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London Through Alien Eyes

Jayati Gupta

This essay attempts to recreate a view of London in the 1880s as seen through the critical yet wondering gaze of a self-taught, middle-class Hindu lady who belonged to the erstwhile Bengal Presidency of the British Raj.[1] Situated almost seven thousand miles away from England, Bengal was the distant hub of British rule in the Indian sub-continent with Calcutta as its capital city.

Curiosity about England, the land of India’s imperial administrators, was at an all-time high in the late nineteenth century, especially after Queen Victoria’s Proclamation to her Indian subjects (1877) on assuming the title of ‘Empress of India’.[2] An elite group of Western-educated Indians did travel to Europe, to England in particular, to gather experience in the empirical sciences, to study law, to learn about the working of social or political institutions. These persons invariably interacted closely with European peoples and nations and observed with interest a different culture, life and customs. When they returned to their own countries, some of them wrote accounts in their mother-tongues describing the occident to those stay-at-homes who were reticent or inhibited, indigent or unadventurous, even too superstitious to break religious taboos in order to venture abroad. In conservative Indian society, men who crossed the oceans often came back to be disowned by their families unless they underwent purificatory rites demanded by religious orthodoxy. Superstitious upper-caste Brahmins assumed that this was absolutely necessary as these individuals had consorted with pork and beef-eating peoples and that was enough to tarnish their otherwise pure Hindu souls.

In late nineteenth century India, social activists like Raja Ram Mohan Roy[3] and Pandit Iswar Chandra Vidyasagar[4] had concentrated their efforts on emancipating Indian women. Though Hindu women did not observe the purdah that the Muslim women were, by the dictates of Islam, expected to follow, they remained largely invisible, confined within their homes and away from the public gaze.[5] The rightful place of women was within a domestic sphere performing assorted household duties related specifically to caring for family members including the primary tasks of child-bearing and child-rearing. It was quite uncommon for a middle-class Indian woman to set aside her veil and expose herself to the outside world or participate in activities and debates in a public domain.

Upper-class Indian women did travel abroad in the company of their families, sometimes accompanying their husbands, though very rarely alone. For example, Toru Dutt (1856-77), who belonged to a westernized and wealthy Christian family of Calcutta, left for England with her father who was visiting friends there, when she was hardly fourteen years old. She spent four years in England and France and studied languages and literature in Cambridge. Jnanadanandini Debi (1850-1941) was married at the age of eight to Satyendranath Tagore, the first Indian civil servant and the second son of Maharshi Debendranath Tagore. She travelled within India with her broad-minded husband who even encouraged her to travel unaccompanied to England with her children. Sarojini Naidu (1879-1949), the nationalist leader who later became the President of the Indian National Congress in 1925 had a cosmopolitan and liberal upbringing. She went to England in 1895 with a state scholarship and was at the King’s College, London, and Girton College, Cambridge. What these women shared were a westernized education, knowledge of English and a family background that was affluent and cosmopolitan.

In this context, it is amazing that Krishnabhabini Das (1864-1919), a literate, middle-class housewife, accompanied her husband to England in 1882, much against the wishes of her conservative parents-in-law. She made London her home for almost eight years, and also left an account of her journey and stay there. She wrote in Bengali, the vernacular language that she conversed in. Her book A Bengali Woman in England[6] was published in Calcutta in August 1885 in crown octavo format. The hand-written manuscript was sent to her publisher (Satyaprasad Sarbadhikari) and he apologizes for errors that may have crept in. He mentions that the printed proof-copies of the pages could not be corrected by the writer herself as she was still in residence in England. Interestingly, the author’s name did not appear anywhere in the publication.

