This essay discusses the life and writings of Ellen Lakshmi Goreh (1853-1937), an ethnic Indian who was adopted by British missionaries in infancy, educated in Victorian England as child, and who returned to India as a Christian missionary in adulthood. Examining her poetical works as unusual examples of Indian-English Christian writings during the late nineteenth century, the essay seeks to establish Goreh’s reputation as a Victorian-era transracial adoptee author, and, thereby, extend research on the history of transracial adoptee writing (which has to date been confined to the writings of the last fifty years) to the nineteenth century. To this end, Goreh’s personal story is traced from her origins; adoption; negotiations with her personal and cultural identities in England; entry into print culture; return to India as a Christian missionary; revisions in the representations of Indian peoples; and conceptualisation of God as the faithful mother in her mature poetry. Her poetic developments are explored from her replication of English ethnocentric imperialist views in
The writings of transracial adoptees have become an emergent area of literary critical interest in recent years. In particular, texts inscribing the emotional and psychological strains of loss, racial dislocation, assimilation, and, later, re-identification with original roots have proved to be powerful sites for exploring the construction of cultural, racial, gender and sexual identities (Novy, 2001a, 2005; Honig, 2005; Oparah, Shin, & Trenka, 2006; Min, 2008). No doubt owing to the fact that large-scale transnational adoption emerged in the mid-twentieth century－in the aftermath of the Second World War and the Korean War－scholarship in this area has been largely confined to the analysis of contemporary literature. Indeed, Marianne Novy, one of the leading scholars in the field, suggests that this subgenre was a twentieth-century innovation when she asserts that it was “[i]n the 1970s, when for the first time a number of [transracial] adoptees began to write publicly about their search for biological ancestors” (Novy, 2001a, p. 5). Yet cases of transracial adoption did exist in earlier times, albeit more rarely, when making sense of hybrid identities was even more likely to be an alienating and liminal experience, and some of these experiences were also inscribed in writing.
One intriguing example of a pre-twentieth-century transracial adoptee who endeavored to negotiate the duality of her identity in her writing is Ellen Lakshmi Goreh (1853-1937), a daughter of Brahmin converts to Christianity who was born in India but brought up by British parents and removed to England for her education. Goreh may be viewed as a Victorian-era British Asian as she lived in England from 1867－when she was only about twelve years old - until 1880 when she returned to India as an educational missionary. An aspiring writer of devotional verse, she was encouraged to enter into print culture as a young woman by some influential English Evangelicals who perceived her as being uniquely placed as a literary Christian Indian woman to embody the possible fruits of educational missionary work among Asian women. As a consequence, very unusually for an Indian woman of her period, she published English-language devotional poetry, missionary reports, letters, and periodical articles, as well as two small volumes of Christian verse during her life. Perhaps unsurprisingly, considering her remarkable personal story, much of her writing speaks out of, and seeks to make sense of, her intricate multifaceted identity as an English-educated Indian Christian woman.
This essay strives to establish Goreh’s reputation as a Victorian-era transracial adoptee author, and probably the first Indian-Christian poetess to publish in English. In terms of its contribution to the existing body of scholarship on adoption literature, it seeks to extend research on the history of transracial adoptee writing－particularly the gender and racial identity issues which have been examined in studies of contemporary transnational adoptee writing－to the nineteenth century. This represents a major shift from the existing scholarship on issues of adoption in nineteenth-century literature, which has tended to focus on the representation of the orphan in fictional prose narratives, and the imaginative possibilities of the adoption narrative in delivering social protest about class divisions, such as in
A key factor in the examination of Goreh’s negotiation of her adoptee identity will be her Christian religion. Recent scholarship on transnational adoption has drawn attention to the considerable influence of Christianity as a major contributory factor in the creation of the “international adoption phenomenon” (Kim, 2006, p. 152) in the twentieth century. Notably, in recent years, adoptee commentators themselves have often been critical of the role of Christianity (particularly Evangelicalism) in justifying the uprooting of eastern children for western parents through scriptural authority of Isaiah 43: 5-6: “I will bring thy seed from the east, and gather thee from the west; I will say to the north, Give up; and to the south, Keep not back: bring my sons from far, and my daughters from the ends of the earth.” Christian adoption has also been interpreted as a form of proselytization, and Protestant Christianity, with its work ethic, has been seen as sanctioning capitalist wealth production, and, thereby, perpetuating adoption as a multi-million dollar global business (Kim, 2006, p. 156).
