Maria Graham: A Literary Biography By Regina Akel

June 11, 2009

Maria Graham (nee Dundas, 1785-1842), traveller and author, was, like Charley's Aunt, no ordinary woman. Her reading was omnivorous, encouraged by William Delamotte, the landscape artist, who introduced her to the works of Edmund Burke. But she also moved in the circle of Agnes and Mary Berry, who had been friends of Horace Walpole, the celebrated virtuoso and wit. Later, in Edinburgh, she knew leading members of the Scottish Enlightenment, including Dugald Stewart and John Playfair.

However, she became ill with tuberculosis (which was eventually to kill her) and, in the winter of 1806-07, her enforced leisure enabled her to acquire knowledge of a vast range of subjects that would stand her in good stead. But she always resented the fact that she had never been to university, and this comes out in Regina Akel's affectionate biography.

In 1808, she sailed for India. On board was Lieutenant Thomas Graham: by the time the ship docked in the subcontinent, they were engaged, and they tied the knot in December 1809. During the next couple of years, Graham travelled in India, absorbing impressions and taking an intelligent interest in everything she saw.

After her return to England, she published her Journal of a Residence in India (1812), followed by Letters from India (1814), and her open-mindedness is evident in both, although she was not uncritical of some Indian customs. She described practices such as suttee or sati with detachment as factual records, thereby attracting a certain amount of opprobrium from those who felt women should not even mention such things without having a serious attack of The Vapours.

In 1818, the Grahams stayed in Rome, where they met numerous artists, including Charles Lock Eastlake, John Jackson, J.M.W. Turner and Sir Thomas Lawrence. It was Eastlake who provided the illustrations for Graham's Three Months in the Mountains East of Rome (1820), and Lawrence who painted the attractive sketch in oils now in the National Portrait Gallery that shows Graham wearing the turban-like headgear she sported, probably to hide an injury sustained when she was a child.

In 1820, her Memoirs of the Life of Nicholas Poussin, the first monograph on that artist to appear in English, was published. In 1821, the Grahams sailed for South America, but in 1822 Thomas died at sea, and Graham settled for a time in Chile, where she experienced and wrote about an earthquake. In 1823, however, she was appointed governess to Maria da Gloria, daughter of the Emperor of Brazil, and remained in post until 1824, when she returned to England. She kept journals about her residence in Chile and the voyage to Brazil, and in 1828 published (with John Murray, for whom she had become a reader) A Short History of Spain, a second edition of which appeared in 1834.

In 18, this formidable bluestocking married the painter Augustus Wall Callcott, to the consternation of his friends and family, and the couple made a long continental journey in 18-28 that led to Essays towards a History of Painting (1836). Her most successful book, however, was Little Arthur's History of England (1835), which went into 70 editions.

From 1831, Maria Callcott became a permanent invalid, and found life unpleasant and frustrating. She was rudely snubbed by Sir William Allan and John Callcott "Clothes" Horsley when she ventured views on the decorations of the Palace of Westminster, and thereafter avoided all conversation when art was discussed. From 1837, when her husband was knighted, she was Lady Callcott, but as Maria Graham her name is revered in both Chile and Brazil (where, in the ghastly parlance of these benighted times, she is a "gay icon").

The five illustrations in Akel's book include the Callcott/Graham grave-slab (restored through the efforts of The Friends of Kensal Green Cemetery and the Embassy of Chile) in the General Cemetery of All Souls. The book's index is inadequate and chapter 12 is curious, of not quite four pages and oddly titled "Afterward", but Akel's tome is an achievement.

Maria Graham: A Literary Biography

By Regina Akel
Cambria Press
300pp
£64.99
ISBN 9781604975970
Published 28 February 2009

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