The publisher, in the comments that preface the book, draws attention to the simple style and easy language used in narrating these travel experiences. Similarly, European travel writing as a genre also displays a marked preference for an unpretentious narrative style that is equated with empiricism and a degree of objective cognition and therefore represents travel-truths rather than travel-lies. The publisher expects this travelogue to provide knowledge and information that would expand the vision of his countrymen and women, give them a glimpse of a free and successful nation and teach lessons in self-discipline and governance. He recognizes the paradox of finding oneself in this predicament – to be expected by her social peers back home to consciously imbibe only the best of occidental traditions and assimilate that with the philosophy and spiritualism of the orient and therefore remain true to one’s roots, as it were:

England has a close bond with India, one that had been almost destined; if India wants to search for the ingredients to create that elixir that would revive a dead nation, it would have to revert back inevitably to England itself. (Publisher’s note: p.4)

It is this dramatic tension between two disparate cultures that lies at the core of this account. The writer’s sense of wonder at encountering the ruling European race in their own country is tempered by maintaining a rational distance, one that was naturally fostered by a conservative social upbringing, cultural difference and feelings of alienation and nationalistic pride.


London seems to have always been a melting-pot of several nations, races and peoples. There never was, as Daniel Defoe pointed out, tongue-in-cheek, any such breed as ‘The True-Born Englishman’ (1701). Modern day London still projects itself as the cosmopolitan capital of Britain, where races and cultures meet and where an ever-expanding diaspora seek to disperse and mingle into the life and spirit of the megalopolis.

This late nineteenth-century Indian lady traveller is quite clear in her mind that travel has to be dulce et utile. She enjoys the novelty of new places and sights, natural wonders and man-made monuments, but her questing mind constantly searches for something to learn. She is therefore more interested in human encounters and the difference that exists between races and peoples, their attitudes and temperaments — especially in human cultural environments. Her empiricism is evident in her observation that it is the geography and topography, climate and natural environment that determine racial difference. Given the same opportunities, two races of people would invariably have two disparate growth charts because the essential human resources are so different, she says (Chapter 5, p.38). Again countries, civilizations and cultures also exist within contexts of history and temporality, these develop, evolve and decay only to reinvent themselves. The destruction of the Greek and Roman civilizations and the re-emergence of modern Greece and Italy are intriguing lessons in the resurrection of nations. She tries to decipher the lessons provided by European history and seeks to find some pattern that could help her to liberate India. As an outsider, she was struck both by the energy and the vitality of the English people. This was symbolized in the dynamic and phenomenal growth of the city of London that was swiftly changing into an urban ethos, the focal point of a wholly industrialized economy. How did London look through alien eyes? Her first glimpse of London was excitingly impressive:

London is a huge city; no other country in the world has such a big metropolis. It is almost ten miles long and four miles broad. London occupies four times the space of Calcutta and its population is eight times that of Calcutta. About forty lakh people live here. If one tours London in a carriage for five or six days at a stretch, one would still not have had enough of sight-seeing; it is difficult, however, to find one’s way around. London is so large, yet it is still growing; whichever path one takes, one is likely to see hundreds of new houses being built and one would also notice the surrounding countryside being absorbed into the domains of the city. Five years back there were open green fields all around London. Now, instead of the grass, one sees rows of houses and it is absolutely unbelievable that a few years ago, the same spot was unspoilt rural land. (Chapter 6, p.39)

What an empirical traveller usually sees or absorbs from an alien environment is largely determined by the observer’s cultural perspective, an individual’s sense of wonder and a cognitive process that absorbs novelty. The writer in the above extract defines the physical dimensions of London by using a mode of comparative assessment in which the city of Calcutta is used as a point of reference. This is the city that was familiar to her and could be used for literally sizing up the ‘other’.

Subsequent comments make it apparent that the expansion of London was closely linked to several factors: the commercial success of a maritime nation, the concentration of wealth in the hands of the middle-class, the rapid urbanization of Britain and the population-shift from the country to the city:

On first acquaintance [with London] one may call it a ‘city of shops’, one may call it a ‘city of theatres’ or, one may call it a ‘city of riches’, but if one lives here for a while, one is at a loss to decide how to designate London, so I am not able to define it…. Just as there are rows of houses on either side of the road, several roads are flanked on both sides exclusively by shops. Houses and shops like these do not exist in our country. Perhaps here the number of shops is far greater than the total number of houses in Calcutta. It is wonderful to see the attractive shop-windows at night: these are decorated beautifully and with great taste. In the gaslight, the merchandise glitters so temptingly within the shops that I suppose it is very difficult to suppress one’s temptation and return home dejected. Surely, living in London is not a happy experience if one cannot afford large amounts of money. It is indeed a store-house of riches and London is a city meant for the rich and life here can to be enjoyed by the wealthy. (Chapter 6,p.39-40)