In Goreh’s nineteenth-century case, before transracial adoption became a widespread trend and adoptees amassed a challenging political voice, the relationship between her religion (the Anglicanism of her adoptive family) and adoptee identity was understood differently. For Goreh, Christianity was the agent that enabled her to re-engage with her birth culture. For instance, at a time when women’s roles were limited and international travel was exceptional, Christianity became the vehicle through which she returned to and re-entered Indian society, because overseas missionary service provided the opportunity and justification to return to India. For Goreh, her belief in a benevolent maternal God further provided her with the imaginative scope to reconcile of her orphan identity and surrounding issues of abandonment and loss, and she recorded this process in her verse writings. Thus, this essay scrutinizes the role of Christianity in the production of Goreh’s hybrid missionary-adoptee writings and her attempts to make sense of her bicultural heritage.
Goreh was born in Benares (now Varanasi) on 11 September 1853, to Nehemiah Goreh, a convert to Christianity who later became an important priest of the Indian Church, and his wife, Lakshmibai Jogalekar. She was given up for adoption at three months when her mother died. At this point, she was “taken” and “brought up” (Bullock, 1883, p. ix) by an indigo planter’s wife, Mrs Smailes, until 1857 when Mr Smailes “lost not only all his property, but also his own life in the Mutiny, and Nellie was once more homeless” (Batley & Robinson, 1937, p. 55). Therefore, at the age of five, when she would have been fully conscious to feelings of abandonment and loss, Ellen had to endure a second separation from familial figures. It was arranged that Goreh would be sent to the Christian Missionary Society Orphanage at Benares, but a young English missionary couple, the Reverend and Mrs W. T. Storrs, decided to adopt her instead to replace their first-born child who had died (Batley & Robinson, 1937, p. 55). Although biological children were later born to the Storrs, family members, including her adoptive father and brother, insisted to her biographers that Ellen was considered “in every way one of the family” (Batley & Robinson, 1937, p. 55).
That the Storrs brought Ellen up to be “one of them” through a rigorous process of cultural re-identification－the prevalent model for the transracial adoptee’s integration into the adoptive family before the “age of pluralist multiculturalism replaced earlier models of full assimilation” (Kim, 2010, p. 94)－is demonstrated by that fact that, when the opportunity came, she was removed to England for her education. As the Reverend Storrs later recalled:
This was a normal pattern for the children of missionaries and it may be inferred that the Storrs wanted to give “Nellie”－Ellen was presumably her English adoptive name－the same opportunities. However, significantly, the extract intimates that the biological children of the family, presumably included in the plural personal pronoun “us”, were not sent to England before 1871.
Whatever the parents’ motives, the move to England was initially a great cultural shock for Goreh. The following extract recalls her feelings of displacement and anxiety:
Distressed and angry about being viewed as a conspicuous spectacle and figure of fun, she sought strategies to blend in, and performed an act of cultural transference. Taking off the
After the Storrs’s return, Goreh lived very much in the pattern of a typical Victorian clergyman’s daughter in Yorkshire: first, in the wool mill-town of Heckmondwicke, and, later, in Great Horton, a suburb of the industrial cotton manufacturing Bradford. Leading up to this reunion, Goreh had received an exclusive and lengthy schooling - she had first attended a private school in York, and, then, one of the first and largest teacher training institutions for women in the country, the Home and Colonial College, in London. In Yorkshire, she acted for some time as a governess to at least one of her adoptive brothers, and undertook local evangelistic work; she held Sunday-afternoon Bible classes for the local mill girls, which were reputedly popular with as many as seventy girls attending the meetings (Batley & Robinson, 1937, p. 56). These details suggest further that, once in England, Goreh had followed the “clean break” model of adoption (Duncan, 1993, p. 51). As Barbara Yngvesson elucidates:
Possibly as a strategy of cultural survival, Goreh worked hard to enact an English way of life and, concurrently, underwent a process of dis-identification, erasing Indian ethnic markers.
