Emily Eden, by Simon Jacques Rochard, 1835, watercolour and pencil. © National Portrait Gallery, NPG 6455, reproduced here by kind permission of the gallery.

Emily Eden (1797-1869) was the seventh of eight sisters, and the lifelong companion, of the Whig politician George Eden (1784-1849), 2nd Baron and 1st Earl of Auckland, who is best known for his time as Governor General of India, 1836-1842. She played an important role in her brother's life. George, a shy, stiff-mannered bachelor whose chief pleasure was in shooting-parties, had inherited the political privileges of his elder brother William, who had drowned himself on his twenty-seventh birthday in 1810. Later he had inherited the title earned by his father during a strenuously self-promoting career in political office, but not the means to live as hospitably as his rich Whig friends like the influential Lord Lansdowne of Bowood House, Wiltshire. After a failed proposal to Annabella Milbanke, the future Lady Byron, and a few detached affairs with married women, he was happy with the devoted company of Emily, the first of his sisters to resist the usual upper-class pressure to marry.

An intelligent observer of life and politics, Emily was not only an excellent companion, but a constant, witty and confidential letter-writer. She was fond of her family and women friends, and slowly gained confidence in independent friendships with men. In her thirties she formed a close, chaste relationship with the recently widowed Lord Melbourne, refusing his probably half-meant proposal of marriage. (‘He frightens me and bewilders me, and he swears too much,’ she protested to her friend Theresa Lister in January 1832 (MEL 215). Soon after that she wrote a novel, The Semi-Attached Couple, describing a tissue of misunderstandings between a newly married, aristocratic couple – a novel with Jane Austen-like overtones and imaginative psychological depth, in which a senior politician, ‘Mr G’, who becomes Prime Minister, is an idealized combination of Melbourne and her brother George.

Theresa Lister, from a painting by G.S. Newton. MEL, facing p. 203.

Emily’s knowledge of country-house life came from years as a house-party guest. She, George and their younger sister Fanny (1801-1849) lived together in Mayfair, which she disliked, and more happily at Greenwich, where George was a Commissioner of the Naval Hospital. The setting in which they had grown up was one she remembered nostalgically for the rest of her life: Eden Farm at Beckenham, a late eighteenth-century classical villa on the rural periphery of London, with its own hundred-acre park, farm and gardens, of the kind that richer families used as a seasonal retreat when not in London or at their country estates. It was the Edens’ main home, much loved by most of the family during their parents’ lifetimes. When her next-up brother Morton was a schoolboy and their uncle Lord Minto was Governor-General of Bengal, Morton had turned down the offer of a potentially lucrative East India Company writership in favour of a career nearer home. Emily claimed much later, in a letter of 20 January 1842, that she, too, had decided at the age of seven that she would never to go to India (LI II: 287). It was not always considered safe for European ladies, many of whom died there. Lord Minto left his wife behind in Scotland during his seven years away as Governor-General, only to lose her company and his handsome pension by dying in 1814 within weeks of arriving home.

‘A Sough of India’

‘They can shove off old Lisle to India’, Lord Beaufort casually suggests in The Semi-Attached Couple (Ch 24). That may have reflected a rumour, while Emily was working on the novel in 1834, that George would succeed Lord William Cavendish-Bentinck as Governor-General of India. In October 1834, she told Theresa,

There was a great sough of India for about a fortnight, but I always said it was too bad to be true, which is a dangerous assertion to make in most cases, as it only hastens the catastrophe. But this was such an extreme case, such a horrible supposition, that there was nothing for it but to bully it; and the danger is over now. Botany Bay would be a joke to it. There is a decent climate to begin with, and the fun of a little felony first. But to be sent to Calcutta for no cause at all!! At all events, I should hardly have got there before George got home again, for I should have walked across the country to join him, if I had gone at all. I think I see myself going in a ship for five months! I would not do it for £1000 a day. [MEL 245-46]

George Eden, Earl of Aukland. © National Portrait Gallery, NPG 6454, reproduced here by kind permission of the gallery.

George’s name had been tentatively linked with India since early in 1830, when he had been co-opted on to a parliamentary committee on Indian affairs. At that time the liberal Tory Lord Ellenborough had been President of the Board of Control, in charge of overseeing the affairs of the East India Company. After the new Whig government ousted him that November, he thought George would have been better suited to his job than to being President of the Board of Trade (Ellenborough 21-22). As the son of the barrister who had defended Warren Hastings against impeachment, Ellenborough had strong views about India. Suspecting that Russia had designs on Afghanistan and northern India, he believed the East India Company would do best to reduce its trading activities and increase its administrative strength. Its monopoly of the China trade seemed particularly anachronistic, given the number of manufacturers and importers who were chafing to be allowed free trade with China. In September 1831 he told the Whig placemaker Lord Lansdowne that ‘Auckland was the only man they had who could enable them to open the China trade & I told Auckland I had said so’ (Ellenborough 133).

