Andrew Hillier (ed.), My Dearest Martha: The Life and Letters of Eliza Hillier (City University of Hong Kong Press, 2021), 508pp.
Chamois Chui reviews a collection of letters that lifts the veil on a different side of early colonial Hong Kong.
Letter-writing can be difficult at the best of times. Sitting down to put pen to paper, trying to find the right tone and the right amount of information to impart – all this can be a chore to do. And yet the resultant products can contain an amazing wealth of information – not just on the person who wrote the letters, but also on their friends, family, other acquaintances and even the society at large. A book of letters recently published by the Royal Asiatic Society demonstrates this exhibitive power: written by Eliza Hillier, wife of one of Hong Kong’s Chief Magistrates in the 1850s, and edited by her great-great-grandson Andrew, it approaches Hong Kong’s early colonial history from the feminine and familial perspectives, showing us how the Empire affected the lives of those who never held power yet experienced life in it just as intensely.
A collection of seventy-odd letters that the author sent to her sister Martha and other family members, My Dearest Martha catalogues the life of Eliza Hillier in the decade she spent in China as a young woman. Although born to British parents, Eliza spent most of her formative years in Asia, shuttling in between Shanghai and Batavia (now Jakarta) in her youth, before marrying Charles Hillier, an up-and-coming civil servant who had seen service in the navy and had had many years of experience in China. As Charles joined the magistracy, rising through the ranks to eventually become Chief Magistrate in a few short years, Eliza catalogued in detail her feelings, thoughts and observations of life as an official’s wife in colonial Hong Kong. Her great-great-grandson, Andrew Hillier, provides valuable commentary and context on Eliza’s movements in snippets that bridge the action between letters and illustrate ensuing events as Eliza shuttles between Hong Kong and Britain. Fate, however, brings the narrative to an abrupt halt when Charles Hillier tragically dies of dysentery only a few months into his new job as Consul in Bangkok, and only a short chapter follows, accounting for Eliza’s life after her return to England and her subsequent marriage to another man.
That we are able to discover so much about her comes down to the abundance of details within the letters Eliza sent to her sister and brother-in-law. The majority of Eliza’s activities and opinions are detailed with precision in this volume, with frequent ruminations on the latest familial developments or on the applications of faith to the latest crisis. Although this provides valuable insight into what domestic life for the wife of a colonial civil servant would have been like, at times the events she catalogues can be a little too mundane – Eliza’s activities do not extend much beyond greeting social guests and discussing her various reactions to said social gatherings. Of course, there are incidents in between that buck the trend: an incident wherein Eliza and her baby are trapped in a runaway horse-drawn carriage is depicted with harrowing detail, and her account of her husband’s final days in Bangkok, accompanied by an elegy, is a genuinely moving tribute that shows the potential and potency of Eliza as a writer. For the most part, however, Eliza presents in her correspondence details and digressions not meant to interest anyone other than her sister or her brother-in-law, and it becomes a little tempting to deny Eliza’s appeals to “imagine my feelings” after a while (103). One wonders if such a meticulous approach to the book is warranted, and whether a more selective approach would have been enough to convey Eliza’s story.
And there is a lot of story to get through – not just in terms of her experiences, but also in the huge cast of supporting characters that surround her. We see these people through the eyes of Eliza, as she pronounces judgment on them and confides in Martha how they annoy, aggrieve or delight her, with a forthrightness that makes for the intermittent entertaining riposte or insight into her place as a magistrate’s wife. Sometimes this candour works against the reader’s perceptions of Eliza: sparing nobody in her character assessments, her comments may seem overly harsh – some of it, such as her stubborn dislike of “bumptious Yankees,” can even come across as prejudiced. This is something that Andrew Hillier acknowledges: from the very first pages, he is already apologetic about how “the letters reflect aspects of her character which are unattractive and some that would be considered unacceptable by today’s standards” (34). But it is also this bluntness that gives the reader a deeper insight into Eliza’s character, her headstrong passions and her desire to make sense of a confusing world still under construction around her. If historical context is taken into account, then Eliza’s character assessments can (as the editor himself suggests) come across as somewhat Austenian, an intriguing facsimile of classy Victorian society with all its imperfect characters in a colonial outpost. Her witty ruminations are not to be disregarded, and her asides about improperly behaving acquaintances (and the sometimes exasperating behaviour of her husband’s colleagues) give valuable insight into both the perceptive depths of Eliza, as well as the way the minutiae of daily life contributed to the British colonial project.
But even with all those insights, Eliza’s world is still one that is confusing to navigate without contextualisation, and it is down to her descendant to enable our understanding as readers. This is a task which Andrew Hillier pulls off with varied levels of success: as mentioned before, the editor has inserted bridging sections that come in between Eliza’s letters. These are for the most part informative and succinct, recapping the situation and filling in the reader on any necessary background information. A chapter which details the practicalities of letter-writing in the Empire is particularly informative when it comes to understanding Eliza’s references to letters written six or eight months before. Less successful are the efforts to bridge the gaps in knowledge: the words “can only have,” “it seems that” and similar terms pop up every so often, frequently falling back on conjecture. This is understandable: since we know so little about what colonial Hong Kong was like, scholars can only surmise what happened then. But if the reader’s goal is to become engrossed by the life of Eliza Hillier, then these interjections can prove more than a little distracting.
This is a collection, then, that seeks to inform the reader on more than one aspect of early colonial life – not only of the intricacies of day-to-day goings-on, but also how people in the background of history created a space of their own, just as vibrant and rich in detail as those in the vanguard. It is easy to suggest that Eliza Hillier was just another ordinary person confused by life in a colonial outpost. But it is thanks to people like her that we can understand British colonial life more fully – and contemplate its still reverberating effects.
Chamois Chui is an MPhil student at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. His research interests include Edwardian fiction, travel and intercultural exchange, and pop culture.