In one interview, Goreh recalled her loathing as a young woman at being viewed as a foreigner/outsider in England. Looking back on her time at the Home and Colonial College, she remembered being taken to missionary meetings where she was “inevitably” told by female missionaries that they “hoped that one day I would return to my own country to teach my own people.” She recalled, “How I disliked those talks! I did not in the least want to go back to my own country and teach my own people!” (Batley & Robinson, 1937, p. 56). These talks seem to have infuriated her because, at this time, although genetically Indian, she had worked hard to assimilate into English culture and identified herself with the English. Through her adoption, she belonged to England and had cut her connections with India. Moreover, as Indians were popularly depicted in English culture as ignorant, morally feeble, and uncivilized at this time, it is not surprising that she would have wished to dis-identity herself from the race.
Indeed, when Goreh did eventually take up the call to become a missionary to India, it was not so much that she was relinquishing her English national identity in order to reclaim her Indian roots, but that she was entering into a nationalistic act which demonstrated her firm belief in the British imperialist mission. As Rowbotham has rightly observed, “part of the appeal of missionary work for women was that, as author Charlotte Tucker (1821-1893) commented, it was patriotic; part of British imperialism: ‘The National Church is the spiritual organ of the empire’” (Giberne, 1895, pp. 56-57 [quoted in Rowbotham, 1998, p. 251]). Being a missionary was one of the few accessible means by which women could participate in the expansion of the British Empire, and Goreh was committing herself to this role.
Goreh’s entry into print culture came about as the result of an epistolary exchange with the Evangelical poetess Frances Ridley Havergal (1836-1879), one of the most famous British hymn-writers of the Victorian period. Goreh sent some verses to Havergal in 1876 “as an expression of deep Christian regard and affection, as well as a tribute of gratitude for the benefit derived from her devotional books” (Bullock, 1883, p. x). After learning about Goreh’s unusual blend of Indian birth, English upbringing, and Christian faith, Havergal wrote back enthusiastically with a singular proposal:
Havergal was perceptive in comprehending that her admirer’s writings validated the work of female
During the last decades of the nineteenth century, the education of Indian women was a critical feminist issue for many British Christians who felt the urgency of Christ’s commission to: “Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature” (Mark 16: 15). Although the Hindu scriptures (
Havergal believed that Goreh’s literary productions would support the work of
No doubt Havergal’s recognition of Goreh’s poetic talent and her assertion that she possessed a unique calling was powerful to her protégée. It offered a new, positive way of understanding her identity and experience that was more affirming and sensitive than the repeated xenophobic suggestions that she should go back to her “own people” in India.
In 1883, continuing to carry out the special commission set by her literary heroine, Goreh published a collection of nineteen hymns and devotional poems entitled
For the Victorians, the hymn was associated with the heroism of its author, Bishop Heber of Calcutta, the representative, according to Geoffrey Cook, “of the high moral strand of the British imperial project in the East” (Cook, 2001, p. 131). As J. R. Watson has observed:
When Goreh’s collection appeared, as established by her (or her publisher’s) choice of title, it would have been within this context that her work would have been received.
The preface to Goreh’s book was written by Charles Bullock, a close friend of Havergal who had died in 1879, and editor of the Evangelical magazine
Despite the literal suggestion of its title, most (if not all) of the poems published in
Yet, for Goreh’s readers, her use of the collective pronoun “us” in “Who will go for us?” would have suggested that she was speaking on behalf of Indian womankind, and that she possessed special knowledge or authority to represent eastern women. In fact, this work, which pleads for English women to rescue their Indian sisters from oppression, actually replicates dominant imperialist assumptions about Indian life rather than offering factual insights about authentic Indian womanhood. Although her British readers may have believed that they were privy to the true thoughts of Indian women in her verse, Goreh actually speaks about Indian women from the perspective of her British knowledge:
This work consciously replicates the message and ideas of Frances Ridley Havergal’s missionary hymn “Sisters!” (published in
“Who will go for us?” is an emotive composition designed to increase heart rates, prick consciences through indignation, and rouse Englishwomen to answer the appeal for
Indeed, this poem not only establishes Goreh’s participation in contemporary Christian and feminist discussions about the need to rescue Indian women, but also demonstrates her ability to use her poetic skills to great rhetorical effect. For instance, she is accomplished in her use of metre: the fast pace of each stanzaic opening line achieved by the use of pyrrhic metre (e.g. “Listen, listen, English sisters”) conveys a feeling of urgency and anxiety, while the spondaic final lines of each verse (e.g. “Cruel, cruel, is our doom”) creates the effect of dread and gravity. Even the rhetorical title “Who will go for us?” is somewhat histrionic. Certainly, Goreh’s work resonates with Rowbotham’s (1998) observation that missionary discourse aimed not only at being “‘realistic’, but also as emotional, as was possible” because women “of all ages and classes were presumed to be particularly susceptible to such messages because of the stereotypical assumptions made about women’s essentially emotional nature” (Rowbotham, 1998, pp. 247-261).