If George had become President of the the Board of Control, he would have found its new Secretary, Theresa’s brother Hyde Villiers, a friendlier junior to work with than pushy Charles Powlett-Thompson, the Secretary of the Board of Trade. Less than two years into the job, during the election campaign of December 1832, Hyde died of an abscess on the brain while standing as Whig candidate for Falmouth and Penryn, Cornwall. His successor was Thomas Babington Macaulay, who would move on to become law member of the Governor-General’s Council in Calcutta. George had always called Hyde and his brothers ‘Villiers’ indiscriminately, saying that he could not tell them apart (MEL 170). Now he was unusually tender towards the eldest, George, whom they knew best, and Emily was touched by his solicitude when he invited George and his brother Edward to Christmas dinner in Lower Grosvenor Street. ‘I never saw my brother George so occupied with another person’s grief as he is in this instance,’ she told Theresa in December 1832, ‘He is asking and thinking every day what can be done for Mr Villiers. God knows there is nothing; but still I always recollect that in those horrid times of trial, affection from anybody is soothing, if it is nothing more, so I am glad when it is shown’ (MEL 223).

At Greenwich the three siblings occupied a house that belonged to the Naval Hospital, enjoying their garden with its private wicket gate into the Park. Emily and George developed a competitive passion for gardening: George keen on the latest exotics, while Emily preferred old-fashioned flowers that reminded her of her childhood at Eden Farm. Patiently, if sometimes resentfully, she kept George company in London when Parliament was sitting, torn between political interest and a longing to escape to the domestic tranquillity of Greenwich. On June 11, 1833 she complained to her cousin Lord Minto that the session seemed likely to last all summer: ‘not from any particular fault in the H[ouse] of C[ommons] – which has behaved in an angelic manner – barring a little too much garrulity & prosing - but from the immense importance & the trouble of great questions that have had to be settled’ [Minto]. One of the knottiest questions that summer concerned the renewal of the East India Company’s charter, and on August 5 in the House of Lords George advanced a principled argument in favour of declaring slavery in British India illegal.


Holland, Germany and Belgium

Once the session was over, in late August 1833, the Edens went abroad. Made restless by her summer in London, Emily longed for new sights and experiences, and for once took the initiative in persuading George to go. Thirteen years had passed since they had first thought of visiting Holland to stir his memories of childhood at the British embassy at The Hague. That trip had not come off, and there was now a fresh source of interest in the newly created kingdom of Belgium, which had previously been subjected to the Hapsburg empire, then to Napoleonic France, then to the Dutch monarchy since the Congress of Vienna in 1815. In 1830 the Belgians had revolted and demanded autonomy. Whigs like the Edens sympathized with the Belgians’ aspirations, and in 1831 the Foreign Secretary, Lord Palmerston, had persuaded the reactionary alliance of Austria, Prussia and Russia to allow the Belgians a constitutional monarchy on the still-evolving British model. Rejecting the controversial offer of a French-born king, Palmerston had secured one with a respectable British connection: Princess Charlotte’s widower, Prince Leopold of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld, the former son-in-law of George IV.

Braubach on the Rhine, a drawing by by Samuel Prout in 1833.

As for the centrepiece of the trip, a brief tour of the Rhineland, Emily said she owed the idea to their cousin Gilbert Elliot, second Earl of Minto, who had been ambassador in Berlin since August 1832. ‘You know you put the Rhine idea into my head," she wrote to Lord Minto on 10 January 1834, " – & once there I could not rest till I had persuaded Geo. into that little escapade – which was full as pleasant as I had meant it to be. I never enjoyed myself more in my life & George, the cretur who went unwillingly, was just as happy as I was’ (Minto).

