Eliza Fay

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Eliza Fay (born 1755 or 1756 probably in Rotherhithe, Surrey, died 9 September 1816 in Calcutta, India) was an English letter writer who left graphic accounts of her travels and experiences.[1]

Early life[edit]

Eliza was one of the three known daughters of Edward Clement (died 1794), a Rotherhithe shipwright. She died in Calcutta in 1816. Her mother died in or before 1783. Very little is known of her family. One of her sisters, Eleanor, married Thomas W. Preston.[2]

Eliza married Anthony Fay, a barrister, on 6 February 1772 in London.[3] He was the only son of Francis Fay of Rotherhithe, Surrey, and of Irish extraction.[4] Fay intended to practise as an advocate in the Calcutta Supreme Court, and the couple set out for India in April 1779. He managed to enter himself on June 16, 1780, but ran into debt and fathered an illegitimate child, before returning to England, where he died some time before 1815. The couple separated in August 1781. There were no children of the marriage.[5]

Passages to India[edit]

Fay's graphic letters begin in Paris on 18 April 1779; her account suggests she had been to France several times before. Then follows her eventful journey by land and sea, across the Alps, by sea to Egypt, then across the deserts of Egypt in a caravan that was attacked by bandits, only to be imprisoned on arrival in Calicut by Hyder Ali, king of Mysore. Eventually escaping with the help of a Jewish merchant of Cochin, Mr Isaac, she and her husband arrived in Calcutta in May 1780.

The letters reveal great narrative power and include what E. M. Forster, as her editor, described as "little character sketches... delightfully malicious."[6] She appears to have had religious convictions and a distaste for any kind of indelicacy, also a command of French and an ability to learn other languages such as Italian, Portuguese and Hindustani at high speed, but otherwise not much education. Eliza Fay found her way into Calcutta society during her first period there, meeting several prominent people, including Warren Hastings, but this goodwill may have been dissipated by the wild behaviour of her husband, or possibly by her own ill temper. She was more interested than many in the life of the Indians around her and provides quite a lot of detail.[7]

Fay returned to England by way of Madras and St Helena in 1782, but set out again in 1784. This time her social status was lower and she supported herself with a millinery shop and by mantua making, but became bankrupt in 1788, although she continued to trade and paid off her creditors by 1793. Her business partner Avis Hicks and Anthony Fay's son, whom Hicks was accompanying to England, drowned at sea in September 1786. Returning to England in 1794, Eliza inherited property in Glamorgan on the death of her father and became a merchant, but was dogged by disasters, so that bankruptcy ensued again in 1800.[8] Her third visit to Calcutta in 1796 lasted only six months. She acquired another ship, loaded it with muslins and set off for the United States, but the ship sank in the mouth of the Hooghly. She managed by other means to reach New York City on 3 September 1797.

Sailing again for Calcutta in August 1804, she returned the following year with 14 children, to open a school at Ashburnam House, Blackheath. This she continued to run with a partner, Maria Cousins, until 1814.[9] She stayed in Blackheath with Mrs Preston in 1815, before a final voyage to Calcutta, where she began to prepare her letters and papers for publication. She died at the age of sixty on 9 September 1816.[10]

Editions of the letters[edit]

Fay died insolvent, and her invaluable letters were handled by the administrator of her estate as one of her few assets. Her account of the first two voyages appeared in 1817 and according to official records,[11] made a profit for her creditors of 220 rupees in four years. However, the administrator "lost enthusiasm" according to Forster, so that the published versions go only up to 1797. Later glimpses of her come from notes by her 1908 editor, some surviving manuscript pages, and English court and other archive materials.[12] The volume was reprinted in 1821.[13]

A new edition appeared ninety years later, edited by Walter Kelly Firminger (1870–1940),[14] author of the long-running Thacker's Guide to Calcutta.[15] This was superseded in 1925 by E. M. Forster's scholarly edition.


  1. ^ ODNB entry: Retrieved 9 March 2011. Subscription required.
  2. ^ E. M. Forster: Introductory Notes. In: Original Letters from India (New York: NYRB, 2010 [1925]), p. 9. ISBN 978-1-59017-336-7
  3. ^ ODNB entry.
  4. ^ Forster..., p. 10.
  5. ^ Forster..., p. 11.
  6. ^ Forster..., p. 14.
  7. ^ Original Letters from India...pp. 202–7 and passim.
  8. ^ ODNB entry.
  9. ^ ODNB entry.
  10. ^ Forster..., pp. 10–12.
  11. ^ India Office Records. Bengal Inventories, 1821, Vol 3.
  12. ^ Listed in the ODNB entry.
  13. ^ Original letters from India : containing a narrative of a journey through Egypt and the author’s imprisonment at Calicut by Hyder Ally, to which is added an abstract of three subsequent voyages to India (Calcutta: s. n., 1817).
  14. ^ National Portrait Gallery: Retrieved 9 March 2011.
  15. ^ The Original Letters from India... Edited and introduced by Rev. Walter Kelly Firminger (Calcutta: Thacker, Spink & Co., 1908).