“Who will go for us?” paints a picture of Indian women’s lives as being characterized by misery, desolation and ignorance, and destined for hell without the knowledge of Christ. Many contemporary Indians would have viewed the situation differently; for instance, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi (1869-1948) was appalled by Heber’s analogous paradigmic nineteenth-century missionary hymn, “From Greenland’s Icy Mountains”, which he viewed as racialist and offensive in its assertion that the Indian subcontinent it was a place “Where every prospect pleases, and man alone is vile” (Heber, 1827, p. 137). Gandhi asserted that:
In a similar vein, Gandhi could have accused Goreh of casting aspersions on Indian womanhood in her poem. Even though she had lived in India until the age of eleven or twelve, she had absorbed popular English prejudices about the country, and represented Indian women from the stance of Victorian English ethnocentrism. She was, somewhat uncomfortably for modern readers living in postcolonial times, validating and perpetuating imperialist thought in her missionary hymn. In fact, the persistence of such negative stereotyping about Indian women in late-nineteenth-century England must have been damaging to Goreh’s understandings about India and Indian subjectivity; certainly, her experience would go against the advice of current experts on transnational adoption who advise that knowledge about the ethnic culture should be “seen in part as a way of instilling pride in adopted children who come to learn impressive things about the glorious civilization of the place of their birth” (Volkman, 2005, p. 92).
Another hymn in
On the surface, this is a conventional piece of Christian devotional writing; for instance, its request for spiritual refinement is reminiscent of Henry Vaughan (1621-1695)’s “Love-Sick”, which perceives divine love as an ardent agent of spiritual change:
Furthermore, the central idea of clinging on to faith amidst the deadly flames of a furnace comes from the scriptural story of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego whose faith enabled them to remain unharmed in Nebuchadnezzar’s fiery furnace in Daniel 3: 1-31. Goreh is asserting that trusting in and being faithful to God, she will withstand the enemy’s attacks and be refined in an act of spiritual alchemy. However, she adds new meaning to this familiar idea when she applies it to her Indian female self returning to the intense heat of the Asian subcontinent, because she ingeniously transmutes the idea of
For readers who knew from the preface to
By subverting the meaning of
Goreh’s first years back in India were, in fact, less than satisfying. She was initially stationed in Jandiala, one of the main locations for the “village missions” where evangelists visited the surrounding villages grouped around a chosen centre. However, within a few months, she had to move to the Alexandra School in Amritsar, an institution “built for the education of the daughters of the higher class of native Christians” (Goreh, 1881b, p. 190), for health reasons. It seems that she could not ensure the physical conditions of village missionary work in the Punjab. For one who had declared that she would withstand all difficulties to convert souls for God, the move was a great disappointment; in a report for
Significantly, when Goreh finally located a more lasting and fulfilling ministry for herself, it was with the bicultural Anglo-Indian (mixed race rather than English people living in India) community. While visiting the Anglo-Indian community in Allahabad, she was moved by the sufferings of the sick, and this experience led her to train as a nurse. In the twenty-first century, Kim Diehl has written of her adoptive experience being “the most radicalizing force in my life”, one that allowed her to have solidarity with “the pain and victories of other displaced, abandoned, and re-birthed people” (Diehl, 2006, p. 31). In Goreh’s biography, we seem to have a parallel example of a nineteenth-century adoptee whose life was also mobilized to action by such sympathy and solidarity. After working as a hospital nurse, she was elected the first superintendent of a new orphanage for Anglo-Indian children at the Bishop Johnson Orphanage in 1892. With her own dual identity, it is perhaps not surprising that Goreh was drawn to work with Anglo-Indians. Nancy Gish has written of the absence of mirrors which transracial adoptees have within their adoptive families and the lack of “a sense of knowing their identity […] is continually mirrored back to them in the faces of relatives” (Gish, 2001, p. 182), and it may have been that, in the faces of her wards, Goreh found a group which reflected back something of her own experience. There must certainly have been a personal resonance for her working with Anglo-Indian orphans; she may even have mulled over the fact that she had once been destined for an Indian orphanage herself as Elizabeth Alice Honig has written of the narratives of possibilities which adoptees inhabit:
It would have been natural for Goreh to reflect that one of her possible lives was to have also grown up in an Indian orphanage.
