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«THE SATI, THE BRIDE, AND THE WIDOW: SACRIFICIAL WOMAN IN THE NINETEENTH CENTURY By Sophie Gilmartin two cultures — Indian and British — and three ...»

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Victorian Literature and Culture (1997), 141-158. Printed in the United States of America.

Copyright © 1997 Cambridge University Press. 1060-1503/97 $7.50 +.10




By Sophie Gilmartin

two cultures — Indian and British — and three phases of


womanhood — the bride, the widow, and — through suttee — the dead widow. Suttee, or sati, is the obsolete Hindu practice in which a widow burns herself upon her husband's funeral pyre.1 In this essay I wish to explore how sati was used as a metaphor in British novels and periodicals in the nineteenth century — used both as a metaphor for the British widow's mourning rituals and for the plight of the British bride in an unhappy marriage.

I shall argue that sati forms a nexus connecting the seemingly disparate situations of the bride and widow, and that it also in this metaphorical sense forms a nexus or point of comparison between British and Indian culture.

After much Parliamentary debate, sati was outlawed in India in 1829. By this time the practice had become a favorite subject for indignant letter-writers to the government and to the press, who described the practice as "primitive" and "barbarous." A barrage of petitions, official accounts, and statistics was published in Parliamentary papers, which made their way along with gruesome eye-witness accounts into both the British and Anglo-Indian press. But the abolition of sati did not put an end to the newspaper accounts and to popular interest in the practice. A survey of nineteenth-century British periodicals shows articles on the plight of the Hindu widow appearing well into the 1880s. Indeed sati seems to have held a morbid fascination for the Victorians. Their preoccupation with what they themselves referred to as the "Woman Question" took the form of novels, poems, paintings, and articles on the various manifestations of the victimized British female whether she be seamstress, governess, prostitute, factory worker, or so-called "redundant woman" (see Greg). I would argue that the interest in sati was partly an extension of this preoccupation with the woman as victim; the sati (and this term refers both to the act of immolation itself and to the woman who performs it — "sati" means "good woman" in Hindi) is the ultimate sacrifice, the absolute image of the woman as sacrifice.2 I shall begin by exploring some of the language in articles on sati in nineteenth-century periodicals and then look at the way sati was used as a metaphor in turn for the British widow and the British bride. Finally I will show how George Meredith's novel The Egoist,


published in 1879, uses sati to bring together the bride and widow as images of sacrifice, of immolation.

The approach to the issue of sati in the periodicals is varied but generally follows two trends. The first tends to present the sati (that is, the woman herself) as innocent victim of evil Brahmins and family. The second trend in describing the custom presents the widow as a willing participant, and often as admirable and courageous in the faithfulness to her dead husband. In a number of accounts which correspond to the first of these trends it is notable that the victim is often young, thus adding to the melodrama and certainly to the disturbing nature of these eye-witness accounts. 3 In the following early account from the London Magazine in 1827 — two years before the practice was made illegal — a fourteenyear-old's Brahmin husband dies, and her relatives build a pyre for her to burn herself


She soon leaped from the flame, and was seized, taken up by the hands and feet, and again thrown upon it, much burnt; she again sprung from the pile, and running to a well hard by, laid herself down in the water course, weeping bitterly.... At length, on her uncle swearing by the Ganges, that if she would seat herself on the cloth (which he had provided) he would carry her home, she did so, was bound up in it, carried to the pile now fiercely burning, and again thrown into the flames. ("Hindoo Widows" 544) Eventually a Moslem standing by cut her through the head with his sword to save her from further suffering. This account of sati clearly presents the widow as a victim of force, of murder, and the magistrate's report shows that the relatives were imprisoned. Aside from the very disturbing actual events of this account it is also true that the elements of good melodrama are here — the young victim duped by an evil uncle, the horror of the burning, and the Moslem man's final act of mercy.

In the British periodicals, accounts from the early part of the century tend to be more extreme in their presentation of the sati as victim. This of course is partly due to the fact that the campaign and pressure for the abolition of sati was growing fierce in the British and Anglo-Indian press at this time.4 In recent years there has been increasing attention given to the use of sati as a justification for the British presence, and especially to the British downplaying or ignoring of the Indian response which desired that the practice be abolished, particularly embodied in the efforts of Rammohun Roy.5 These Indian responses and efforts have been discussed by Arvind Sharma, Ashis Nandy, Lata Mani, and Ajit Ray. The emphasis of my argument falls elsewhere: this essay brings together British attitudes to British brides and widows and to Indian widows. I shall address the contradictory British reactions to sati both in the press and in literature, reactions of condemnation and of admiration for the practice. How can these two opposing attitudes be accounted for from a British point of view? and why was there a shift in accounts of sati in the midto latter part of the century, these later accounts presenting the Indian widow as admirably faithful?

The first trend, of condemnation, is represented in the eye-witness account of 1827 above; the second is evident in the two following accounts of sati. In these accounts I would like to note that the women are presented as young and attractive, and the eye-witness accounts of sati are often disturbingly voyeuristic. While almost all descriptions begin by calling the ritual "barbarous" and the product of a primitive culture, there is clearly an Sacrificial Woman in the Nineteenth Century 143 interest in the spectacle of sati, behind, or as well as, the agenda of social reform. Often there is a detailed account of the woman's attractions and physical movements. For example, this eye-witness account from Bentley's Miscellany of 1842 exhibits a rather jolly anticipation of the spectacle as a form of horrific entertainment — reminiscent perhaps of the crowds drawn to the spectacle of the hanging of a woman in England at this time. The

author of "Hours in Hindostan" from this periodical writes:

After making an excellent breakfast, and taking half a dozen whiffs at the hookahs our host had provided for us, we sallied forth. We were just in time.... It was evident that they were mad from excitement, or drunk from opium. Their gestures were frantic, their cries terrific.

