Eliza Draper, Sterne's Eliza by Arnold Wright, London.
William Heinmann, 1922.
Eliza Draper, Sterne's Eliza by Arnold Wright, London. William Heinmann, 1922.

The life and letters of Elizabeth Draper

The world celebrated the tercentenary of writer Laurence Sterne (1713- 1768) in 2013. A tribute to the woman who inflamed his passions, Eliza, born in a remote south Indian village.
Eliza Draper, Sterne's Eliza by Arnold Wright, London.<br />William Heinmann, 1922.
Eliza Draper, Sterne's Eliza by Arnold Wright, London.
William Heinmann, 1922.

It was a plunge into darkness.

She could hear the waves dashing against the wall below, and see the distant light of the ships anchored in the harbour through the misty night. She hoped out there was the small boat from HMS Prudent that would carry her to a new life. Or death.

Above, the Marine House was steeped in darkness, her window open to the sea and the rope hanging down by the side of the wall. She had chosen the right moment to leave, through the window, when darkness descends on the shore. It was a flight of desperation, from a husband who failed to understand her, from everything that made life unbearable. She was leaving after 15 years in his household, when she entered his life with high hopes as a 'girl-wife' at 14. She knew not where she would end up, "the next 24 hours will destine me to the grave or a life reproach," she had scribbled hurriedly in a farewell note to her faithful friend as she fled.

She had left a letter to her husband back in her room: "Draper, my heart bleeds for what I suppose may possibly be the sufferings of yours, though too surely had you loved, all this could never have been." There was nothing in her life that gave her happiness and she did not see anything to look forward to, either.

That is how Eliza ended her marriage to Daniel Draper, the East India Company's senior official in Bombay, on the night of 14 January 1773. She had been a girl full of energy, eager for adventures. Her husband, a morose and reserved man, was 20 years her senior. When they met she was fresh from England after her schooling, living in her grandfather's grand home on the Bombay fort with sisters Mary and Louisa. Within six months Eliza and Daniel were married.

Daniel was described as a victim of the nerves, suffering from a spasmodic complaint of the right arm, a sort of writer's cramp brought on by "overmuch industry with the pen in his official capacity." A poor sort of creature to be matched with a vivacious girl with spirits as irrepressible as the wild tropical winds off those shores where she was born. Eliza's 35 year life was in many ways tragic. In that brief time she saw and experienced much: a suffocating married life punctuated with a few romantic escapades, a brief but brilliant dalliance with Laurence Sterne, the celebrated author of novels such as The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy and A Sentimental Journey.

A great writer of letters
Eliza was born on 5 April 1744, at Angengo, Malabar, a British trading post in Travancore country on the Arabian Sea coast. She was daughter of May Sclater, secretary of Angengo Fort, and Judith Whitehill, daughter of the fort's chief, Charles Whitehill. After a brief married life, Judith lost her husband in 1746. She herself died two years later, leaving her three daughters in the care of their grandparents.

Angengo was a small coastal piece of land that came into the possession of the East India Company in 1694 through a grant from the Queen of Attingal. It was a curious place where females were not allowed to cover their breasts. James Forbes, once an Angengo official, documented some of the local practices in his Oriental Memoirs. He writes that one Attingal queen ordered the breasts of a female servant be cut off because the woman had appeared before her dressed in a bodice given her by her English mistress, in defiance of the local custom. This was common on the entire Malabar coast.

A number of Eliza's letters remain, all lively epistles addressed to her cousins, uncles, sisters and friends, written from various places such as Bombay, Tellicherry and Surat. They reveal a frank, witty, playful and observant person in the midst of a chaotic period in India, writing about her personal affairs, passions, matters of the heart, the life of the English in Indian forts, their relations with natives, their curious customs and practices. Her letters, preserved in the private collection of Lord Basing, were collected into a book, Sterne's Eliza, published in London in 1922.

She was a great writer of letters as 'Yorick' – the pseudonym Sterne adopts in his passionate notes to Eliza – points out. In one he writes: "Who taught you the art of writing so sweetly, Eliza? You have exalted it to the level of science…their sense, natural ease, and spirit, is not to be equall'd, I believe, in this section of the globe; nor, by any of your country women in yours…" Theirs was a brief and passionate relationship that lasted just three months. Eliza happened to meet Sterne at the place of Commodore William James, an old India hand, at London's Gerrard Street in early 1767, three months before her return to India. She had reached England with her husband and two children in 1764 in search of a better climate for her husband, who suffered various illnesses, and to make arrangements for her children's education. The concerns of a young mother and wife were heavy and pressing: "I really my dear cousin, am so much altered with breeding, suckling and other dangerous illnesses, that I appear ten years older than I am…" she complains to Elizabeth Sclater on the eve of her departure for London.

