virginia and Alejandro are now in touch with each other.

“I have all the facts without objects, and he had all the objects without the facts.”

Virginia plans to go to Majorca. Her father’s dream of writing a book on his pet obsession was never fulfilled…. Virginia hopes to complete the task, bringing closure for John Jealous’s quest.

The audio-visual presentation ends with an image of Laurence Hope’s hands.

The poet also liked to paint, and her hands appear strong, yet sensitive…artistic, creative hands.

John Jealous, says Virginia, was equally fixated on India, and admits she carries a certain ‘colonial baggage’. India, for her, is both ‘beautiful and terrible’.

“You have so much history and, at the same time, you are barrelling into the future … visitors have to absorb all of it in one day.”

Virginia tells the Madras Book Club: “I was so happy to find the grave today. It was as if she wanted to be found,” and adds that while the work of this truly unusual woman was naturally of her time, in her poems East and West did mingle... the twain did meet.

The name Jealous

Virginia smiles in perfect understanding when you, like a million before you probably, ask about her extremely unusual surname.

My father spent some time tracing family history, and compiling the family tree,” she replies. “He had a theory of how we came by this name, and believed it may have come to England in the 17th century with the Huguenots, who were craftsmen in wood, well known as lattice makers in particular. ‘Lattice’ in French is ‘jalousie’, so perhaps the name grew out of a profession, which in time may have morphed into ‘Jealous’. It is a good story, isn’t it? Better than being given this name because you were a jealous person!!” she laughs.

A search through Wikipedia reveals that slats, or louvers, in windows, called ‘Jalousie’ in France, not only kept out harsh sunlight, but also the gaze of jealous, prying eyes – la jalousie, probably so named as they permitted one to see without being seen.

The Chief, overhearing this conversation, points out that we use the word ‘jaali’ here.

The Laurence Hope effect – everything connected with her – seems to lead to further information-seeking quests.


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In this issue

Buckingham Canal highs and lows
Madras Landmarks - 50 years ago
The importance of being smart
A trail of hope
Why can't Tamil Nadu villages aim to be like these?
How the Buckingham Canal was born
The birth of Matscience

Our Regulars

Short 'N' Snappy
Readers Write
Dates for your Diary


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