Adela ‘Violet’ Florence Nicolson (Laurence Hope)

Her life, poems and a bit about her days at Feroke - Calicut

There was a short period of time when a British couple lived in a bungalow in Feroke. The eminent Col Malcom Nicolson, once ADC to Queen Victoria was that person, and he and his wife spent an idyllic period enjoying the lifestyle of Malabar in retirement, but had to move soon after to the Dunmore house Madras, due to medical issues. He died soon after, following a messed up prostrate operation. To exacerbate matters, his wife Adela who loved her days in Malabar, killed herself shortly thereafter by drinking perchloride of mercury. She was just 39 and she is the one we are going to talk about.
Adela had been publishing a number of sensitive poems under a famous male pseudonym Laurence Hope. Laurence Hope incidentally was the sister of yet another notorious writer with a pseudonym Victoria Cross. After her death, Adela became even more popular and is today studied by many people and oft quoted. Her list of admirers continue to grow day by day and in her time, one of her admirers was Somerset Maugham who wrote his short story ‘Colonels Lady’ loosely based on her experiences. Thomas Hardy was her admirer too and wrote about her. Kamala Das often mentioned her and the influence this poetess had on her. If you want to peruse her style of poetry, you can find all of her works easily on the internet.

Some of her poems are related to her time in Malabar. What intrigued me is Madhavi Kutty - Kamala Das’s cryptic comment to Merrily Weisbord. She said – ‘Poet Laurence Hope had many lovers, including a lowly boatman’. How did she come up with this idea? It took me a good amount zigzagging through her life across continents, England, India, England, South Africa and finally back to India to get to know Adela. Now we get to an account of her life and times which started in India and ended in India.
It all started with a chap named Malcolm Hassels Nicolson (1843–1904), whos pent hi slife and times in India fighting so many wars in India. After the war and following various promotions, he became an aide-de-camp to Queen Victoria, being promoted major-general in the latter year and lieutenant-general in 1899. General Nicolson was an expert linguist in the NWFP languages and Farsi, I do not know if he learnt a smattering of Tamil or Malayalam, but finally chose to retire after all these exertions, to Calicut, in the year 1904, a place that was farthest from all his exploits. Perhaps he read the accounts of Edward Lear, who believed Calicut was the Garden of Eden. Or perhaps his wife, who had a poetic bent, had read Lawrence’s book or Shelly’s commentsabout Nairs. But let us now see what she was made of.

Adela’s story starts with her father Arthur Cory, an army man who arrived in India in January 1849. His marriage perhaps followed the
Fishing fleet tradition which I wrote about earlier, and I presume that is how his to be wife Fanny Griffin, came to India. Isabel was their eldest daughter. Even though they lived in Lahore, Adela Florence was born in England in 1865, near Bristol. Annie Sophie the younger daughter was born in 1868. After retirement in 1877 he joined a newspaper in Lahore, the Civil and Military Gazette, aimed at the British community in North India. He returned to London, and interestingly Rudyard Kipling, son of his friend took his post. By 1884 Cory must have returned to India, for he took over the paper’s Sind edition and turned it into a new journal, the Sind Gazette, published twice weekly in Karachi, eight hundred miles south-west of Lahore. He died in England in 1903. Adela’s education was completed in England and returned to Lahore at the age of sixteen, around 1882, just before her father’s retirement from the Civil and Military Gazette.  Isabel, Mrs. John Tate, succeeded her father as editor of The Sind Gazette. Ann Sofie as time would tell went on to become the notorious erotic writer Victoria Cross.

Adela married Colonel Malcolm Hassels Nicolson in April 1889 in Karachi.  As you can see, the colonel was 46 years old with a great drooping Walrus moustache, and Adela just 24, virtually half his age!  Was "Violet" as she was called by friends, destined to follow the traditional path of the British Army wife, horses, parties, ayahs and so on? We find that in 1897, when Violet was in a prestigious position as the General's wife, a Scottish writer called Violet Jacob whose husband, the Irish Major Arthur Otway Jacob, was posted at Mhow from 1894 to 1900, wrote thus of her: 'a tiny fair very strange woman, vilely and impossibly clothed. I always found her rather interesting, though of course everyone mocks at her, and I can't help doing it myself... sometimes at the really absurd figure she makes.
The Nicolson’s married life can also be gleaned from contemporary sources as testified by this report, Croquill writing for ‘The writer’ in 1909 - Mrs. Nicholson loved to dispense hospitality to her chosen friends. She was of a peculiar, unconventional nature, which is reflected in her poetry, and only those who were of the same mind appealed to her. She loved the world of books, occult science, and strongly sympathized with the Mohammedans. Those friends chosen for their brilliancy of mind more than for their material wealth found in her a warm, ardent, generous friend, extremely unconventional in her views, and a woman not at all fond of social gaiety in the usual acceptation of the term.