With the typical instinct of a woman, Krishnabhabini could feel the pulse of the deprived and the marginalized and her penetrative gaze saw well beyond the façade of a materially vibrant domestic economy. She tours the different sectors of London during her long stay in England and is struck by sharp contrasts and a rigid social hierarchy. To her it must have seemed almost like the caste-ridden society back home:

The wealthy live in the west and south-west sectors of London. It is almost impossible to find lodgings here, besides if one were to find one, it is generally too expensive. If you were to stand on the public thoroughfare and look around you here — the tall, clean houses on either side of the broad road would appear like a chain of mountains and the more you admire these, the more you desire to enter and live there. Those houses are very expensive — two or three hundred rupees a month. In this sector the streets are broader and cleaner than those in other sectors and there is a larger concentration of shops with expensive items on display. In fact, the place is so full of rich persons and costly things that it does not seem that even a single poor person lives in London. The Queen’s palace and that of the Prince of Wales, Parliament House, Government offices and several impressive buildings are all located in this quarter. (Chapter 6, p.40-1)

The writer describes the ‘City’ that is the heart of London before she takes a peek into London’s East End. What she sees there is a picture of contrasts, a depressing scene of dirt and urban squalor, sub-human living conditions that were the darker side of industrialization. This is a stark and realistic picture of cramped and unhealthy living-quarters, narrow lanes and alleyways, shops selling sub-standard consumer items. No gentlemen walked these dirty streets where workers and labourers lived their lives. She is critical of the poor inhabiting the London slums because she observes that unlike ‘the poor in our own country and in other countries of Europe who are modest and respectful of others’, the lower classes here are ‘uncivilized’ and ‘savage’. Unending lines of small, shabby houses each inhabited by ‘four or five families, each with four or five children’ crowded together ‘like goats and dogs’ — this is how Krishnabhabini presents the social and economic disparities that dogged Queen Victoria’s England.

p> How much of this vivid description is an actual eye-witness account and how much of it is critique based on several contemporary corroborative accounts that the writer may have come across is uncertain. She mentions that it is dangerous for foreigners to venture into these areas because not only were they physically dank, dark and dirty but also morally degraded. This was the London that harboured an underworld of crime, violence and drunkenness. It comes as a major surprise that an alien lady should talk so straightforwardly of this uncomplimentary facet of the city already made familiar to many through the fiction of the inimitable Charles Dickens.


Krishnabhabini and her husband’s journey to England had begun on 26 September 1882 when they boarded a train from Howrah, the railway station on the north bank of the Hooghly. They reached Bombay, a seaport on the western coast of India on the Arabian Sea to begin their voyage to England. Disembarking in Venice and taking a train to Calais, they then crossed the Channel by ship to reach Dover. The last lap of this tedious twenty-four day journey was by train and ended at Charing Cross station; the couple set eyes on London for the first time on Sunday, 20 October 1882. It is no wonder therefore that one of Krisnabhabini’s early experiences was of a ‘hellish’ London fog. For a foreigner it is even more ‘distressing,’ so much so that she ‘wishes to run away from London’. The London that had dazzled her with its crowds, its wealth and its glitter stood suddenly transformed — ‘a detestable, dark pall over it’ (Chapter 6, p.44):

A London fog is a thick mist — people in our country cannot imagine what a typical foggy day is really like. Other parts of England also experience the fog, but it is not as dense and dirty as a London fog. This fog is four times denser than an early morning mid-December to mid-January mist in our country. November, December and January, these are the months when there are frequent fogs here. A fog is caused by smoke. London has so many mechanised wagons and factories and in winter every home spews smoke out of its chimneys, so that on particular days the smoke becomes heavier than the air, cannot rise up and therefore settles over the city and sometimes engulfs large areas and darkens almost everything. On particular days this sort of fog persists through the day and assumes different hues — sometimes ashen — sometimes black — sometimes yellow. One morning I awoke at eight in the morning to find that everything was dark, one could not see anything and one had to work with the lights lit. Only those compelled to move out were on the streets, groping their way forward, I could not discern the buildings, all the shops were lit, but because of the smoke no longer looked charming. Trams, large buses called omnibuses, and carriages move slowly; every person is driving cautiously in the dark to avoid fatal accidents; and generally everyone is apprehensive of dangers. Though hundreds of carriages are plying it is not so noisy today, everything is quiet, as though the city is dead. One walks in the streets, visibility so poor that one moves almost by instinct. Darkness more horrible than that at night has descended at noon, and no artificial light can really illuminate the blackness created by a fog. It is difficult to breathe; one is suffocated by tiny black, oily particles that clog the nose. (p.43-44)