Eager to get back to his usual round of country-house shooting-parties, George insisted on limiting their tour to three weeks. He stretched the truth when telling Gilbert afterwards, on 25 November 1833, that they had been away for a month, and that, given twice the time and money, they would have been ‘tempted to push on’ to Berlin – a move he can never seriously have contemplated (Minto). Disembarking at Rotterdam with their carriage, coachman and servants, they moved at a brisk clip through the Netherlands and the Rhineland, spending only one night at any stop apart from Amsterdam and Frankfurt. In October, Emily told her friend Maria Howick, the daughter-in-law of the Prime Minister Earl Grey, that she would like to go back again and see things properly (Grey of Howick Papers). From The Hague they went inland to Amsterdam, Amersfoort and Cleves, then south along the Rhine to Cologne and Coblenz. Turning east into the Lahn valley at Nassau and Bad Ems, where their brother Morton had probably taken the waters for a skin complaint during his German travels in 1817, they then headed south to Wiesbaden and Frankfurt, and south again to the ancient university city of Heidelberg. Crossing the Hunsrück, the Mosel valley, the Eifel and the Ardennes, they entered central Belgium, where they stayed at the British embassy in Brussels and King Leopold gave them a formal dinner. Early in October they boarded the Margate packet at Antwerp for the voyage home.

In spite of the lovely early autumn weather and her enjoyment of the trip, Emily could not resist a few barbed comments. In Frankfurt, where they dined in the ‘first circles’, and where Baron Amschel Mayer von Rothschild presided over the family bank, she was impressed by the ‘wealth of the whole concern’, but objected to the upper-class habit of dining at four o’clock, then spending whole evenings at the opera. She told Maria in a letter of September 25 (Grey of Howick Papers) that the Rhine was a ‘thorough take-in in point of scenery’, although she had liked the castles and the old cities like Cologne. With fantasies of being reborn as a wandering artist, she had filled a sketch-book by the time she arrived in Brussels, and took offence when a brash, lounging Englishman, John Bowring, asked what she had ‘been doing in the sketching line’, then praised her for achieving ‘a result’

Emily was scathing about it. ‘I really believe that I must be a fierce aristocrate by nature,’ she wrote to Bowring’s diplomatic colleague George Villiers on 21 October;

however, I behaved no worse to Bowring than by contradicting every assertion he made – on subjects of which I knew nothing. I actually argued myself black in the face about Spanish proverbs, Dutch fisheries and Belgian tariffs, knowing nothing about the language or the fish or the trade. I do not think our acquaintance was long enough for him to detect my ignorance, because he argued to the last just as if I were a reasonable creature, and, thank Heaven, after two days’ wrangling I had the last word. He most politely saw us on board our steamboat at Antwerp, and did everything to make us comfortable, and, just as he left the deck, I contradicted him flat on a point of geography. You know what my geography is – worse than nothing – so that he must have been right, which made it the more necessary to take a contrary opinion. [Clarendon I: 80]

The Dutch monarchy was still unreconciled to the loss of Belgium, and in the same letter Emily wrote derisively about it to Villiers, who had been sent by Palmerston to manage the succession crisis in Spain.

What a frightful country Holland is. I am proud of my skill in discovering that King William is not so sulky at being deprived of Belgium as at having been left with Holland. It is such a great slop, he does not know how to mop it up without help. Indeed I have suggested that to our ministers, thinking they might begin a negociation on fresh ground – or rather fresh water.... Altogether, I think Belgium such a neat little kingdom and Leopold a very lucky man [...] He has mounted his court to a pitch of formality and magnificence that would deceive an unsuspicious stranger into the idea of his being a legitimate monarch. We could not have passed a duller evening, or sat in a more formal circle if he had been Leopold XIV. However, it was worth seeing and not really tiresome, as all such things are amusing once [Clarendon I: 79]

In letters to George Villiers in Madrid and her cousin Gilbert in Berlin, Emily made the same performative efforts to amuse as she did when writing to her sisters and women friends. She commented on political developments, interspersing news with satirical observations, ridicule and gossip, and flattered both diplomats about the impression they were making at home. Gilbert had achieved his first embassy at nearly fifty, after years as a Whig opposition member of the House of Lords. On 14 December 1832 she told him that the ballet-loving, travel-loving Lord Lansdowne was ‘in an universal scrape’ for cutting Cabinet meetings ‘to go frisking over to Paris [...] to see Taglioni.’ (The young Swedish-Italian dancer Marie Taglioni had given the first performance of her most famous ballet, >La Sylphide at the Paris Opéra.) The French and British were by then so ‘excessively fond’ of one another that any cabinet minister visiting Paris was ‘immediately caught, & set up, & worshipped’.

‘Talking of ministers – I sat next to Lord Grey at dinner at Talleyrand’s the other day & he mentioned you – without recollecting I had any interest in you – in terms of the highest praise – in fact I thought it became me to take the humble line & to look bashful & say Law! – it is only my cousin Gilbert – don’t mention it[;] but I heard in a roundabout way thro’ my friend [Maria] Lady Howick that Lord Grey is particularly taken with your despatches – so I tell you what I heard – & pat you on the head, & tell you to go on being a good ambassador.’