Adela took to wearing Indian clothes as time and writing poetry with a style reminiscent of the Sufi poets from the NW provinces (She was fluent in Urdu), and decided to get them published. It is said that while the substance of the poems was not drawn from identifiable Indian source, the exotic settings emphasized a passionate intensity which was seen as oriental. Her first volume of poetry, The Garden of Kama and other Love Lyrics from India, were published in 1901, but were not something Victorian and Edwardian England could accept from a lady and that was how they were published under the masculine pseudonym of Laurence Hope. The works were well received, though the somewhat explicit nature of the contents was hotly discussed. Generally reviewed as the work of a man, her poems attracted enormous attention at a time when DL Lawrence was still to become the buzz name, and was repeatedly republished every year for many years.
After retirement the couple briefly visited North Africa and then went to London, where they were drawn into literary circles including Thomas Hardy. But London and Africa were not to the liking of two people who had spent their entire life in India and so soon enough in 1904, the couple left London (after leaving their son London) in order to settle in Calicut. They found a bungalow in the hilltop overlooking the river at Feroke, a few miles off the town.   

Feroke Circa 1905
Calicut then was virtually a stopover on the way to Ooty, with no real relevance. Gone were the days of pomp and it was a sleepy town, barring the Moplah related events. Eleanor Montagu visiting Calicut, the place where the British had been present since 1615, and where A Conolly was the collector in 1884, wrote “Every person who comes to Calicut in the wild expectation of escaping at once to a more genial climate, labours under a delusion from which he will only too soon awake, when actually here”.

The Feroke House
But that was not the case for Adela and Malcom, because for six months they lived very happily in a place they stated was paradise, just like Edward Lear termed it. Adela’s poetry writing continued and she blossomed into a new dimension. But as most people agree, her poetry was a reflection of those interesting but difficult times where there was a definite passion and obsession of forbidden love in the minds of the literate. As experts state the purely personal voice of the poet was now beginning to dominate. She loved Malabar and wrote a lot about the land and its people….From the poem Song of the parao

These are my people, and this my land,
I hear the pulse of her secret soul.
This is the life that I understand,
Savage and simple and sane and whole.
These are my people, lithe-limbed and tall,
the maiden's bosom they scorn to cover.
Her breasts, which shall call and enthrall her lover,
Things of beauty, are free to all.

But recurring health issues required a move to Madras for the General's medical treatment. A routine prostate operation went wrong and the general died on 7 August 1904 at Mackay's Gardens Nursing Home, Madras, and was buried in St Mary's cemetery.
Mary Talbot Cross provides details - His widow was taken in by friends, the Stewarts, and for two months she stayed with them at Dunmore House (a property they were renting from Eardley Norton, the noted barrister and champion of the Indian right to self- determination). On 4 October 1904, when her final book of poetry was completed, "Laurence Hope" confided to a friend in London her intention of exercising her own "right" to follow her husband, entrusted the letter to Sir Norman Stewart whose return to England was imminent, retired to her room and took poison. It was an English equivalent of sati, and fittingly her last poems were published posthumously under the title Indian Love. Finally and after her death the poems were published in her own name. Some say that Adela did this following a bout of acute depression. She was buried, like her husband, in St Mary's cemetery, Madras. Her only son, Malcolm Josceline Nicolson, subsequently edited her poems.

In her book Indian Love, she started with a poem dedicated to her departed husband, in the poem she said…
Small joy was I to thee; before we met
Sorrow had left thee all too sad to save.
Useless my love-as vain as this regret
That pours my hopeless life across thy grave.

This controversial poem addressed to her husband and a number of swirling rumors kept hope in the limelight even after her death. While one of the rumors was based on her relationship with an Indian prince, the second was about her purported lesbian relationship with Amy Finden and third about her numerous affairs with all kinds of people without any real basis. Let’s take a cursory look at them. 

Somerset Maugham himself had experiences with India (especially the much talked about meeting in 1939 with Ramana Maharshi near Coimbatore, enroute Travancore).  Well, as it so happens, his short story ‘Colonel’s lady’ is loosely based around Adela Violet Nicolson. In fact it is a story where the Colonel discovers that his wife has become a hotshot writer all of a sudden and her much talked about story about an affair with a younger man (not a prince as some people have mentioned!!), becomes one he cannot stomach. Eventually after much soul searching and discussions with his solicitor he concludes that he should do nothing and ignore it, after all he himself had been dipping his wick (a blond and luscious thing) now and then while in London!

