Getting to Know Lady Maria Nugent at the Huntington Library
Thanks to the generosity of the NACBS-Huntington Library Fellowship, I spent October 2016 in the Huntington Library’s Ahmanson Reading Room, huddled over a cache of Lady Maria Nugent’s letters, which are essential sources for my dissertation. It was the first time I would see in person and touch a manuscript that Nugent – the fascinating, well-written, and well-traveled wife of Sir George Nugent, Commander-in-Chief of India from 1811-1815 – herself had touched. To view the hand-written pages of a woman I had spent so much time reading about on impersonal, published pages was thrilling. Getting up close and personal with Nugent’s letters and reading her sincere words gave me new perspectives on her imperial experience.
It was then, while bent over Nugent’s brisk, hurried letters, that it occurred to me how these seemingly simple pages had gone through quite the journey. Nugent was sitting in India when she scratched words to the page, regaling her adventures and misadventures on the subcontinent to Anna Eliza Grenville, the Duchess of Buckingham and Chandos, her friend back in England. From Nugent’s hand, the letters had traveled overland and then undertaken a multi-month sea voyage before they arrived at the palatial Stowe House in Buckinghamshire, where they remained for a century. In the 1920s, the yellowed parchment ended up in sunny southern California, where a young woman from graduate school in New York was perusing them in 2016.
The global journey of Lady Maria Nugent’s letters mirrors the trans-regional scope of my dissertation. My research focuses on the British wives who accompanied their husbands on high-ranking posts across the empire during the Age of Revolutions. These women – like Lady Maria Nugent – left behind friends and family to do their wifely duty by supporting their husbands and traveling to faraway colonies in the Atlantic and Indian worlds. I am primarily interested in what my subjects actually did in their time abroad and what significance and meaning can be interpreted from their actions. My source base consists of the texts and documents that my subjects themselves produced, including their journals, letters, and artwork.
Lady Maria Nugent was my gateway into this project and she remains at the center of it. Born in New Jersey just before the American Revolution, Nugent would spend much of her life colony-hopping. From North America, her loyalist family would travel to Ireland before finally settling in England. After marrying George Nugent in 1797, she would undergo further journeys: to Jamaica from 1801-1805 as the Governor’s wife and, finally, to India. In both these locations, Nugent wrote incredibly rich and detailed journals to share with friends and family back in England.
Though her Jamaican and Indian journals have been published in various forms, her private letters have not - and many of them happen to be at the Huntington Library in the Stowe Collection. When the Nugents embarked for India, they left behind their four young children – including an infant who was only a few weeks old - in the care of their friends and relations. Over the course of her four-year absence, Nugent wrote frequent, long, and remarkably revealing letters to the Duchess of Buckingham and Chandos, who eventually took over the care of Nugent’s children.
While reading Nugent’s candid letters to her friend, I was struck by how emotional they are. More often than not, the pages are filled with the trauma of familial separation and longings of maternal reunion. While her journals make clear that the separation was difficult for Nugent, her letters to the Duchess of Buckingham and Chandos are much more emotionally candid. She wrote more specifically and deeply about her emotional state and the anguish of separation. She also gave elaborate instructions regarding childcare to the Duchess, demonstrating that though she was thousands of miles from her children, her maternal role was still important to her. Discussions about her longing for home and family sometimes outnumbered her descriptions of Indian life. Indeed, Nugent seemed to write of her experiences in India almost as a distraction from her heartache, and because she knew it was her duty as a good correspondent to keep Anna Eliza up-to-date on the goings-on in India. The letters were not, as I had expected, merely a record of life in India. They were also a moving, emotional testimony of a woman who felt as if her life had been split in two.
Accessing the manuscript letters at the Huntington Library has enabled me to think more holistically about Lady Maria Nugent and her experiences abroad. Though my research focuses on her social activities and practices in Jamaica and India, her letters to the Duchess of Buckingham and Chandos also challenged me to think about the private and personal costs of imperial service. She was not just a body moving from one site to the next; she was also a human being whose mind and heart existed in multiple locations at once: though she was physically in India, England and the family life it represented for her were always at the forefront of her thoughts. The affective dimensions of her experience are just as important as the social, cultural, and political ones, and no less deserving of my scholarly attention. Without the generous support of the NACBS-Huntington Library Fellowship that allowed me to excavate this collection, I may have overlooked this very human component of Lady Maria Nugent’s complicated imperial story.
Parissa Djangi is a PhD student in the Department of History at Stony Brook University.