India and the Great Game

In the New Year of 1834, Emily wrote to George Villiers that she and George had just spent two weeks as guests of Lord and Lady Lansdowne at Bowood (Clarendon I: 81). Much though she enjoyed Lansdowne’s intellectual interests and his Maecenas-like patronage of the arts, she had given up expecting to spend every Christmas there, as they had done in years gone by, since she had begun to doubt that he meant his invitations or that Lady Lansdowne liked his choice of guests. Although he rode down specially to Greenwich to invite them, she had still felt diffident about accepting. ‘But, however," she wrote to Theresa Lister, "he wrote again as soon as he got back, and then Lady Lansdowne wrote to insist on our fixing a day. So, though I know she never wishes her invitations to be accepted, yet if she will write, she must take the consequences, and so we are going’ (MEL 214, 230).

As always, the conversation at Bowood was more bookish and wide-ranging than the usual country-house gossip about marriages, adultery and the questionable paternity of children. In the past it had been mainly literary, with the novelist Maria Edgeworth and the Irish poet and lyricist Tom Moore, Byron’s biographer, among the guests. Now, she told Maria Howick on 4 January 1834, Lord Lansdowne’s burgeoning geographical and other interests brought ‘a fag end of travellers & curates &c’, as Emily called the supernumeraries, to entertain the house-party (Grey of Howick Papers) The guests included the ‘beautiful [...] but tiresome’ Caroline Norton, boasting in front of her husband about Lord Melbourne and her other distinguished lovers; the radically inclined Lord John Russell, and other Whig grandees and hangers-on.

The chief celebrity entertainer was Alexander Burnes, a charming, twenty-eight-year-old Bombay Army officer and spy. Lord Ellenborough, as President of the Board of Control in 1830, had urged Lord William Cavendish-Bentinck, the Governor-General of Bengal, to establish a trade route to the silk-trading emirate of Bukhara as a step towards British control of Afghanistan, with Bukhara as one of several potential buffers between Afghanistan and Russia. Burnes had been chosen for his Scottish toughness, linguistic fluency and diplomatic ingenuity to carry out preliminary investigations in Central Asia. In 1832 he had travelled secretly with three companions through Afghanistan to Bukhara, probably following the course of the Amu Darya as it flowed north-westwards towards the Aral Sea. Disguised as merchants or pilgrims, they had then crossed the Turkoman desert to Mashhad, Asterabad (the present Gorgan) near the south shore of the Caspian Sea, and Tehran, before sailing back through the Persian Gulf to Bombay.

Conolly, frontispiece.

It was early in the so-called Great Game, the largely imaginary confrontation between the British and Russian imperial powers in Central Asia, with its tortuous political strategies and its disastrous invasive moves. It was not generally called the Great Game until well into the twentieth century, although a colleague of Burnes’s in the political department, Arthur Conolly, used the expression in a morally bracing sense to Henry Rawlinson, political agent for southern Afghanistan, in 1840. (‘You’ve a great game, a noble game before you.’) Conolly, converted to Evangelicalism by Bishop Reginald Heber of Calcutta on the voyage out, had journeyed overland through Central Asia in 1829-30, as a lone twenty-two-year-old lieutenant rejoining the Bengal Army after a period of sick leave at home. With permission from his superiors he had travelled from St Petersburg through Tiflis, Tehran, Mashhad, Herat, Kandahar and Sind. Dismayed by being captured and robbed in the Turkoman desert and seeing Russian and Persian slave prisoners in Uzbekistan and Afghanistan, he felt convinced of the explosive potential of Central Asia, and hoped that Christian agents like Rawlinson might convert the tribesmen away from violence and defuse the possibility of a war between the major powers (Yapp 181; Prior; Chichester and Lunt).

Burnes, who had been honoured and feted in London, gave the Bowood party a fascinating account of his adventures, illustrated with a map of the mountain and desert areas he had passed through. Like Conolly he was about to publish an account of his derring-do, which became an immediate best-seller (Prior; Burnes; Conolly). Like Conolly, too, he would return to military duties in India, before being deployed to Afghanistan as assistant political officer to the hawkish Sir William Macnaghten. Frustrated by his instructions to effect the restoration of a former Amir, the British puppet king Shah Shuja, in place of the more independent Dost Mohammad, he would antagonize Afghans with his carefree lifestyle and relationships with local women. In November 1841 he was assassinated at his house in Kabul, weeks before Macnaghten met a similar end.