But a newspaper article is emphatic about the relationship with the prince, though I found it rather vague and unconvincing – EC Keissling writing for the Milwaukee journal in 1968 states that Adela was in love with a Raja and as that would upset the apple cart for the English; they used to meet in secret with him dressed as a commoner and she as a dancing girl. One day he was caught and threatened by his father the Raja and told that his head would be shaved and he would be sent to the forests. So he broke off the relationship. Malcom heard about this while recovering from malaria (not prostrate operation??) and this news hastened his death!

Others said after Adela moved to India that the poems expressed Adela’s lesbian love for Amy Woodforde-Finden. It appears Amy wrote to Laurence stating that she had been trying out some of the songs and wanted approval. Laurence agreed and asked if they could meet – the rumor is that they did meet and they fell instantly and passionately in love, and embarked on a brief intense affair before returning to their respective husbands as propriety demanded. Amy (Kashmiri song) incidentally was known as a prolific composer of `eastern ditties,' which effectively captured the mood and morals of the period. But many believe that the two never met. Before this rumor heated up, Adela had shifted to Madras to recuperate following her husband’s death and that effectively killed the rumor.

Hope's Grave
Anyway the Nicolsons were gone and Adela’s poetry published first under the name of Laurence Hope and later in her own name survived. The St Mary's cemetery mentioned is the one below the Stanley Viaduct (Sriram kindly helped me out on this, thanks). The graves are somewhere there, though you can see above a photo of what that once was.

A lot of people are interested in the Dunmore house, one that was home to many an illustrious person (read Sriram’sinteresting article linked here). Muthiah explains that Keith Murray, son of the 4th Earl of Dunmore lived at Dunmore House off Moubray’s Road between 1822 and 1831, when he was Collector of Madras. He also explains that the street leading to his gate became Murray’s Gate Road. The house itself vanished and was eaten up by the Venus colony where Venus pictures started a new dawn for Tamil cinema. A rare picture of the Dunmore house can be seen above.  

Murrays road became Muresh road (I have no idea who this Muresh is)
As for the bungalow at Feroke – it is still around I believe, mute testimony to days long gone, but bereft of poetry in these times! Malcolm Josceline John Sinclair Nicolson, who was just four when his mother took her life, later went on to edit her poems and make it available to the public.

And now we come to Madhavi Kutty’s comment about the boatman. If you read this poem ‘Surface rights’ written by Adela while at Feroke, you can see the intensity and the passion in the poetry which Kamala Das would of course have analyzed through her writer’s eyes. Perhaps this was written after a personal experience, for such was the high passion of a certain physical relationship depicted in words. Poem - Surface rights

Drifting, drifting along the River,
Under the light of a wan low moon,
Steady, the paddles; Boatmen, steady,--
Why should we reach the sea so soon?
Sweet are thy ways and thy strange caresses,
That sear as flame, and exult as wine.
But I care only for that wild moment
When my soul arises and reaches thine.

Perhaps she met him while going to or traveling around Malabar in a boat. A clue comes from a letter dated from Nilambur in May 1904, she writes:  We came here twenty-two miles through the jungle. The jungle was the jungle, but the hill climate was chilly, and there was a lot of grey in the sky, but here it is hot, it is India again. Do you know the name of Clogstoun? The tomb of Lt Samuel Robert Clogstoun (actually of 23rd regiment), who was drowned in 1843 in the river here at nineteen, “generous, high-spirited, and full of promise," as the officers of his regiment (the 21st Madras Infantry) have it, is here. The tomb was in a scrub jungle and almost covered. I washed the stone clean last evening and wondered if there were any of his people anywhere.

This place is perfect. I only wish one had a thousand years to live, as there are so many things one will have to leave undone.
That last sentence, you will agree, was profound!

I would presume that Hope was left to her own thoughts after her husband’s death and somewhat depressed. What hastened her suicide or Sati or whatever else it could be termed? At an age of 39, she took this decision to swallow a horrible chemical that burns your mouth, lips, gullet and innards as it traverses through and hastens your departure from this world? Why the torturous decision? Was it guilt or a sacrifice to her husband, or for her lover prince or Amy or for that matter the boatman? 

