The Adventures of a Lady in Tartary, Thibet, China & Kashmir by Mrs. Hervey

Abstract: The Adventures of a Lady in Tartary, Thibet, China & Kashmir is a three-volume collection made up mostly of Mrs. Hervey’s journal, written during her journey through the Himalayas from March, 1850 to October, 1851. After traveling through India in the spring of 1852 (and writing another detailed account of that journey as well), she returned to England by the summer of 1852 and her journals were compiled, edited, and published by the next year. Most of her account is about the act of traveling itself: she gives detailed descriptions of roads and bridges and the effects of certain environments upon people and animals as she travels from place to place. Accounts of the people she encounters are few and far between. In the preface, Mrs. Hervey suggests that her journals would be useful for “the future traveler” (Vol. 1, v). Although her journals are not entirely without elements of Orientalism and even brief moments of sensationalism, much of her writing is a decidedly practical look at how to travel in the Himalayas.

The Adventures of a Lady in Tartary, Thibet, China & Kashmir is a three-volume collection made up mostly of Mrs. Hervey’s journal, written during her journey through the Himalayas from March, 1850 to October, 1851. The third volume also includes “A Short Historical Sketch of Kashmir” and a separate account of her “Journey From the Punjab to Bombay Overland,” which she made from January 1852 to May of that same year; from Bombay, she sailed to England. Her account was compiled and published less than a year after her return to England. Besides the fact that Mrs. Hervey is a British “lady,” the reader is given very little information about who exactly she was or how long she had been in India before she decided to embark on her journey through the Himalayas. Her journal begins in March of 1850 as she is leaving Seharunpore. Surprisingly, her entire account never mentions a husband—either living or deceased—yet it is possible that she had been living in Seharunpore because her husband had been working for the British East India Company. In the conclusion to her text, she writes of her “wanderings in the Himalayan Mountains” as a source of “solace,” and remembers her journey as something that brought “relief to my bruised and bleeding spirit.” Although her description of the “long, long months of sorrow, and hopeless, heart-wrung anguish” preceding her journey is deliberately vague, it appears as though Mrs. Hervey had been recently widowed when she made her journey (Vol. 3, 386). While her journal itself never makes mention of why she was traveling alone, it is clear from the text that she was a relatively young woman who had sufficient funds to travel “alone” in areas where Westerners rarely traveled (she could afford to bring own personal servants, horses, livestock, and hired a number of local coolies at each location to carry her belongings). At times, she was able to meet with other Westerners during her journey, yet they were always male and usually doing “business” or British officers, and never referred to by their full names. At times, a certain Captain H. accompanied her in her journeys; she also received letters criticizing her for “detaining Captain H_ from his post near Captain W_” (Vol. 1, 107). Although Mrs. Hervey obviously possessed a great amount of determination and wealth to undertake this type of travel, her account of exchanges like this one make it clear that at least some people thought of her as a nuisance. Unlike the British men who were involved in trade or political dealings in India and nearby regions, she was simply traveling for her own pleasure and often seemed unaware of the risks she caused to herself and others. She writes of one instance in which a heavy snowfall forced her traveling companion to turn back, yet she stubbornly continued: “Captain H­­­___ begged me to return, as many people have been lost in snow-storms, by rashly braving them on this Pass. He turned back to the huts, but I persevered a mile further” (Vol. 1, 81). In May 1850, after parting from the Captain, she prepared to start on her “solitary and perhaps dangerous journey,” writing, “I am determined to make the attempt, even if my life be forfeit” (Vol. 1, 83). A month later, she began her journal again, describing how she came very near to death the very same night after writing those rash words. Even after falling into a precipice nearly twenty-feet deep, and suffering internal bleeding and a number of other life-threatening injuries, she claimed in her journal that nothing could stop her determination to explore Kashmir and Tibet. On June 16, 1850, she claimed to have received about twenty letters, all imploring her not to go on. “I have no intention, however, of giving up my favourite project,” she wrote (Vol. 1, 110).