Emily admitted to George Villiers on 7 January 1834 that she had ‘swallowed a small quantity of instruction without much nausea’ during Burnes’s talk (Clarendon I: 81). Central Asian involvements were a remote, undeveloped aspect of British rule in India, and it did not occur to her that she and George would ever meet Macnaghten or learn more about Afghanistan. They were already thinking ahead to his retirement, as he was uneasy at the Board of Trade and his friends were uncertain where to place him next. That spring there was talk of the Chancellorship of the Exchequer, and George, anticipating a move to Downing Street, prepared to sell the lease of the Mayfair house and began inspecting retirement villas outside London. Then Lord Melbourne succeeded Earl Grey as Prime Minister, and George became First Lord of the Admiralty. He enjoyed the work, and during his first few months there, before Melbourne was dismissed and his appointment was temporarily cancelled, he commissioned a sea-captain who in gratitude gave the name of Auckland to a settlement he later founded in New Zealand.

Lord William Cavendish-Bentinck, by Richard Westmacott, c. 18435, now in the gardens of the Victoria Memorial, Kolkata (Calcutta).

The ‘sough of India’ occurred while George was at the Admiralty. A replacement had to be found for Lord William Bentinck when he left in March 1835. The acting Governor-General was Sir Charles Metcalfe, a seasoned India hand who would strongly advise George against rash strategic ventures outside the Company’s territory. The British government, however, preferred to send a lord to rule India rather than appointing a local expert. Once Melbourne was back in power in 1835 he chose George as a dedicated liberal administrator and a member of the aristocratic Whig inner circle, who would clearly benefit more than most from a Governor-General’s vast salary and pension. In October 1835, George, Emily and Fanny embarked in the naval frigate Jupiter on a five-month voyage to Calcutta. George proved to be an industrious, compassionate and racially tolerant Governor-General; yet he fatally lacked the foresight to prevent his political adviser, Macnaghten, from urging him into the Afghan venture.

The venture proved disastrous. The British occupation of Afghanistan resulted in the murders and imprisonments of the fleeing Kabul garrison, its wives, children, servants and camp-followers, in the bitter mountain winter of 1842. The damage to George's reputation was considerable. The Whig office-holder and politician is 'generally regarded as the worst ever Governor General', says Ferdinand Mount — admitting that "the competition for that title was strong' (247). Mount found it odd that Prime Minister Peel should have reinstated him afterwards as First Lord of the Admiralty, concluding that ‘ministerial talent in the House of Lords was not so plentiful as to disqualify the author of one of the worst disasters in British military history’(389).

Not everyone in England was of this opinion at the time. George himself had been appalled by the unforeseen consequences of his policy. Back home in 1842, Emily supported him loyally, as did a number of Tories and some of his Whig friends. Other, former Whig friends cold-shouldered them both until the militaristic Lord Ellenborough, George's successor as Governor General, offended the Whig opposition with his outspoken criticisms of George's actions and his own policy of conquest, which included annexing Sind in 1843 (Steele).

Related Material


Burnes, Alexander. Travels into Bokhara; being an account of a journey from India to Cabool, Tartary and Persia. London: John Murray, 1834.

Chichester, H.M., revised by James Lunt, ‘Arthur Conolly (1807-1842?). Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.

Clarendon, George William Frederick Villiers, 4th Earl of. Life & Letters. 2 vols. Ed. Sir Herbert Maxwell. London: E. Arnold, 1913.

Conolly, Arthur. Journey to the North of India: Overland from England, through Russia, Persia, and Affghaunistaun. 1834. 2nd ed. London: Richard Bentley, 1838.

Eden, Emily. Miss Eden’s Letters. Ed. Violet Dickinson. London: Macmillan, 1919 [MEL].

Eden, Emily. Letters from India. 2 vols. Ed. Eleanor Eden. London: Bentley, 1872 [LI].

[Eden, Emily]. The Semi-Attached Couple, by the author of The Semi-Detached House. London: Bentley, 1860.

Ellenborough, Edward Law, 1st Earl of. Diary, in Three Early Nineteenth-century Diaries. Ed. A. Aspinall. London: Williams & Norgate, 1952.

Elliot of Minto Papers, National Library of Scotland [Minto].

Grey of Howick Papers, Durham University Library.

Mount, Ferdinand. The Tears of the Rajas: Mutiny, Money and Marriage in India, 1805-1905. London: Simon & Schuster, 2015.

Prior, Katherine. ‘Sir Alexander Burnes (1805-1841), Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.

Steele, David. 'Law, Edward, first Earl of Ellenborough, 1790-1871'. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.

William, 1st Baron Auckland to the Dean of Christ Church, January 3, 1810, BL Add. MS 45,730.

Yapp, Malcolm. ‘The Legend of the Great Game’, Proceedings of the British Academy, 2000 (2001).

Created 23 May 2020