Perhaps a question that will never be answered, so take your pick!
HinduArticle – S Muthaiah
Friday times article
Fate KnowsNo Tears - Mary Talbot Cross (A novel, for those interested, I have not read it)
If you want to read about her suicide, read The Fin-de-siècle Poem: English Literary Culture and the 1890s  edited by Joseph Bristow ( see chapter  Death of the author by suicide – Holly laird)
The Idea of a Colony: Cross-culturalism in Modern Poetry -  Edward Marx ( See chapter - exotic transgressions of Laurence hope)
Victoria Cross article
Putnam’s monthly – Vol II April – Sept 1907
Somerset Maugham 65 short stories – The Colonel’s lady
Montague Crackanthorpe’s article - Outlook may 1905

While not many remember Laurence Hope, some others benefited, A ‘Garden of Kama’ perfume marketed by Dubarry et Cie in 1915, (Garden of Kama by Dubarry: perfume launched in 1916-1919, but the bottle was created in 1914 by Clovis and Julien Viard and trademarked by Depinoix in 1914) presented in a squat round bottle with a figural stopper sitting in the lotus position, designed by the renowned French sculptor Clovis Viard remained as the only material connection to Adela, the poetess, albeit briefly.

Feroke - Laurence Hope
The rice-birds fly so white, so silver white,    
The velvet rice-flats lie so emerald green. 
My heart inhales, with sorrowful delight,
The sweet and poignant sadness of the scene.
The swollen tawny river seeks the sea,
Its hungry waters, never satisfied,
Beflecked with fallen log and torn-up tree,
Engulph the fisher-huts on either side.
The current brought a stranger yesterday,
And laid him on the sand beneath a palm.
His worn young face was partly torn away,
His eyes, that saw the world no more, were calm.
We could not close his eyelids, stiff with blood,
But, oh, my brother, I had changed with thee 
For I am still tormented in the flood,
Whilst thou hast done thy work, and reached the sea



windwheel said...

Amazing! Thanks for this.

Maddy said...

Thanks Vivek..
appreciate your comments

Calicut Heritage Forum said...

Maddy- you have produced a well-researched piece on Laurence Hope. One never suspected that she had lived in Feroke, although for a brief period of 6 months before the husband died in August 1904, followed by the wife who ended her life in October the same year. Adela hardly had time for dalliance with the boatman (as per Madhavikutty story mentioned by you). Every one of the poems in the Garden of Kama conveys what you term ' the high passion of a certain physical relationship'. She had written the poem Teak Forest long before she visited Nilambur (there are teak forests in Mhow where Gen. Nicolson was posted).
Be that as it may, one had been fascinated by quotations from Laurence Hope (Pale hands I loved beside the Shalimar; Less than the dust beneath thy chariot wheel; etc) in Wodehouse's stories. It is great to know that famous writers like Lear and Hope had also found Calicut a nice place to live in, apart from many like Burton who had halted in Calicut en route Ooty.

Maddy said...

Thanks CHF..
If Adela's husband's operation had gone well, they would have stayed many more years in Calicut and things might have mended...but that was her fate, I guess...
Note that the final colelction was Indian love, this was the one with all the malabar poems

Mallorquín en Pekín said...

Hello dear all,
Have you received the info regarding Laurence Hope? I have now her personal ítem as paintings, also his son notes about her mother. You may contact me if interested on
Best regards

Unknown said...

Dear Maddy,
I refer to your article on Adela Florence Nicholson on March 8,2014. I would very much like to use it in Madras Musings. May I have your permission for this.

With best wishes,
SMuthiah,Editor, Madras Musings.

Maddy said...

Thanks Muthiah..
Yes, of course,pls go ahead.
I have been informed that the Feroke house is perhaps not the bungalow Hope lived in, but another house nearby, so that picture may be discarded.

Calicut Heritage Forum said...

Revisited the comments column just to update you on the Feroke story of Laurence Hope. Virginia Jealous, a poet and writer from Australia had been in search of the missing links in the life of LH. In fact, the search started from where her father had left unfinished. The result of her labour is the extremely readable book 'Rapture's Roadway'(2019) Ventura Press. She had visited Calicut and, in the company of Mr. Mohan, a travel consultant and a member of Calicut Heritage Forum, managed to locate the bungalow in Feroke. It is called Fort Hill House and is built near the Tippu Fort in Feroke. It was known in LH's time as Feroke House and was leased out by Nicolsons from one Francis Joseph de Rozario, a resident of Manjeri. Rozario had purchased the house in 1901 for a princely sum of Rs.525/
Virginia also found out why they had settled down in Feroke. According to her, the
Nicolson's had invested 'money they could ill afford in a venture in the Ernaad gold fields, inland, near Nilambur'. This explains LH's description of a visit to Nilambur. Virginia digs up further evidence of the disastrous investment: LH's will lists A '1/2 share in the Ernaad Gold Washing Concession'.

Maddy said...

Thanks CK.
I will try & get my hands on that book.
An interesting story, a tragic tale nevertheless