STERNE married Miss Lumley of York. He afterwards held sentimental converse with Miss Fourmantelle, Lady Percy, “My witty widow Mrs. F—,” &c., &c. But his one passion was for the Eliza to whom this volume is dedicated. “Not Swift,” he wrote to her just before she sailed for India, “so loved his Stella, Scarron his Maintenon, or Waller his Sacharissa, as I will love and sing thee, my wife elect! All those names, eminent as they are, shall give place to thine, Eliza.”
Mrs. Elizabeth Draper was daughter to one May Sclater who went out to India when a mere boy. He married there a Miss Whitehill, and settled at Anjengo, a small factory on the coast of Malabar, where Elizabeth was born on April 5, 1744. In
due time she was sent to England for the “frivolous education” accorded to “girls destined for India.” “The generality of us,” she wrote in sorrowful retrospect, “* * * were never instructed in the Importance of any thing, but one Worldly Point, that of getting an Establishment of the Lucrative kind, as soon as possible, a tolerable complection, an Easy manner, some degree of taste in the adjustment of our ornaments, some little skill in dancing a minuet, and singing an air.” With no training in “useful Employments,” she returned to India in her fourteenth year to become, six months later, the wife of Daniel Draper, her elder by some twenty years. Since 1750 Draper had been in the service of the East India Company, and in 1759, the year after his marriage, he was appointed Secretary to the Government at Bombay, where with some interruptions he continued for the rest of his life in India. His faithful services were eventually rewarded by a seat in the Council and the post of Accountant General. If a somewhat heavy official, he was described by a friend and admirer as “a very noble and
good-humoured man.” There was nothing unusual about the Draper marriage, which now seems so ill-sorted in respect to age; and we may suppose that neither husband nor wife found it too uncomfortable. A boy was born in 1759, and two years later a girl, named for her mother—the Eliza or Betsey who figures in one of the letters. In 1765, the Drapers brought their children to England that they might be given an English education. Later in the same year Mr. Draper went back to Bombay, but his wife remained in England to recover her health, which had been much weakened by child-bearing and the heat of India.
There was then living in Gerrard Street, Soho, a retired Indian commodore named William James. After making a fortune in the Bombay Marine Service, he returned to England, married an attractive wife, and soon won a place in the “best” London society. Early in 1767, Sterne began going to the Jameses for dinner, especially of a Sunday; and the friendship quickly became intimate. Under date of February 23, Sterne wrote to his daughter Lydia: “I wish I had you with me—and I would introduce you to
one of the most amiable and gentlest of beings, whom I have just been with— * * * a Mrs. James, the wife of as worthy a man as I ever met with—I esteem them both.” It was no doubt at the house of these “kind friends in Gerrard Street” that Sterne made the acquaintance of Mrs. Draper—and most likely on his arrival in London at the very beginning of January, 1767. Half in love on first sight, Sterne soon became completely engrossed with his new passion. And well he might, for though Eliza may not have been handsome, she was young, good looking at least, and most agreeable in manner. “Your eyes,” Sterne wrote to her, “and the shape of your face (the latter the most perfect oval I ever saw) * * * are equal to any of God’s works in a similar way, and finer than any I beheld in all my travels.” Mrs. Draper was then called by her London friends, says one of her letters, the Belle Indian. Sterne saw much of her at the Jameses; she visited his lodgings in Old Bond Street; they made excursions together in and about London; and when separated from her, Sterne communed with her “sweet sentimental picture.” As the time was approaching
for her to return to India—she sailed on April 3, 1767—he addressed to her the extraordinary epistles that all the world knows, and for months afterwards he recorded his sensations in a journal which he hoped some day to place in her hands.
The sojourn of Mrs. Draper in England had been to the change and harm of her character. With her little knowledge of the world, she took Sterne and her flatterers too seriously. She was no doubt attractive in appearance, with her oval face and light airs, but her admirers said to her face that she was beautiful; and worse than that, they tried to make out that she possessed qualities of mind which, if cultivated, would surely lead to distinction in literature. They sent her back to the dull humdrum of India with the literary ambitions of Mrs. Montagu and the blue-stockings. Henceforth she was to find at Bombay a great “Dearth of every thing which could charm the Heart—please the Fancy, or speak to the judgment.” Still Mrs. Draper seems for a time to have made the best of the situation. Writing from Tellicherry in 1769 to a friend in England, she spoke with respect if not with enthusiasm of
her husband, whom she was assisting in his official correspondence. But by 1772 she became thoroughly sick of India and of her husband in particular. In a letter to Mrs. James from Bombay she lamented that she was compelled to remain in a detestable country, where her health was declining, and her mind was tortured by the desire to return to England and be with her daughter. At this time she was no longer living with Draper as a wife, and for sufficient reasons, for he was engaged in open intrigue with an attendant—a Mrs. Leeds. In retaliation and despair, Mrs. Draper abruptly left her husband on the night of January 14–15, 1773, in company with Sir John Clark of the Navy, then in command of a frigate at Bombay. She sought refuge for a time with a “kind uncle,” Tom Whitehill, at Rajahmandry, and the next year she returned to England, where much attention was paid to her as Sterne’s Eliza. She associated, perhaps not to her good fame, with John Wilkes the politician; and, if an anecdote of Rogers is to be trusted, William Combe, the literary hack, could boast “that it was with him, not
with Sterne, that Eliza was in love.” More to be pitied than to be censured, the unfortunate Mrs. Draper died at Bristol on August 3, 1778, in the thirty-fifth year of her age.
Mrs. Draper was buried in the cloisters of Bristol Cathedral, where to her memory stands a monument symbolizing in its two draped figures Genius and Benevolence, the qualities given her in the inscription. The next year the Abbé Raynal, the French historian of the Indies—over whom Mrs. Draper had cast her spells, first in India and afterwards in England—wrote about her in mad eulogy. He had wept, he said, with Eliza over Sterne; and at the time of her death, she was intending to quit her country for a life with him in France. “A statuary,” he goes on to say in description of Mrs. Draper, “who would have wished to represent Voluptuousness, would have taken her for his model; and she would equally have served for him who might have had a figure of Modesty to display. * * * Every instant increased the delight she inspired; every instant rendered her more interesting. * * * Eliza then was very beautiful? No,
she was simply beautiful: but there was no beauty she did not eclipse, because she was the only one that was like herself.” And long afterwards, James Forbes, to whose Oriental Memoirs we owe so much for the social India of those days, paid his tribute to Mrs. Draper. Anjengo he averred would ever be celebrated as the birthplace of Eliza: “a lady with whom I had the pleasure of being acquainted at Bombay, whose refined tastes and elegant accomplishments require no encomium from my pen.” To the various places where Mrs. Draper lived in India the curious long made pilgrimages. Colonel James Welsh of the Madras infantry visited the house at Anjengo where she was supposed to be born, and carried away from a broken window pieces of oyster-shell and mother-of-pearl as mementos. He took pains to write also in his Memoirs that the house she lived in at Tellicherry was still standing in 1812. Belvidere House, at Mazagon, overlooking the harbour at Bombay—the house from an upper window of which Eliza escaped by a rope ladder to the ship of Sir
John Clark—was long believed to be haunted by her spirit, “flitting about in corridor or verandah in hoop and farthingale.” Sketches of Belvidere were brought to England by J. B. Fraser, the traveller and explorer; and from them Robert Burford painted a panorama for public exhibition in London. For nearly a century, it is said, a tree on the estate of her uncle Tom Whitehill at Masulipatam was called Eliza’s tree in memory of her sojourn there.