Mary Frere

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Photographic portrait of a lady, probably Mary Frere, by the royal photographers Walery of 164 Regent Street, London, made between 1888 and 1896. Cory Library.

Mary Eliza Isabella Frere (1845–1911) (nickname May) was an English author of works regarding India. In 1868 Frere published the first English-language field-collected book of Indian storytales, Old Deccan Days.[1]

Early life[edit]

Frere was born at the rectory of Bitton in Gloucestershire, England on 11 August 1845.[2] Nicknamed May, she was the eldest of five children (the others being Catherine, Georgina, Eliza and Bartle) of Henry Bartle Frere and his wife Catherine (died 1899) who was the daughter of Lieutenant-General Sir George Arthur, 1st Baronet. Mary's father had served in the colonial administration of Bombay since 1834, and in 1862 he was appointed Governor of Bombay. The family lived in the Parish of St Mary, Wimbledon, where Mary was privately educated.[1][3][4]

Published works[edit]

Frere published several poems and a play. Her most popular work was Old Deccan Days; or, Hindoo Fairy Legends, Current in Southern India. Collected From Oral Tradition, printed in 1868, with illustrations by her sister Catherine Frances Frere. According to Frere's introduction, she began her collection of Indian folklore during long travels with her father. Her only female companion was a local ayah named Anna Liberata de Souza.[1][2] She was a Christian descendant of the Lingaet caste from the Mahratta country.[1] What started as an idle conversation evolved into a thorough recording and study of Indian culture. German orientologist Max Müller reviewed Frere's collection and wrote that her rendition of Sanskrit originals read like a direct translation of ancient Sanskrit.[1] Frere's father assisted with the editing of the work and wrote an introduction to the first edition of Old Deccan Days.[5] The extensive background and 'Narrator's Narrative' supplied in the work is unusual for the period, placing the tales in the context of the difficult life of the teller.[6] The book was a success; by the time of the third English edition (1881) it was printed in German, Hungarian, Danish, Marathi, Hindi and Gujarati languages.[5]

In the introduction to his 1892 Indian volume of fairy tales, Joseph Jacobs reprinted and acknowledged Frere's contribution to these:[7]

Though Indian fairy tales are the earliest in existence, yet they are also from another point of view the youngest. For it is only about twenty-five years ago that Miss Frere began the modern collection of Indian folk-tales with her charming "Old Deccan Days".

Death and commemoration[edit]

Frere died in Sussex on 26 March 1911.[2][3] She is buried at Brookwood cemetery.[8]


  1. ^ a b c d e Dorson, R. M. (1999). History of British folklore. Taylor and Francis. ISBN 0-415-20476-3. p. 334.
  2. ^ a b c "Mary Frere (Overview)". Orlando: Women's Writing in the British Isles from the Beginnings to the Present. Susan Brown, Patricia Clements, and Isobel Grundy (editors). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press Online. 2006. Retrieved 31 July 2010. 
  3. ^ a b Raza, Rosemary Cargill. "'Frere, Mary Eliza Isabella [May] (1845–1911)". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (online ed.). Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/33273.  (Subscription or UK public library membership required.)
  4. ^ Rootsweb. 1871 census - Frere household in Wimbledon
  5. ^ a b Dorson, p. 335.
  6. ^ Haase, Donald (2008). "South Asian Tales". The Greenwood Encyclopedia of Folktales and Fairy Tales. Q–Z. Greenwood. p. 899. 
  7. ^ Jacobs, Joseph; Batten, John D. (1892). Indian Fairy Tales. London: D. Nutt. p. x. 
  8. ^  Brown, Frank Herbert (1912). "Frere, Mary Eliza Isabella". In Lee, Sidney. Dictionary of National Biography, 1912 supplement​. London: Smith, Elder & Co.