A significant literary discovery: an envelope associated with Toru Dutt, the Indian prodigy who died at 21

Dutt father's envelope 1878 001

Found interleaved in a copy of The Life and Letters of Sir Edmund Gosse by Evan Charteris (1931) at Jot HQ is an empty envelope addressed to Gosse postmarked Simla May 8th1878. At the top of the envelope the sender has written ‘via Brindisi ‘.

A message that occupies the rest of the envelope follows thus:


‘ To E.W.G Esq. The writer of an article headed “ A Book of Verse from India “ in the Examiner Newspaper of the 26thAugust 1876 care of the Editor of the Examiner or of the Publisher Edward Dallow Esqre. Examiner Office. 135 Strand, London W.C.


What ostensibly seems to throw up problems of identification turns out, thanks to a little online research, a significant document in the history of Anglo-Indian literature. All the clues needed to identify the sender of the letter (alas missing) can be found on the cover of its envelope. Firstly E.W.G. is obviously Edmund Gosse, although at the time the letter-writer knew him only by his initials, the custom at the time being for some reviewers only to use the first letters of their names. The review in question appeared in The Examiner, a literary newspaper that had been founded by the poet, critic and friend of John Keats, Leigh Hunt in 1808. By the time Gosse was writing for it this once radical journal has lost its bite, but the fact that it was willing to allot space to a debut collection by an unknown young writer from Calcutta brought out by a small publisher in the city without preface or introduction, suggests that it recognised genuine talent.


And this poet deserved to be recognised. Toru Dutt was the highly educated daughter of a leading Government official from Calcutta and she was just twenty when A Sheaf Gleaned in French Fields appeared. We don’t exactly know how such an obscure volume appeared on Gosse’s desk in London, but it is highly likely that Toru’s proud father, Govin Chandra Dutt, himself a linguist and a poet, was both responsible for sending the book to the Examiner and writing the letter to Gosse. If not her father, it may have been her mother, a talented interpreter, or her translator sister, who wrote the letter. All were aware of Toru’s prodigious literary gifts. We do not know the significance of ‘via Brindisi ‘ inscribed on the envelope.


Toru’s unusual experience and education all seemed to lead up to this debut. Born in Calcutta in 1856, she was a member of a family who had converted to Christianity and who were ( according to her Wikipedia entry) ‘one of the first families to be strongly influenced by the British colonial and military presence ‘. Toru was educated at home by her father and a tutor, mastering French, English and subsequently Sanskrit. It was said that she knew Paradise Lost by heart. In 1869 the whole family left India to spend four years in Europe—living a year in France and three in England, visiting inter alia Italy and Germany. From 1870 to ’71 the family lived in London, where perhaps they encountered The Examiner. From here they moved on to Cambridge, where Toru attended the free lectures offered by the nascent Newnham College to females interested in literature.


Doubtless inspired by her cultural education in Europe, Toru, on arriving back in Calcutta, went to work on A Sheaf. This collection, the publication of which may have been financed by her father, consisted of 165 poems in English , mostly translated from the French by Dutt , together with a single original poem, ‘ A Mon Pere’  by her. Dutt’s sister contributed eight translations.


According to the letter writer, Gosse’s review appeared in August 1876, which must have been not long after the book came out. However, another source claims that it was reviewed in 1877.


Tragically, in 1877 Toru Dutt died aged just 21 of consumption—the same disease which had killed Keats. Because of this she has been dubbed the Keats of Indian literature, though her work has no affinities whatsoever with Keats’ brand of romanticism. Following her death her father discovered a number of unpublished manuscripts. The first of these– Le Journal de Madamoiselle d’ Arvers, the first novel written in French by an Indian writer, was published posthumously in 1879. This was followed by Bianca, thought to be the first novel written by an Indian woman in English. Also published were an unfinished volume of original poems in English and Sanskrit by Dutt, together with a volume of translations entitled Ancient Ballads and Legends of Hindustan.


Gosse, who had immediately recognised the literary promise of Dutt in his initial Examiner review went on to contribute an introductory memoir to Ancient Balladsin which he paid tribute to her precocity:


“ She brought with her from Europe a store of knowledge that would have sufficed to make an English or French girl seem learned, but which in her case was simply miraculous.”


Today, Dutt’s work is widely studied by academics and her poem ‘Our Casuarina Tree’ is often taught in high schools in India as part of the English curriculum. [R.M. Healey]


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