Her husband having returned to India in 1765, and her children sent to boarding schools, Eliza finally got some respite from her cares, and it was towards the end of this period she came to know Sterne. He made every effort to woo this fine young woman. When he realised she would soon leave England to join her husband who had sent strict instructions for her to return, he wrote: "But Eliza, if thou are so very ill, still put off all thoughts of returning to India this year – write to your husband – tell him the truth of your case – if he is the generous humane man you describe him to be, he cannot but applaud your conduct…" He goes on, critical of her husband: "I am credibly informed, that his repugnance to your living in England arises only from the dread which has enter'd his brain, that thou mayest run him in debt, beyond thy appointments, and that he must discharge them – That such a creature should be sacrificed, for the paultry consideration of a few hundreds, is too, too hard!"

Despite Sterne’s entreaties and offers, Eliza left on the Earl of Chatham, which set sail from the Downs on 3 April 1767, on a voyage lasting nine months. Sterne, consumptive and dejected, returned to the writing of A Sentimental Journey, in which he makes reference to his passionate love for Eliza, published early the following year. He was soon to be found dead in his solitary Bond Street lodgings.

Eliza appeared to have been rather amused by the writer’s courtship. She wrote to her cousin, Thomas Sclater, with whom she was close, about Sterne. In these letters she reveals her free spirit and the tensions that awaited her in her husband’s household: “I believe [the Madras women] were glad of my departure as I am (you know) too engaging to be known long by sensible individuals, with indifference…We Belle Esprits, love little inaccuracies sometimes…I hate your masculine correctness, its the offspring of dull organs, rather than genius and good sense, therefore I never affect it.” Eliza was realistic and practical and knew what awaited her in two weeks’ time: “A fortnight more I am my own mistress, then controlled all my life after.”

She cautions Tom about writing to her in future: “And let it not enter your imagination that you are to correspond with me in such terms as your heart dictates. No, my dear Sclater, such a conduct , tho’ perfectly innocent, would be offensive to my husband, whose humour, I now am resolved to study and if possible conform to him, if the most punctilious attention can render me necessary to his happiness, it shall be so. Honour, prudence, and the interest of my children demand the necessary sacrifice and I will make it.”

It is with these thoughts and resolutions that Eliza landed at Bombay in early 1768 and joined her husband at his country house, High Meadow. But soon he was transferred to Tellicherry, in Malabar. By early November 1768, Eliza was proceeding with her “family” of thirty, whose care necessitated measures as provident as those of “Noah when he sheltered himself from the Deluge.”

A view of the Angengo fort, near Varkala in Kerala.
A view of the Angengo fort, near Varkala in Kerala.

Best and happiest years
Tellicherry, at the time, was an important port in the south, a centre of the cardamom and pepper trade. It was also the port of call between Bombay and Madras. War clouds were on the horizon, as Hyder Ali had conquered much of Malabar and defeated the ruler of Calicut two years earlier; his troops were at the gates of Tellicherry fort, though he had refrained from attacking. On a small hill overlooking the sea was the fort; to the south was a Portuguese town which controlled much of the trade, and a little farther away were the houses of natives who supplied the soldiers and servants. The chief and his deputies lived in well-maintained residences in the fort and they had excellent woods nearby to hunt or go for a ride on horseback. The Company’s control extended a mile to the south, where the smaller Mile End fort stood, beyond which the French station of Mahe was visible across the river.

The shift to Tellicherry initially disappointed Eliza as she felt they may never be able to make enough money to settle down in England. As war in the south of the country loomed, trade was hampered, making private gains impossible. But soon the situation took a turn for the better, and in a letter written in April 1769 she announces that “we are both well and entirely contented and wish not to exchange our situation, but for an independance in England, which I hope we are in the way of obtaining, and may accomplish in six or seven years.” Eliza was comfortable in and liked Tellicherry, which she called the Montpelier of India. She was busy helping her husband keep his accounts and correspondence, taking care of the various duties of the chief’s wife at the station, and ensuring a steady supply at his table for the visitors who streamed in. In a letter she writes: “I’m by turns the wife of a merchant, soldier and innkeeper.”

The Tellicherry years were the best and happiest for Eliza in India. She describes herself as the “queen”, in a letter to cousin Elizabeth. Her letters to cousin Tom were her liveliest, and give illustrations of the politics of the region, the looming wars, their economic impact and other matters related to herself and family. She closely observed the natives, “and I flatter myself I’m beloved by such of the Malabars as are within reach of my notice… I was born upon their coast, which is an argument in my favour; then I am neither proud or inaccessible.” She had acquired some knowledge of their language, and they often came to her with tokens of affability. She considers the country pleasant and healthy.

