By Elizabeth Conroy, May 1998
Emma Roberts was born about 1794 in Methley near Leeds. She was the daughter of Captain William Roberts who worked at the time in the Russian service and was later paymaster in the English Regiment. Also the niece of Thomas Roberts who raised the 111th regiment in 1794 and became general in 1814. Emma Roberts had close associations with the military which influenced her travel and consequently her writing.
Robertsí early childhood was spent with her mother in Bath whose own literary experience influenced her eventual move to London to pursue travel writing, journalism and poetry. Here she became a close acquaintance of Laetitia E. Landon who was also a literary lady and a famous poet.
Roberts spent many hours in the British museum undertaking her research which aided the completion of her first book, called Memoirs of the Rival Houses of York and Lancaster and was published in 1827. Elwood stated, `Miss Roberts' first publication does not appear to have met with that attention from the public to which from its merits it was entitled' (Dibert-Himes, 1997: 1).
In the following year her mother died and a decision was made to join her sister and her husband Captain Robert Adair McNaughten of the 61st Bengal Infantry to India. Her thoughts on moving to India were stated in one of her books. She stated that `There cannot be a more wretched situation than that of a young woman in India who has been induced to follow the fortunes of her married sister under the delusive expectation that she will exchange the privations attached to limited means in England for the far-famed luxuries of the East' (DNB 1263).
For two years, Roberts was based with her sister around various stations in upper India including Agra, Cawpore and Etawah. Here she wrote of her experiences whilst in India which were published in the Asiatic Journal. These articles accumulated a vast amount of Roberts' work which was published in her Scenes and Characteristics of Hindoostan (London, 1835). The book was well received in England and, according to Elwood, `Her readers trust her, and resign the rein of their imaginations into the author's hand' (Dibert-Himes, 1997: 3). The book `relates her travels and observations, noting the capacity for making themselves hated; strongly defending Indian servants, especially their honesty, against prejudiced critics' (Blain et al, 1990: 909).
In 1831, Roberts moved to Calcutta after the death of her sister. Here she devoted herself to her literature and journalism and undertook a job at the local newspaper, The Oriental Observer, as the newspaper editor. Throughout her time in Calcutta she concentrated for the most part on her submissions for the newspaper.
In 1832, suffering from overwork, Roberts was forced back to England where she stayed until 1839. Before leaving India she dedicated a book of poems to her close friend L.E.L. called Oriental Scenes, Sketches and Tales (Calcutta 1832) which was rewritten in London in 1832.
Whilst in London she wrote articles for the Asiatic Journal and edited the sixty-fourth edition of Mrs Rundell's New System of Domestic Cookery (London, 1840). She also completed a biographical sketch of L.E.L., appearing as a memoir in Landon's collection of poetry called The Zenana and Minor Poems by L.E.L. (1840). The anguish of her return to England in 1832 due to ill health was captured in the final lines of poetry in Oriental Scenes, Sketches and Tales, which state:
The Ganges! The Ganges! Oh dearer far will be
In September, 1839, Roberts started her second journey to India travelling via an overland route through Europe and Asia. Her record of the journey reveals the arduous nature of the adventure, especially for a lady of that era. By November of that year, Roberts and her travelling companions reached Bombay. Resting at the government house and later settling in the suburb of Parell, she described her experiences in An Overland Journey Through France and Egypt to Bombay (1841, posthumous). Roberts also became the editor of The Bombay United Service Gazette. At the same time, she became interested in a scheme for providing native Indian women with suitable education and employment. In the same year that she returned to India she published The East India Voyage (1839), a book of travel advice. Soon after she made a visit to Colonel Ovan's residence at Sattara. In the April of that year she was taken ill and later died on the 16th of September 1840 after being taken to Poonah in order to regain her health. Her last days were spent with her friend Colonel Campbell. Roberts' adoration of the beauty of India and her enjoyment of her travels was always excited by the anticipation of finally returning to England.
Roberts died leaving the reputation of an extremely talented writer. It was reported by Elwood that Roberts' death evoked a great response of sorrow in England and a vast amount of tributes were written about her work. Although Emma Roberts work was not fully appreciated at the time, modern day study of the writer and her work reveals her talent and the extent of her skill at recording her observations of India. One contemporary writer seems to sum up the literature of Roberts perfectly by saying that `her business was with the surface of things; her skill consisted in a species of photography, presenting perfect fac-similies of objects, animate and inanimate in their natural forms and hues' (Dibert-Himes, 1997).
Blain, Virginia, Patricia Clements, and Isobel Grundy. 1990. The Feminist Companion to Literature in English by Women. Batsford.
Dibert-Himes, Glenn. 1997. `Background Sketch: Emma Roberts'. <http://www.shu.ac.uk/corvey/c32/roberts.htm>
Dictionary of National Biography. 1922. Oxford University Press. 22 vols.
Roberts, Emma. 1832. Oriental Scenes, Sketches, and Tales. London.
Roberts, Emma. 1841. An Overland Journey through France and Egypt to Bombay. London.