Friday, December 3, 2010

My grandfather and the Raj

My grandfather was a school principal in India when British politics impinged on his life.  Mr. Gladstone, returned to Downing Street for the fourth time in 1892, felt obliged to answer criticisms from idealists, his natural constituency, of Britain's supposedly lucrative participation in the supply of opium to China.  I have been happy to read that Belgaum, now in the southern Karnataka state of India over the constant protests of neighbouring Maharashtra, has a cool equable climate but presumably being a headmaster of a mission school there did not afford S.C.K. Rutnam enough outlet for his energies.  When Lord Brassey, the previous high point of whose life had probably been his hosting of Mr and Mrs Gladstone on his yacht for a lengthy cruise of the Mediterranean, arrived in India to chair the Royal Commission of Enquiry one of the witnesses who strove to enlighten him on the unpleasant realities of the opium trade was my grandfather.  I have read some examples of my grandfather's prose and can well imagine that his evidence was delivered with power and pathos.  Certainly he attracted some international attention.

Among the ears pricked up were the pretty ones of Lady Henry Somerset.  The story of how this beautiful and characterful daughter of an earl found herself diverted from the normal pursuits of a married woman in the highest society and forced to find satisfaction in public service can be found, in outline, in Quentin Bell's life of his aunt Virginia Woolf, for Lady Henry, like Virginia Woolf, was a descendant of Mrs James Wilson Pattle, wife of a Bengal civil servant and mother of seven daughters so beautiful that even their mother's questionable racial purity  could not prevent them from finding husbands, some of them in the nobility.  I am happy to find that William Dalrymple, the informative and entertaining historian of India, shares this Pattle ancestry, and of course claim him as well as Mrs Woolf as honorary cousins.

Anyway, Lady Henry Somerset caused Rutnam to visit both Britain and the USA as a lecturer on the opium trade.  In the latter country he stayed on after his tour to obtain a Master's degree at Princeton, as I have said before, and in 1897 was in New York when he was asked to give a crash course in Tamil language and culture to Dr Mary Irwin, a 24-year old medical graduate of the University of Toronto who had signed on with a mission which operated a well-known private hospital in Manipay, not far from Jaffna.  Three or four weeks later they were married.

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