This is a vividly realistic description of a typical London fog. It reminds the reader of the opening chapter of Charles Dickens’ novel Bleak House (1852-53):

Implacable November weather . . . Smoke lowering down from chimney-pots, making a soft black drizzle, with flakes of soot in it as big as full-grown snowflakes — gone into mourning, one might imagine, for the death of the sun. Dogs, undistinguishable in mire. Horses, scarcely better; splashed to their very blinkers. Foot passengers, jostling one another’s umbrellas, in a general infection of ill temper, and losing their foot-hold at street-corners, where tens of thousands of other foot passengers have been slipping and sliding since the day broke (if this day ever broke), adding new deposits to the crust upon crust of mud, sticking at those points tenaciously to the pavement, and accumulating at compound interest . . .
Most of the shops lighted two hours before their time — as the gas seems to know, for it has a haggard and unwilling look. (Chapter I, p.1-2)[7]

Fogs at the beginning of winter and snowfalls towards the end — these were indelible first impressions linked to the initial months of her stay in London. Unlike a ‘hateful’ fog, a snowfall was more of a novelty and certainly much ‘fun to watch’:

When the snow falls, it sounds like little droplets of rain; as one watches the streets, on the roofs of the houses, on the window-sills — everything becomes white. Oh! How wonderful! It is so silent when one walks, it seems that one is walking on flour; footsteps are muffled, the sound of motorcars stifled, noisy London is suddenly struck dumb. (Chapter 6, p. 45)

This cameo-like portrait reminds one of a much-anthologized poem by Robert Bridges (1844-1930), ‘London Snow’:

When men were all asleep the snow came flying,
In large white flakes falling on the city brown,
Stealthily and perpetually settling and loosely lying,
Hushing the latest traffic of the drowsy town;
Deadening, muffling, stifling its murmurs failing;
Lazily and incessantly floating down and down:

Her ‘eye marvelled — marvelled at the dazzling whiteness’ yet as a realist she could unfailingly visualize the hazards for pedestrians on the slippery London streets once the ‘uncompacted lightness’ of the snow had hardened. She enjoyed watching children playing and what she describes in succinct Bengali prose could be corroborated by Bridges’ poem: ‘They gathered up the crystal manna to freeze / Their tongues with tasting, their hands with snowballing’.[8]

The representational technique used by Krishnabhabini is meticulously detailed so that the authenticity of the account is unmistakable. In the Preface to her book she mentions that she has depended more on her actual experiences than on hearsay or knowledge gleaned from reading. She knows the value and importance of a ‘real’ account of the English people, their country, their culture and their institutions. In the last quarter of the nineteenth century, Britain was the most powerful player in the world for territorial and commercial supremacy. In her own country people were inquisitive about their rulers and there also lurked a vestige of hope that they could learn from the progress of the English nation, to manage their own country better and perhaps win self-rule or swaraj. Incidentally, 1885, the year that the book was published, was also the year that the first session of the Indian National Congress was held. In the context of her colonized position, it was difficult for the writer to assess English life or to maintain her impartial stance.[9]


In her depiction of London, Krishnabhabini’s sense of wonder is tempered by her sadness as she peers into the darker facets of a highly stratified society. In trying to come to terms with a culturally different environment she often uses a comparative method and familiar parameters as frames of reference to explain something to her country-people. From time to time she succumbs to nostalgia for an environment from which she had been separated by traversing immeasurable geographical distance.