That Goreh’s faith and sense of Christian vocation deepened during her time at the Bishop Johnson Orphange (from 1892 to 1900) is indicated by the fact that she sought to become a Deaconess－that is, to enter into an official ecclesiastical order which signalled her full consecration to Christ (the closest position to priesthood for women in the Anglican church at this time)－and was ordained in 1897. Her spiritual development during this period is inscribed in a second volume of religious verse,
The idea of a mother’s love is accessible to adults and children alike, and the gentle tones of the kind voice of the poem reproduce successfully maternal reassurance. Despite the attempt to replicate childlike tones, Goreh does not produce a poem that is patronising to its readers; instead, her work conveys a tenderness which, although sentimental, is comforting and kind.
In the second verse, Goreh builds up associations of love and protection with soothing words including “enfolds”, “hush” and “dear”. The gentle and understanding voice of the speaker may be imagined as being that of a loving mother but also, by correspondence, to that of God, who is finally substituted as the ultimate comforting mother. “Isaiah lxvi. 13” is, therefore, a work that affirms the motherhood of God, a feminist theological concept which was not widespread or commonplace in mainstream Anglicanism at the end of the nineteenth century. This suggests that Goreh’s biographical circumstances led her to explore alternative ways of thinking about the divine which responded to her own needs and circumstances. In fact, that Goreh’s conceptualisation of God as the ultimate mother may be intrinsically linked with her identity as an adoptee female poet may be illuminated by Jan Van Stavern’s observation that the contemporary American poet Sandra McPherson (b. 1943)’s verses demonstrate “an adopted woman’s inventive solutions for reinventing the absent parents, especially the mother” (Van Stavern, 2001, p. 154). The implications of this imagining are extremely powerful. The image of the mother who comforts her child is, of course, extremely powerful to the human memory, but, for orphans left parentless in the world through death or abandonment, the idea of a mother who “never fails thee” may well be more poignant and potent. Thus, through the articulation of this message, Goreh’s poem develops along the lines of John Keble (1792-1866)’s influential theory about the function of poetry as a “divinely bestowed gift” for the relief of emotions, and acts as “a kind of medicine divinely bestowed upon man: which gives healing relief to secret mental emotion” (Keble, 1912, p. 22). In this way, Goreh’s poetry offers consolation to the orphans in her care (as well as to herself) bereft of biological mother love, and affirms a personal identity which is located not in human bloodlines but in the infinite and unconditional love of God.
Furthermore, in terms of Goreh’s changing attitudes to Indian peoples and their subjectivities, this poem constructs its understanding of Indians from her perception of God’s care for them. It articulates her belief that God is not only maternal love, but also Emmanuel - indwelling with humanity, and the comforter who will never abandon his children: “And I will pray the Father, and He shall give you another comforter, that He may abide with you for ever; even the Spirit of truth” (John 14: 16-18). Here, Goreh has produced a poem which not only responds to the unhappy circumstances of orphans, but, more significantly, perceives God as inherently being among the innocent in India. This represents a shift in Goreh’s soteriology, or doctrine of salvation, from her position in “Who will go for us?” which asserts that Christ’s saving light needs to be taken to India by Englishwomen. Unlike the earlier poem, which places great emphasis on the salvific powers of English women, this poem makes no statement about the missionary’s or evangelist’s role as a channel of God.