Mrs. Hervey’s account does delve at least a little bit into sensationalism. It’s clear that she set out on this “project” with romantic ideas of being the first European to travel to uncharted territories. And yet, considering her sensational introduction and conclusion to these volumes, it’s striking that much of her journaling is focused on the mundane act of traveling itself: she gives detailed descriptions of roads and bridges and the effects of certain environments upon people and animals as she travels from place to place. Her accounts of the people she encounters are few and far between, and usually only contain a few remarks on their appearances; very rarely does she remark on customs or behaviors of the people in these regions, instead filling the majority of her account with descriptions of flora and fauna and terrain. While her account records approximate mileage from one area to the other, she did not specify which direction she was headed in, making it nearly impossible to come up with a mental map and determine where exactly she was at any given moment. There is also a confusion of terms in her descriptions of various regions: in one instance, for example, she described Ladakh as a region in the “country of Thibet” (Vol. 1, 189), in another place she described Ladakh as a country with Leh as its capital (Vol 2, 397). Likewise, although she sometimes referred to Tibet as a “country,” she also spoke of a “Little Thibet” and also “Middle Thibet,” yet she never clearly distinguished where one ends and the other begins, or if she was including all of these various regions together when she speaks of Tibet as a “country.” It does not appear that she ever reached Central Tibet, although on two different occasions she told of meeting “Chinese” lamas traveling from “Lahassa” (Vol. 1, 168-9; Vol. 3, 55-8). She did not specify whether or not she actually had a conversation with the first of these lamas, she just described how he and his attendants were dressed. As for the second “Chinese” lama she met, however, she wrote that she spoke to him in Tibetan, and he understood her. Although both of these Lamas might have been “Chinamen” as she supposed, it could also be possible that she mistook the differences between Central Tibetans and the other culturally Tibetan peoples she met as meaning that the Central Tibetans were actually Chinese.

One surprising aspect of Mrs. Hervey’s account is that she rarely described people in detail. Aside from remarking on how the people of specific regions were very “dirty” and/or “ugly” (which she seems to do nearly every time she travels to a new village), she rarely went into detail. One interesting exception is that she offered long, detailed descriptions of clothing, jewelry, and hairstyles. She noted how Tibetan women in different districts wear similar turquoise and amber ornaments in their hair and how their hair is plaited. In Leh, for example, she noted that the rich women could be identified by their elaborate turquoise headpieces, while the poorer ones had obviously inferior quality stones (Vol. 1, 355). As she traveled to other regions, she wrote of women wearing similar turquoise ornaments, yet often remarked that they are of inferior quality to those that she found in Ladakh (Vol. 2, 319; 329). While she remarked on the clothing and jewelry of people, it is clear that Mrs. Hervey did not understand much of the customs of the people she sees. Although she made some remarks on the religions of the Hindus, Buddhists, and Muslims in the regions in which she was traveling, they were always very brief, and she often concluded that she was too ignorant of these matters to really comment on them.

Although her account offers frustratingly little about the people and cultures that she encountered, she did go into great detail about wildlife and domestic animals. She frequently wrote of wild horses, hares, marmots, and other animals encountered along the way, and even described which regions potential hunters would find beneficial. As an equestrian herself, the author writes with great detail about which paths were suitable for horses and which ones required other animals. Although she had encountered yaks at various stages throughout her travels, it was not until she reached Spiti in August of 1851 that she actually rode one. She described her experience in great detail. She wrote, “I found the eccentric steed very easy and sure-footed, but slow…” as he carried her over “steep and rugged paths;” she concluded that she “did something rather brave.” Although she had previously remarked that transporting goods on yaks was not something she was very fond of, she seemed truly impressed by the way that the yak was able to move on terrain that would have been impossible for horses (Vol. 3, 30).

Overall, Mrs. Hervey’s account offered a unique point of view of regions that were completely alien to most of her contemporaries. It is hard to blame her for sometimes reveling in the sensation of being “the first European visitor” to certain regions (Vol. 2, 307), and for looking at the people she encountered as mere “curiosities,” the memories of whom she might add to her collection of trinkets and souvenirs that she purchased along the way. It’s clear from her descriptions of being stared at and followed in certain regions that she understood that she herself was as much of a novelty to them. Yet, her account actually seems surprising from a contemporary point of view in that she seemed less concerned with recording her reaction to the people and the cultures she encountered than she was with recording her reaction to the landscape itself. In the preface she claims that she wrote her journals with no intention of publishing them, but later edited them to remove that which might not be of interest to the general public. One can’t help but wonder if the things that had been edited out might have given the reader a better sense of how she interpreted the things that she saw, rather than just giving an outline of the places she visited.

Mrs. Hervey.The Adventures of a Lady in Tartary, Thibet, China & Kashmir; Through Portions of a Territory Never Before Visited by European. With an Account of the Journey from the Punjab to Bombay Overland, Via the Famous Caves of Ajunta and Ellora. Also an Account of the Mahableshwur and Neigherry Mountains, The Sanataria of the Bombay and Madras Presidencies. London, Hope and Co., 1853.

Entry by Christina Stoltz