This travel-narrative is not written by a touring itinerant but by an Indian lady who had made London her temporary home. The impact of seasonal change on the environment is captured in noticeable modifications in the natural scene that in turn was reflected in the changed daily schedules of Londoners. Compared to the milder winter weather in Calcutta, London was quite depressing. The steady drizzle, the muddy streets and the wet patches, the canopy of dull clouds over the city made it as hideously gloomy as a graveyard. People generally stayed indoors, public places were deserted and eerie in their silence. The loneliness of not seeing people around naturally infused a deep sense of alienation and a longing for home. ‘We have come here’, she rues, ‘from a beautiful country of light, of clean and white palaces, so such a [dismal] Sunday scene in London is terrible!’ (Chapter 6, p. 47)

Regent’s Park, situated in the heart of London, was a haven for nature-starved city dwellers. In winter it looked quite ‘pathetic’ — ‘its trees bare, its grounds covered in dry grass, absolutely devoid of flowers . . .’ (42). It presented a different picture in summer when

Dry trees have abandoned their unattractive garb and are clothed in green leaves; the well-laid out flower beds are attractively blooming with assorted flowering plants. In this country there isn’t as wide a variety of fragrant flowers as in ours, but those that they have are tended with great care, displayed beautifully in well-designed beds so that the scene looks like a painted picture. I have noticed, in every garden in London that I visited, just how carefully the English have nurtured them. In our country fruits and flowers grow naturally, but in this country not a single plant grows without special expertise. (43)

Summer’s ‘lease’ is too short — it lasts for barely four months — and that is the season when London comes alive and people enjoy outdoor sports and the sheer experience of being outdoors. The parks and gardens, at their most beautiful, inevitably spill over with visitors. The writer is out of her winter melancholy and feels the seasonal warmth affect her mind and spirit. She mentions the open-air concerts that were open to all, held in the gardens at least three times a week:

There is no difference drawn between native Englishmen and foreigners, there is no racial slur cast by separating the native from the sahib, everyone is equally entitled to enjoy it. Calcutta’s Eden Gardens,[10] built by the British, is a similar kind of venue but the British do not want to inter-mingle with the Bengalis there, nor can they imagine they could enjoy themselves in their company. (43)

Krishnabhabini Das had a discerning eye and a consciousness that was formed by historical specificity. London was for her a curious destination — the land of India’s rulers. It is remarkable that a Hindu lady, hitherto confined within her home, could free herself from her inhibitions, cast aside her veil, adapt herself to Western clothes. This was her rejection of the authority of the Hindu undivided family system prevalent in India. In emancipating herself she was indirectly dedicating herself to a larger national cause transgressing domestic boundaries. In opting to sacrifice her position as daughter-in-law and mother and in travelling overseas, she needed to justify her choice by convincing herself more than anyone else that she was doing this with a purpose. Hence her sojourn in London is her intense attempt to understand ‘the vast difference between a life lived in bondage and a free existence’(Chapter 1, p. 5). To find positive values like justice, discipline and diligence in a people whose leaders had dispatched imperial administrators entrusted with the specific task of wielding power and dominion over her own nation is a sign of intellectual maturity. In the process of discovering strategies for liberating her nation from colonial authority she tries to probe the rationale behind the life, customs, institutions that she encounters in London.

London was to the foreigner a mirror that reflected social attitudes that lay at the heart of Victorian England. It gave a distinct impression of a prosperous and leisured civilization and for a person not prepared to be distracted by its glitter, the city also yielded uncomfortable truths, facets of its social and economic disparity. It is not Oxford Street or Hyde Park, the landscaped gardens or the underground railway, the traffic or the crowds of London that were the only sights and sounds that struck Krishnabhabini as intriguing novelties.

The most ‘amazing’ phenomenon that the writer describes is London on a Sunday. The city wakes up late and a calm and peace reigns over the slumbering city. The sense of peace is enhanced by the peal of church bells calling the religious to prayer, cutting across differences of age and gender and transcending social and economic boundaries. The Sabbath is a day generally dedicated to rest and meditation. The importance of the Church and organized religion, family prayers and reading the Bible, among several old-fashioned, perhaps fast vanishing family-values, impressed Krishnabhabini. What she especially commends is the equal participation of women in all activities and the much higher visibility of women outside their homes.


What did this travel account contribute to the discourses and debates about Western education and ideas raging in nineteenth-century India? On the other hand, how did London’s imposing presence assimilate cultural difference to enable an Indian woman to live there and move around without fear or shame?