The final work of
As Goreh describes the scene further, she conveys the sense that she has been humbled at witnessing the faith of little children:
The final verse of the poem represents a reversal of power and authority, as it is the adult who asks to learn from the children:
Two scriptural texts justify this idea: Christ’s statement in Luke 18: 16, “Suffer little children to come unto me, and forbid them not: for of such is the kingdom of God”, gives scriptural provenance to the privileging of childhood simplicity and innocence; and Psalm 8: 2, “Out of the mouth of babes and sucklings hast thou ordained strength because of thine enemies, that thou mightest still the enemy and the avenger”, suggests that children are able to be channels for God’s strength and wisdom. This poem suggests that even an experienced missionary may learn about God from the examples of Indian children, abandoned and orphaned as they may be, yet, according to scriptural promises, beloved and privileged by God (for instance, as stated in Jesus’s Beatitudes: “Blessed are the poor in spirit … / the meek … / the pure in heart” [Matthew 5: 3-12]). Although Goreh would have had a guiding role in the children’s religious instruction, her poems suggest that, in fact, S/He already dwells among the pure-hearted in Indian society. Whereas in
Goreh resigned from her post at the Bishop Johnson Orphanage in 1900 “owing to the death of a dear child, which nearly broke my heart!” (Batley & Robinson, 1937, p. 59). She worked in various other missionary roles in India until her health broke down in 1932, whereupon she retired to St. Catherine’s Hospital in Cawnpore, and she stayed there until her death in early 1937 (Batley & Robinson, 1937, p. 59). “[A]ppropriately enough”, as observed by her biographers, her funeral service was led by two clergymen, one Indian and one English (Batley & Robinson, 1937, p. 63).
Shortly before her death, she wrote her final poem, “The Guardian”, a poem expressing confident trust in God at the end of her life:
In the context of Goreh’s personal history, it is significant that Goreh’s swansong was entitled “The Guardian”. Having lost her mother when she was only a few weeks old, and having been adopted by three different families during her childhood, at the end of her life, Goreh saw God as her true “tender” guardian, one who had never truly left her side. Therefore, in this poem, as well as in the compositions of her
While the adoptee’s literary quest is frequently to determine to what extent one’s identity is linked with the birth family, in Goreh’s poetry, this earthly dilemma is by-passed by construing God as the true protector and original source of human identity. Furthermore, significantly, if Goreh’s conceptualisation of God as a “tender” guardian－a feminine parental force－is followed through in her final poem, it follows that her inevitable call “homeward”, conflates death, normally an unwelcome prospect, with the exciting anticipation of reunion with the absent mother. Such interpretations suggest that Goreh’s poetry, which first entered into print culture with the public rhetorical purpose of demonstrating to others the literary and religious possibilities of educating Indian women, may ultimately have functioned more personally and privately to soothe, reconcile, and impart “healing relief to” her own “secret mental emotion[s]” (Keble, 1912, p. 22) through her reimagining of God as the true mother whose love never fails.
Goreh’s hitherto much neglected British-Indian Christian poetry is a powerful cultural site offering rare and fascinating insight into the experience of a nineteenth-century transracial adoptee. The subjects and discussions of Goreh’s verse confirm that the themes of contemporary transnational adoptee literature－the negotiation of the adoptee’s dual identity, confrontations with the birth culture, and the impact of maternal loss on the gendered imagination－extend back in history as primal wounds in adoptees’ psyches. At the same time, Goreh’s writings offer a different revisionist possibility about the role of religion in adoptee experience compared to the often negative discussions about Christianity found in contemporary adoptee writing and scholarship. As a missionary, Goreh was certainly implicated in the imperialist spread of British cultural belief systems over ‘native’ religions; however, in her own story, Christianity also emerges as an enabler of re-identification with birth culture because it was the agent for re-entry into the homeland at a time when opportunities for international travel were severely restricted for women. Goreh’s missionary vocation working among Indians facilitated her re-valuation of, and movement away from, Orientalist views of Indian subjectivity. Finally, the example of Goreh’s poetry skilfully demonstrates the possibilities of lyric poetry－a much older mode for the expression of feelings and thought in English literature than the autobiographical novel now so closely associated with adoptee writing - as an extremely apposite medium for the inscription of adoptee experience, one that may be viewed as a powerful cultural tool in what has been described as the adoptee’s “extensive toolkit for survival and healing” (Diehl, 2006, p. 36).