Toru Dutt – New to The Broadview Anthology of British Literature
The new third edition of The Broadview Anthology of British Literature, Volume 5: The Victorian Era is curated with an eye towards decolonizing the Victorian literature classroom. Throughout, it pays attention to matters such as race, gender, class, and sexual orientation.
Included among the new additions to our Victorian era volume is Bengali poet, novelist, and translator, Toru Dutt. Below is a preview of some of the material we are including on this writer.
Shortly after Toru Dutt’s death, the French writer James Darmesteter described her as “a phenomenon without parallel”: “a daughter of Bengal, so admirably and so strangely gifted, Hindu by race and tradition, an Englishwoman by education, a Frenchwoman at heart … who blended in herself three souls and three traditions, and died … in the full bloom of her talent and on the eve of the awakening of her genius.” The work of poet, novelist, and translator Toru Dutt reflects her erudition in French, English, and Bangla; her complex, deeply referential poetry combines a vast and multicultural array of influences including John Milton, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, numerous French and English Romantic poets, and such ancient Indian classics as the Ramayana and Mahabharata. Dutt was remarkably prolific and accomplished despite a very short career: she died at the age of twenty-one.
Dutt was born in Kolkata, the capital of British India, into a highly privileged and literary family. The Dutts’ conversion to Christianity in 1862, when Toru was six, left them alienated from the local Hindu community, a distance later thematized in her writing. Dutt and her sister, unlike most women of their caste, received a thorough literary education at home from their father—one conducted in English and French rather than their native Bangla, though they also received a less formalized education in Bengali traditions from their mother. Dutt was a precocious student who developed her love of literature early; as children, she and her siblings read Milton’s Paradise Lost, for example, so often that they memorized significant portions of the book. In 1869, Dutt and her sister attended school in France, followed by a few years in England, where the family lived near Cambridge University and Dutt attended lectures held for women there. The family returned to India in 1873, and Dutt would spend the rest of her life in Kolkata and at Baugmaree, her family’s estate outside the city.
Dutt’s work and letters reflect a complex, changing relation to the place of her birth. “We all long to go to Europe again,” she writes in 1874. “We hope, if we go, to settle in England and not return to India any more.” Two years later, however, she notes that Baugmaree “is as good as England; in some respects, at least in my opinion, it is better,” and declares that “India is my patrie [fatherland].” Her later letters also reflect a growing consciousness of colonial oppression, with references to “prejudiced Anglo-Indians” and commentary on their racist behavior. After her return to India, Dutt began to study Sanskrit in addition to the three languages she had already mastered.
Dutt’s final collection was largely well-received in the English press. The London Athenaeum noted, for example, that “as a linguistic feat” Ancient Ballads and Legends “is a thing unparalleled” if we consider “its author’s age, origin, and circumstances.” Nonetheless, the journal found Dutt’s personal life more compelling than her poetry, which it dismissed as “naïve and … conventional.” English poet and critic Edmund Gosse’s essay on Dutt’s life, which was printed as an introduction to Ancient Ballads and Legends, was partly to blame for this romanticization of the author at the expense of her work. Though Gosse champions Dutt and attempts to cast her in positive terms, his essay fully orientalizes her, imagining Dutt as a “poetess … chanting to herself those songs of her mother’s race to which she always turned with tears of pleasure.” Her poems, too, Gosse praises with racist condescension, describing them as a “fragile exotic blossom of song.”
Dutt’s views on India and its relationship to the British Empire evolved significantly over the course of her short life, and her poems are difficult to pigeonhole politically. Readers may discover in them anticolonial sentiment alongside affection for English and French culture; feminist celebrations of strong women but also traditional depictions of domestic life; aesthetic styles inspired by British and French poetry as well as innovative challenges to conventional forms. Dutt’s work was largely overlooked in the decades following its initial publication, but it began in the late twentieth century to receive scholarly attention for its intricacy and lyrical artistry, as well as for its provocative, nuanced, and cosmopolitan navigation of multiple literary traditions from a colonized position within an oppressive British Empire.
Love came to Flora asking for a flower
That would of flowers be undisputed queen,
The lily and the rose, long, long had been
Rivals for that high honour.2 Bards of power
5 Had sung their claims. “The rose can never tower
Like the pale lily with her Juno3 mien”o— bearing
“But is the lily lovelier?” Thus between
Flower-factions rang the strife in Psyche’s bower.4
“Give me a flower delicious as the rose
10 And stately as the lily in her pride”—
“But of what colour?”—“Rose-red,” Love first chose,
Then prayed—“No, lily-white,—or, both provide”;
And Flora gave the lotus, “rose-red” dyed,
And “lily-white”—the queenliest flower that blows.
1 Lotus Also called the water-lily, a flower important in Hinduism and Buddhism and long associated with Indian culture. Lotus flowers are white at the base with pink tips.
2 Love came … high honour See English poet William Cowper’s “The Lily and the Rose” (1782), in which Flora, the Roman goddess of flowers, resolves a dispute between the lily and the rose over which should be considered queen of the flowers. The poem concludes with Flora praising the color of the rose and the bearing of the lily:
Yours is, she said, the nobler hue
And yours the statelier mien,
And, till a third surpasses you,
Let each be deemed a queen.
3 Juno Queen of the Roman gods. White lilies are also known as “Juno lilies.”
4 Psyche Beloved of Cupid, god of love and desire, in Roman mythology; bower Enclosed place in a forest or garden.