At length the hackary arrived beside the ring; and the young girl sprang out of it. She was not above fourteen, and certainly one of the sweetest-looking natives I ever recollect seeing.... She was, I verily believe, more than half intoxicated, and seemed to pant for the coming moment, anxious to prove her unshaken constancy to her late husband, as well as desirous of showing her courage. (Addison 187) In the following article of 1843 the woman is also a willing participant, but she is older and presented as more calm and dignified. She is described as about thirty years of age with "an aquiline nose, well-defined, and full, large black eyes, the peculiar beauty of her caste; her profusion of coal-black hair hung loose and dishevelled, draggling and wet, and reaching near to the ground; her complexion as is not unusual with females of good Brahmin families, seemed exceedingly fair" (Kennedy 243). She enters the pile with

composure and grace, waiting for it to be set alight:

[Hjaving arranged the flax about her (she) bent forward to take leave of them with smiles, and the most perfect composure; which done, she most composedly laid herself down fulllength by the side of the corpse... with her right hand over it. In this position she was stretched along, as if comfortably in bed, well cushioned in on every side, and well pillowed with loose flax. (253) In this account the sting and horror is partially removed by a domestication of the ritual.

She climbs into the pyre, as the writer says, as if she were "clambering into a native carriage for a journey.... She looked like one at her own door, just starting for a day of travel" (252). In the pyre she seems positively cosy and content, as if in bed with her husband.

I have argued that these two types of description — the first type representing the woman as either duped or drugged, the second representing her as willing, calm, and dignified — correspond to two attitudes to the ritual itself in the periodicals. Both attitudes to the immolation proclaim it a barbarous practice which is in itself tragic, but the first sees the woman as a true victim — that if she were not drugged or brain-washed she would not go through with it. The second type of account sees the woman capable of making a sober and individual decision to perform the rite — in fact as eager to go through with this ultimate act of faithfulness to the dead husband.

These two perspectives on sati have their parallels in attitudes to the widow in England, to her faithfulness or lack thereof to the memory of her dead husband. If the popularity of the "Woman Question" extended itself outside Britain itself to her Indian


colony and to an interest in the Hindu woman, then an admiration for the Hindu widow's faithfulness may also reflect attitudes to women, and specifically to the English widow as

well. For example, the epigraph to one eye-witness account of a sati reads:

–  –  –

All women — both Hindu and English — are included here. Woman is placed in the position of victim with the strength and nobility to bear her burden, her sacrifice. The faithful woman — whether she be a sati or not — is sentimentalized. In many accounts of sati, this admiration for the Hindu widow, especially when she is young and sexually attractive, has parallels with a sentimentalization of the faithful young widow in English culture.

Turning now to England I shall focus upon two paintings which portray opposing images of the widow. Richard Redgrave's Preparing to Throw Off Her Weeds (Fig. 8) was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1846. A young widow has been in deep mourning then in modified or half mourning for about two years. She is now in the final phase and is returning to brighter (lilac-grey) colors. Evidence of the traditional vanitas theme lies in the maid holding up the mirror to her mistress. A key to the narrative of this painting is the hat box in a corner which contains a bridal bonnet and orange blossom (see Casteras and Parkinson 124). This detail reveals that the widow is not simply throwing off her weeds but is preparing for another marriage. The original painting showed a young officer, her fiance, entering from the door on the left — and in the background above the dressing-room screen we can just discern the portrait of the former husband keeping an eye on the proceedings.

This painting aroused considerable journalistic comment when exhibited, the critics almost unanimously dismissing the subject matter as "vulgar." The art journal The Critic thought that the painting "went too far for good taste in the lady who, it should be remembered, is yet attired in mourning" ("Royal Academy" 622-23). The Art-Union

describes the subject:

the engagement of the widow is indelicately announced by the hasty entrance of the officer, which is assuredly ill-timed and ill-judged; and the treatment otherwise is toned with vulgarity. ("Royal Academy" 177) The painting now hangs in the Sheepshanks Collection at the Victoria and Albert Museum, and it is thought that the great Victorian collector John Sheepshanks asked Redgrave to paint out the picture of the soldier/fiance before he added the painting to his collection (Casteras and Parkinson 124). The reactions to Redgrave's painting reveal much of the anxiety surrounding the position of the young widow. She is sexually attractive and knowledgeable, and this widow is clearly not going to be faithful to her husband's ashes. The vulgarity lies in the abrupt juxtaposition of mourning and wedding rituals, the black crape and orange blossom, and also the fact that the scene takes place in the widow's private chamber, her dressing room, and that that room contains the presence of two men who should never meet, the image of the dead husband and the (now-erased) image of the husband-to-be. The incongruity both of the mourning and wedding and of these two men Sacrificial Woman in the Nineteenth Century 145 Figure 8. Richard Redgrave, Preparing to Throw off Her Weeds, 1846. Courtesy of the Victoria and Albert Museum.

jars on the Victorian sensibility, that same sensibility which can hold an admiration for the faithfulness and devotion of the sati in Indian culture.

The second painting I wish to look at is a watercolor, A Young Widow, painted in 1877 by a minor artist, E. K. Johnson (Fig. 9). The young widow has taken her wedding dress


Figure 9. E. K. Johnson, A Young Widow, 1877. Courtesy of the Print Room, the Victoria and Albert Museum.

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