The ghost of Sterne, who had died around the time she arrived in Tellicherry, haunted her. She had received the news of his death and was aware that some of the indiscrete missives she had sent him were now in the possession of his wife and daughter. She was afraid they may be misused, and tells Tom that she is distressed, but the world will think she deserved it. She has no ill will towards the widow and her daughter who have no other way – “their necessities prompt them to the measure” – and she will try her best to raise funds for them. But she is not confident that will be enough to satisfy them. Then she concludes, philosophically, “If the event is unhappy as I fear it will be, I must submit with what grace I can; if not – it will be a warning I’ll certainly take.”

In 1769, south India was in turmoil: Hyder Ali was emerging as a great force, and the British had faced defeat in some battles. Trade had been severely hit and the Company’s influence reduced to a small patch of land on the coast. Their position was precarious and their forces ill-prepared to meet another attack from Hyder. If one came, Eliza writes matter-of-factly, “I’ve no doubt, but a general massacre of the English will ensue.” She had a grim view of the British defences in the fort her husband commanded: “Our fortifications are a wretched burlesque upon such – troops not better soldiers than train’d bands – and too few in number, to cope with so able a general and politician.” She herself had faced dangers, and refers to them lightly: “I was within an hour once of being his [Hyder’s] prisoner and cannot say but I thought it a piece of good fortune to escape that honor, tho’ he has promised to treat all English ladies well, that cheerfully submit to the laws of his Seraglio.”

Malabar, before the troubles with Hyder Ali, was the source of immense wealth to its principal inhabitants: the French, the Dutch and the British. But, unlike her sister who was married to the military chief in Bombay, and who “rides in an ivory pallenquin inlaid with gold and glitters in diamonds”, Eliza’s prospects were dim: “We have no prospect of acquiring such an independance here as will enable us to settle in England [for] many – very many years – as the country for some has been the seat of war. There’s as much difference between her state and mine, as in the Parabolical rich man’s and beggar’s”. She gives details of her own household affairs. Their bungalow was magnificent, furnished by the Company and a handsome allowance was made for the expenses. This was a large sum, but “not extravagant” considering the entertaining and lodging her household was expected to put on for six months of the year.

Eliza makes detailed observations about the people who inhabit the area. Its natives are ruled by a king — “an inoffensive long hair’d & likely race”. They are divided into five distinct castes: Brahmins are the first, from which kings and priests come; next are the Nairs, great officers and principal soldiers; then Tivies (Thiyyas) who bear arms or serve as distinguished servants; next Mukwars, fishermen and porters; finally, Footiers, the lowest of all. Untouchables, they lived in villages distant from other castes because a Nair, or any other high men, were permitted to cut them to pieces if they were seen on the same road.

Eliza writes: “The Brahmins are easy, plain, unaffected sons of simple nature – there’s something in their conversation & manners, that exceedingly touches me.” The Nairs were proud, indolent, cowardly but very handsome, and the Tivies excellent soldiers. “The Moplars [are] a discontented race of Moormen, that we are necessitated to tolerate on account of our commercial affairs.” She heard stories about them, current among the Europeans: “They have a custom of running amuck at a particular season of the year, making a merit of slaying every Christian they meet, as the certain road to heaven.”

Eliza describes certain customs that she had witnessed among the people, like the trial by ordeal. The accused must put his arm up to the elbow in a cauldron of boiling lead (over a monstrous fire) and take a ring or coin out without injury, then or for three days after. If even a blister appears he’s immediately executed. Eliza tells Tom that this ceremony is only enforced at the request of the accused: “The being I saw undergo it, behaved with the utmost intrepidity, put his hand into the cauldron, took out the coin with vast deliberation & was not the least affected.”

She continued to write about the military victories of Hyder Ali in the south, and was severely critical of the policies of the Bombay establishment who refused to help fight Hyder’s forces. She had high praise for Hyder, “a very clever & enterprising man, accustomed to face & conquer Europeans…” Bombay Governor Hodges receives the harshest criticism from her: “…he is a poor, despicable creature, in every respect and unfit for a Governour – as I am for an Arch Bishop, not one individual, is there in Bombay, his friend, – and in short, he never is or deserves to be, loved, esteemed, or feared.”

In late October 1769, in a letter to cousin Elizabeth, Eliza announces that a transfer is likely. She had been in Tellicherry for a year by then, a place she had come to love. “Had I visited the East with an intention to fix here, this place had suited me better than any I have seen,” she declares. But her mind is set on a life in England, “my ambition extends no further, than being the ninety ninth character in England, in point of female excellence, wealth & two or three acres; – there is humility for you!”

