Britain had imperial powers in India during the Victorian era. India became known as "the jewel in the British crown" because the country was an important part of the British Empire. In this blog entry, I will highlight how Britain found great value in Indian products, and in what ways India influenced the culture in Britain from 1837-1901.
I will start by introducing some of the circumstances which gave way to Indian influence. Britain had seen imperial potential in India from the 17th century. However, it was not until after the American Independence in 1783, that the British Empire turned a greater attention to the East, and especially India. As the British Empire had lost control in America, they needed India as a symbol of imperial power. Britain’s power in India increased especially from 1858, when the British Crown obtained the rule in India from the British East India Company. Queen Victoria became the Empress of India in the period after the shift in power, known as the British Raj.
The rise of photography in the nineteenth century made India more accessible to the Brits. Photographs of India became evidence of the exotic country they had heard so much about. The great photographer Samuel Bourne is regarded as one of the best photographers of the Victorian era. He spent seven years in India, from 1863 to 1870, photographing the country. He specialised in photographing landscape in Kashmir and Himalaya. When he returned to India, his photographs became a great success and increased British interest in India.
Additionally, the Great Exhibition, held in London in 1851, gave people the possibility of experiencing Indian culture. The country was well represented in the exhibition trough art and design, and it contributed to British interest in India and its rich culture. The public display was hosted in the exceptional glass building, Crystal Palace, situated in Hyde Park. Only on the first day, over 25 000 people visited the exhibition. Queen Victoria wrote in her diary from May 1851: “people coming in, in streams... there must have been 120,000”(V&A). By the end of the exhibition, one-fifth of the British population had seen the display. People, regardless of class, visited the Crystal Palace. Charles Tomlison’s statement from 1852 demonstrates this when he describes some of the visitors: “800 agricultural labourers in their peasants attire from Surrey and Sussex”(V&A). The fact that ordinary people were able to see the Great Exhibition gave way for a great interest in India, especially because middle class’s impact in Britain had increased during the Victorian era.
British fashion developed through Indian influence in the Victorian era. The Indian influenced fashion developed especially in two manners. Firstly, the materials accessible through British trade with India, for instance cotton and silk, led to increase of such materials in English clothes. The combination of the industrial revolution in England and the growth of fabric import from India brought the development of Indian textile on the English market.
Victorian fashion inspired by typical Indian patterns and motives
Secondly, Indian textile characteristics influenced English fashion with patterns and motives. British designers were inspired by Indian designs displayed in exhibitions. A motive that had been significant in Indian art since the seventeenth century was designs of plants and flowers. These motifs became an important part of designs manufactured in Victorian England. Furthermore, Indian inspired patterns also became a part of the British fashion. The increase of display of Indian garments, such as in The Great Exhibition, inspired British designers. Indian chintzes and embroidery were used on textiles and wallpapers. Moreover, elongated leaf motif, which became known as paisley pattern, was especially used on shawls. The word shawl originates from the name of the Indian town, Shāliāt. Shawls were actually first worn by men in India. However, shawls became a typical clothing in the nineteenth century, and is often mentioned in Victorian literature as a part of a woman’s outfit. The luxurious Indian shawl is for instance mentioned in Elizabeth Gaskell’s novel, North and South (1855). Gaskell introduces Indian shawls in the first chapter, described “with lovely little borders”(:7) to “an extravagant price”(:7). The protagonist, Margaret Hale, is asked to try on shawls from India, which are wedding gifts to her cousin, Edith Shaw. When dressed in “such splendour”(:9), Margaret finds “pleasure in their soft feels and their brilliant colours”(:9). The reason the shawl was so luxurious was because the shawls from India was made by real cashmere. In the 2008 adaptation of Charlotte Brontë’s, Jane Eyre (1847), the protagonist, after she has received her uncle’s inheritance, returns to Mr Rochester, wearing a cashmere shawl.
Indian tea culture made the establishment of tea rooms, tea shops and the tradition of afternoon tea in Victorian England possible. The Government of India Act 1858 gave the British Crown the control of trade with India. The nineteenth century trade between India and Britain was characterised by mutual beneficial of trade. The Queen expanded the production of tea in India and increased the tea trade to Britain. As a result, tea prices in Britain became cheaper, which made tea an essential part of British life. Charles Dickens, in his novel, Great Expectations (1860), narrates of tea as a part of the characters’ daily life. In chapter eighteen, volume II, the protagonist Pip, after his company have had tea, finds that “it was delightful to see how warm and greasy we all got after it”(:340). Pip’s descriptions show that they found great comfort in drinking tea. Moreover, the delight they feel when drinking tea may suggest why tea became so popular among Brits in the Victorian Era.
In 1840, the Duchess of Bedford came up with the fashionable idea of afternoon tea from 4 to 6 in the afternoon, filling the long gap between lunch and dinner. Afternoon tea is portrayed in Lewis Carrol’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865). At the mad tea-party it is “always six o’clock”(:64), because the Mad Hatter is punished for insulting Time by being trapped at a tea party. By 1860, afternoon tea became regular for the social elite, middle- and working class. The tradition of afternoon tea became essential in Britain, and it was in many ways because of tea supply from India.
In terms of literature influenced by India, I want to highlight the book that is regarded as the first detective novel, Wilkie Collins’ The Moonstone (1868). The plot is set in England 1848, where the Moonstone from India is stolen. The Moonstone is a yellow diamond, large “as a plover’s egg”(:70) with “light of the harvest moon”(:70). The mysterious diamond, from a sacred city in India, is believed to be cursed. Collins’ “precious stone”(:18) reflects the image Victorians had of the exotic and mysterious India. Moreover, the diamond can be seen as the representation of India as the "the jewel in the British crown".
I hope I have managed to show how India influenced Britain in the Victorian Era. This blog entry has presented the background for the British Empire’s interest in India; how Britain benefited from imperial power in India; and finally how India through fashion, photography, tea trade and The Great Exhibition influenced Britain in the nineteenth century.
- Auberbach, J. A. The Great Exhibition of 1851: A Nation on Display. Yale University Press, 1999. eBook. Available at http://books.google.co.uk/books?hl=en&lr=&id=19wY8iof5ywC&oi=
- Carrol, L. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. London: Penguin Classics, 2009. Print
- Collins, W. The Moonstone. Berkshire: Penguin Classics, 1994. Print
- Daly, S. ‘Spining Cotton: Domestic and Industrial Novels’ Victorian Studies. 50.2 (2008): pp. 272-278. PDF. Available at http://www.jstor.org/stable/40060326
- Dickens, C. Great Expectations. London: Penguin Classics, 2012. Print
- Gaskell, E. North and South. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998. Print
- Levine, P. The British Empire: sunrise to sunset. Harlow: Longman, 2007. eBook. Available at http://capitadiscovery.co.uk/roehampton/items/eds/cat03387a/roe.627201?query=
- McDonald, S. “Man of his time” B&W. pp. 94-95. 2005. Web. Available at http://corporate.gettyimages.com/masters2/press/articles/BWP_Samuel%20Bourne.pdf (Accessed: 30/10/14)
- UK Tea & Infusions Association. Web. Available at http://www.tea.co.uk/tea-a-brief-history
- V&A, Diary of Queen Victoria. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London. Web. Available at http://www.vam.ac.uk/content/articles/g/great-exhibition-queen-victorias-journal- V&A, Tomlison. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London. Web. Available at http://www.vam.ac.uk/content/articles/t/travelling-to-the-great-exhibition/
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