The Bengal Annual: A Digital Exploration of Non-Canonical British Romantic Literature

"The Rajpootni Bride" - Close Reading

In a number of works featured in The Bengal Annual, the female figures—particularly women of color—are often objectified and painted with an air of mysticism that reflects the British Empire’s views on foreign (in this case, Indian) women. Just as in the Bengal co-opts this view in its desire to emulate the annuals published in England, The Oriental Annual serves as an example that the Bengal aspired to follow despite the idea that the latter was considered largely inferior to the annuals published in the homeland rather than abroad. In the same vein as Captain McNaghten’s poem, “To—” in The Bengal Annual, The Oriental Annual’s short story, “The Rajpootni Bride” is centered on an Indian woman who is heavily exoticized through the gaze of the male poet and narrator, respectively. As the story opens, it is established that the bride in question (the daughter of the Hara tribe) has such a “fiery and daring spirit” (146) that her father did not need a son—language that helps to cement the idea that the Rajpootni Bride is not a picture of femininity and demureness as many English women during the Romantic period should have been, but rather, one who emits masculinity and barbarity. These masculine and savage traits are performed by the bride when she manages to attack a tiger with nothing but a dagger; in the exchange between animal and “female beast,” the bride exhibits her own wild reserve of energy against the creature.

Similar to this instance in the story, there is a repeated emphasis on the fact that the bride’s beauty is not a “traditional” form of beauty; instead, it is one that is extraordinary, almost otherworldly in the descriptions that it elicits from the story’s narrator. When the narrator claims that the Rajpootni bride is spoken of highly of and is “the theme of every tongue,” he paints her as a celestial being whose appearance is associated with the physical (exotic) items such as the moon, fruit, the weather, and “leaves of lotus on the lake” (146). Continuously throughout the story, the narrator takes great pains to establish that the bride is no ordinary woman. Though  the author’s European male gaze, her body and demeanor are scrutinized by standards that are reflective of the British Empire’s views toward women. Not only were women marginalized, but women of color were further marginalized, oftentimes through the commodification and exaggerated examination of their foreign bodies.
No more is this sentiment more apparent than at the story’s close when the bride chooses to commit suicide after her husband returns home from battle. Ashamed by his return, the bride refuses to believe that her husband is alive and choose to commit sati—an ancient custom in India that had a widow throw herself on her husband’s funeral pyre after his death. Although it can be argued that the Rajpootni bride takes control of her own fate and her body in this scene, one cannot escape the gruesome image of the bride burning to death as “the skin of her arms burst and curled up like a scroll of parchment” (168) and her eyes begin to separate from their sockets. The bride’s death may be painted as a graceful act by the narrator, but the astonishing extent to which her body’s mutilation in death is described serves to undercut any agency or autonomy she may have exhibiting in committing the act itself.

This work of fiction is deeply seeded within the discourse of Orientalism. Not only is the Bride depicted in stereotypes of being exotic, extraordinary, and even compared to celestial bodies, she is used as a fictitious example to justify colonization. In his essay “The Impartial Spectator of Sati 1757-84” Norbert Schurer discusses how Sati was mostly an extreme religious act, and through fictional narratives like “The Rajpootni Bride” and travelogues that British colonial men made the religious practice seem more popular and mainstream. Raymond Schwab takes this point further and notes in his book Oriental Renaissance, Europe’s Rediscovery of India and the East 1680-1880 that the popularization of these practices such as Sati “soothed the consciences of so many colonists” (193) to prioritize English education and colonization over Indian natives.

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