Mounting tension
The next port of call for the Drapers was Surat on the Gujarat coast. A town of magnificence at one time, it had lost most of its glory but still offered much by way of regalia and entertainment. She writes to cousin Tom about dancing until three in the morning, and going on fox hunts and royal field sports like “hunting the antelopes with a leopard”, a game popular among the royalty in which tigers were used to hunt prey.

But appearances can be deceptive. The underlying tone of her letters is of deep disenchantment, an inquiry into her own state as an individual. She finds herself a misfit: “My character in the eyes of the worldly wise ones – is at best nothing more than that of a gay dissipated agreeable woman – but I ought not to be offended at this opinion entertained of me, as I think nothing more of the best of my associates…”

She found the women ignoramuses, given to gossip and always hankering after scandals and finery, perpetual topics to enliven female society in India. She had no taste for it, and kept herself away. This dislike for popular female topics, and “a frankness that is natural to me, in the society of conversible men, subjects me to very mortifying insinuations and difficulties in the petty way”, she complains. There is a sense of weariness in her words: “I must, I fear, be content to wear out my bloom, and patience in this languid climate and stupid society.”

Tension was mounting in her married life also, and she has very few words on her husband. She thinks of a life of her own, if only she could make a living with her own resources. She admits that for a free and generous spirit the dependent situation she is in is the severest form of punishment, curbing every valuable emotion of the soul, debasing the dignity of the mind by obliging it to pursue a course of action only natural to the illiberal and illiterate. She is fed up with such a life: “Oh! that I had a thatched place & decent income of my own! then would I read what books and see what friends I pleased & maintain an independents dignity & ease too!”

Soon there was another transfer, back to Bombay. In early 1772 the family was living in Belvedere House at Mazagon, a lovely mansion on the harbour, its windows opening to a magnificent view of the waterfront. At the fort they had another, Marine House. But the couple had become irreparably estranged. Eliza minces no words in a letter to Mrs James, at whose house she had first met Sterne: “it is evident to the whole of our acquaintance that our minds are not pair’d – and therefore I will not scruple informing you – that I neither do, or will anymore, if I can help it, live with him as a wife – my reasons for this are cogent; be assured they are or I would not have formed the Resolution…” She refuses to explain what drove her to this decision.

The letter to Mrs James, dated 15 April, is long and exposes a troubled mind. She reveals her dashed hopes, her secret worries about her intimate communications with Sterne being in the hands of people ready to disgrace her for financial gains, her frantic efforts to suppress their publication – even by trying to bribe the publisher and to raise money to buy peace with Mrs Sterne – her almost broken married life, and the only hope that still remains: a chance to go to England to live with her child Betsey, now almost an adult. She has great hopes for Betsey’s education and plans to raise her as a gentlewoman. She is very unhappy, and the only thing that stops her from taking an extreme step is the thought that “Betsey would never get another monitress as I am qualified to be to her.”

Despite all this, life moves on: she reads, writes, rides horses, bathes in the sea. Her sense of humour remains intact, evident through her letters.

A lull follows, with Eliza going away to a resort to “take the waters”, but then comes a storm, shaking up her whole life. A fierce altercation between man and wife erupted, both accusing the other of infidelity: Eliza charged Daniel with having a preference for Mrs Leeds, the household’s chamber-woman; Daniel accused Eliza of illicit relations with Sir John Clarke, captain of HMS Prudent, a 64-gun warship then in the harbour, a charge she vehemently denied.

Eliza expected Daniel to show remorse: “O, Draper! A word, a look, sympathetick of regret would have saved me the perilous adventure, and such a portion of remorse as would be sufficient to fill up the longer life.” But it never came. She waited for two days and then took the plunge down the window.

In the darkness below, a small row boat was waiting and in it Sir John Clarke. Eliza was an able swimmer, and in the warm tropical waves she drowned her miseries and emerged a different person altogether. She stayed on the HMS Prudent for a few weeks in Clarke’s care, and in a few months she had reached the eastern coast to take refuge with her uncle, John Whitehill, chief at Masulipatnam.

Eliza knew Draper could make her life miserable, even in flight. In her last letter she pleads with him to leave her alone, not to pursue her with acts of vengeance, “now that I have released myself from your dominion.” She struggles to maintain her dignity and to not be accusatory: “I go, I know not whither, but I will never be a tax on you, Draper,” and asserts: “I am not a hardened or depraved creature – I never will be.” She assures him that she bears him no ill will, and will not treat his name nor memory with irreverence, requesting him to “suffer me to be unmolested, and I will engage to steer through life with some degree of approbation, if not respect.”