This document by an unknown Indian woman (when it was first published the name of the authoress did not appear) was meant for a limited readership in Bengal. At least two of its twenty chapters project varied facets of the capital city of Victorian England. The views are framed by a specific historical context, easily corroborated by English social, architectural, cultural histories or the fiction of several Victorian novelists. Though this representation of London and life in the city is apparently a retelling of familiar cultural history, it is mediated through the gaze and consciousness of a foreigner. It reactivates questions about the nature or motivation of late-nineteenth-century interactions at various levels between the colonizer and the colonized. The change in the colonial subject’s location from the colonized country to England indicates something more than mere geographical displacement. This re-location marks the simultaneous distancing of the subject from the subject’s feudal and authoritarian social ethos and the growth of individual self-consciousness that challenges the concept of colonial subjugation and seeks to displace it.


[1] Krishnabhabini Das (1864-1919) was a middle-class Bengali lady who accompanied her husband on his second visit to England in 1882. They lived there for eight years. Krishnabhabini wrote a travel narrative of her journey to Europe in Bengali. The account was published in Calcutta in 1885 as Englande Banga Mahila. A Calcutta based publishing house, ‘Stree’, retrieved this book and published it in 1996 under the title Krishnabhabini Daser Englande Banga Mahila with an introduction and annotations by Simonti Sen. All citations in the above essay are from this edition. On the publisher’s web-site the title has been translated as A Bengali Woman in England. All translations of the text and references are my own.

[2] On 1 January 1877, Lord Lytton, the viceroy made elaborate arrangements for an ‘Imperial Assemblage’ where the Proclamation was made. The ceremony was attended by British officials and administrators from all parts of the Indian dominions. The Indian royalty and nobility who had cooperated to ensure the stability of the Empire were also invited.

[3] Raja Ram Mohan Roy (1772-1833), founder of the Brahmo Samaj, formed in 1830 on the lines of the Unitarian Church. The Brahmo Samaj was a religious reformist movement that believed in monotheism and did not subscribe to Hindu practices like the caste system, idol worship and animal sacrifice. Roy was a pioneering activist in the causes of women’s education and uplift in particular. He campaigned pro-actively for anti-sutee legislation.

[4] Iswar Chandra Vidyasagar (1820-91), another enlightened activist, was a votary of women’s education, Hindu widow-remarriage and the prohibition of child marriages.

[5] Literally, it means a ‘curtain’ or ‘veil’. Islamic tradition enjoins a particular dress-code for women. Muslim women are expected to wear the burqa to protect their modesty and izzat (respectability). In Hindu society covering the head with the saree was usual.

[6] See endnote 1.

[7] Charles Dickens, Bleak House, London: J.M.Dent, rpt.1944.

[8] Robert Bridges, ‘London Snow’ from his Collected Poems.

[9] The Indian National Congress was a political party founded in 1885. Alan Octavius Hume, a retired civilian played a sterling role in conceptualizing this nationwide association. Its primary agenda was to increase Indian participation and to have a voice in the formation of British administrative and legislative policies in India. Later, under the leadership of Mahatma Gandhi, the Congress launched the civil disobedience movement and advocated the policy of passive resistance against British rule.

[10] Calcutta’s Eden Gardens was a lush garden laid out in the 1830s on the stretch of land between Government House and the Hooghly river. It was named after Emily and Fanny Eden, younger sisters of Lord Auckland, the then Governor-General of India (1836-1842). Part of the garden was given to the Calcutta Cricket Club in 1871. Eden Gardens is today the second biggest cricket test venue in the world with a seating capacity of 85,000.


I would like to thank Ms. Mandira Sen of ‘Stree’, Calcutta, for giving me permission to cite from the text Krishnabhabini Daser Englande Banga Mahila, annotated and edited by Simonti Sen, December 1996; copyright 1996, Simonti Sen; reproduced here with permission.

To Cite This Article:

Jayati Gupta, ‘London Through Alien Eyes’. Literary London: Interdisciplinary Studies in the Representation of London, Volume 1 Number 1 (March 2003). Online at Accessed on [date of access].