Tuesday, 23 November 2010

The Indestructible Lady Sale

This is the frontispiece from "Disaster in Afghanistan" by Lady Sale, rushed into print by John Murray in early 1843...Her Ladyship was still in England recovering from three months of siege and seven more of being held hostage by Akbar Khan...just one episode in the broader catastrophe, but the only written account of the siege to survive...Indeed, of the 16000 odd British subjects, Indians included, who were left in Kabul after Her Ladyship's husband, General "Fighting Bob" Sale had marched out with his regiment, (which included our other witness, Reverend George Gleig), Lady Sale, one of a handful of hostages, was one of the few to survive.

Left unedited by Murray, Lady Sale's book is a transcribed daily journal...written in moments of leisure, or of minute by minute reportage, its not a narrative, let alone a considered account. The writing lacks the polish and poise of the Reverend Gleig...but makes up for it by being told in real time, as it were...

(I'm not sure if there's any publishing precedent for such a thing. Maybe my more learned colleagues at the NLS can help me out with that?)

As she says in her introduction...written from Calcutta, "I have not only daily noted down events as they occurred, but often have done so hourly"

So, right or wrong, whatever she thought was happening at the time, accurate or not, is what Murray rushed into print not long after her rescue from captivity in Afghanistan in September of 1842.

So, for example, she says contradictory things about the fate of Alexander Burnes (my first hero of this series) ...for whom she seems to have had little affection or personal concern...Burnes disappearance (and, as it happened, murder) was the first serious violence of the Cabool uprising inNovember of 1841. But Lady Sale doesn't know he's dead for quite a while, and doesn't tell us how she felt when she found out.

In fact, she says very little about how she "felt" about anything. None of your Lady Diana "Queen of Hearts" cobblers here...this is how the aristocracy used to behave. Good thing too, unless you were on the recieving end.

For example : (my interpolations in italics from now on) :

"29th October

We hear that since the force (Sale's Regiment) left Khoord Cabul they have never pitched a tent. The rear guard has been attacked daily, and the bivouak fired on every night. The camels are dying forty a night from cold and starvation. Lieut. Jennings (13th) has been wounded severely in the arm, the bone broken, and the ball went through into his side. Lieut. Rattray (13th) wounded, and a sergeant killed and 3 men wounded; 4 or 5 Sipahees (Sepoys) of the 35th wounded.

And so on. Dry. Factual. Stiff upper lipped.

31st October

The potatoes thrive well, and will be a very valuable addition to the cuisine. The cauliflowers, artichokes and turnip radishes are very fine...the Cabul lettuces are hairy and inferior....

1st November

No letters from camp (Sale's), which has caused both surprise and anxiety.

2nd November

Last night a party of Kohistannes entered the city...this morning, early, all was commotion in Cabul; the shops were plundered and the peoplke were all fighting...Capt Johnson's (paymaster to the Shah's forces) house and treasury in the city were attacked, as also Sir Alexander Burnes's...

This is the first time she mentions Burnes in her journal. She could not know that he was already dead. Besides, her attention that fateful day was elsewhere.

Capt Sturt...went to General Elphinstone, who sent him with an important message...to the King to concert with him measures for the defence of that fortress. Just as he entered the precincts of that palace, he was stabbed in three places by a young man well dressed, who escaped into a building close by, where he was protected by the gates being shut.

Captain Sturt was her son in law.

I cannot describe how shocked I was when I saw poor Sturt; for Lawrence, fearing to alarm us, had said he was only slightly wounded. He had been stabbed deeply in the shoulder and side, and on the face (the latter wound striking on the bone just missed the temple): he was covered with blood issuing from his mouth and was unable to articulate...the mouth would not open, the tongue was swollen and paralysed and he was ghastly and faint from loss of blood. He could not lie down from the blood choking him...he was better towards evening; and by his wife's (her daughter's) unremitting attention in assisting him to get rid of the clotted blood from his mouth...he was by eleven o'clock able to utter a tolerably articulate sound. With what joy did we hear him faintly utter "bet-ter"; and he really seemed to enjoy a tea-spoonful of water, which we got into his mouth by a drop or two at a time, painful as it was to him to swallow it.

I must admit, that as I approach the end of this residency, the idea of a dual theatrical Portrait of Mr Burnes and Lady Sale becomes and icreasingly tempting thought of one of the things I might do next.

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