Even at the hour of desperation and flight, she did not forget those who depended on her. She left a note to her faithful attendant, telling her of arrangements made to sell some jewellery to raise money to buy a suitable present as a token of goodwill. She tells her husband that she owes six rupees to the shoemaker, and that she has taken a few clothes from the household but nothing else, except for her child’s picture.

Draper took the cue and his following actions were half-hearted. He filed a case against Clarke but the court official who came to serve the warrant was rebuffed with violence. The ship remained at harbour for another ten weeks, but no further moves were made to serve the writ. Draper never afterwards crossed her path, nor did he attempt to take custody of their child.

Eliza was in her uncle’s household soon, and she writes to cousin Tom from Rajahmundry on 20 January 1774. She is in her element again – her letter witty, observant, playful and full of spicy details. She describes her uncle, a colourful character, who had a young man, Sulivan, in his service. “My uncle doats on him with all the extravagances of violent passion – he cannot live without him, he cannot even bear him out of his sight. He cannot like to have him sleep in any apartment but his own…” But poor Sulivan has a secret crush for the young creature newly arrived: “How sincerely do I admire and esteem a young man of four & twenty, who can speak to the heart and judgement…! His friendliness, his attentions, and I believe I might say his affection for myself…”

But that could not do. She felt she must guard against censure, yet wondered how she could deny him the pleasure of her affections: “I would not forfeit his esteem for ten thousand times the satisfaction I possess in giving him assurances of it…” An oddly humourous situation indeed: an old man jealously guarding his beloved ‘boy’, the young man taking furtive glances at the lovely female, the female herself strongly drawn to the young man but worried about the consequences…

Soon she left her uncle and the young suitor behind and moved on, taking a homebound ship. But she left the memories of her brief stay there: a huge cedar tree in the compound, under which she used to sit and read for long hours, became known as ‘Eliza tree’ among the local folks. J J Cotton, scholar and curator of Madras government records a century later, writes that an old woman he met at Coonoor, Mrs Marjoribanks, remembered the Eliza tree, blown over by the fierce cyclone that hit the coast in 1894.

Elizabeth Draper memorial at Bristol Cathedral.
Elizabeth Draper memorial at Bristol Cathedral.

Sacred to the memory of Elizabeth Draper
By Christmas 1774 Eliza was back in London and living at 3, Queen Anne Street, a fashionable locality and literary centre. She had many famous artists and writers as neighbours, including James Boswell, author of The Life of Samuel Johnson. It was here in 1775 that Eliza made arrangements for the publication of Sterne’s letters to her, titled Letters from Yorick to Eliza.

Eliza’s household became a meeting point for writers and famous people, and as her fame rose, gossip also made waves. William Combe, a notorious literary charlatan, fraudulently produced Eliza’s Letters to Yorick. He even boasted that Eliza loved him, not Sterne, and claimed that once he had to flee from her bedchamber leaving one of his shoes behind. No doubt Eliza had, on some occasion, snubbed the vulgar chap for his unwelcome advances.

At some point she moved to Bristol, and a death notice in Felix Farley’s Bristol Journal published the announcement, “Died at Clifton, Mrs Eliza Draper, Aug. 3, 1778”. She was 35. An elaborate memorial made in 1780 by London sculptor J Bacon remains at Bristol Cathedral. It reads: “Sacred To the Memory Of Mrs Elizabeth Draper. In whom Genius & Benevolence Were united.”

But her best epitaph was written by Abbé Raynal, a French writer and historian, who became an admirer in her London days. A fellow of the Royal Society, he was highly esteemed in London circles, and felicitated by the House of Commons, where the Speaker paid him the rare honour of stopping the proceedings as the writer was ushered in on a visit.

The Abbé wrote:

Let me be permitted to indulge my grief, and to give a free course to my tears! Eliza was my friend. Reader, forgive me this involuntary emotion. Let my mind dwell upon Eliza…The men were used to say, that no woman had so many graces as Eliza; the women said so too. They all praised her candour; they all extolled her sensibility; they were all ambitious of the honour of her acquaintance. The strings of envy were never pointed against unconscious merit.

I search for Eliza everywhere: I discover, I discern some of her features, some of her charms, scattered among those women whose figure is most interesting. But what is become of her who united them all? Nature, who has exhausted thy gifts? Didst thou make her to be admired for one instant, and to be for ever regretted?

~ N P Chekkutty is a Calicut-based journalist and co-author of two books with John C. Roberts, on European burials in South India.

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