In Lady Eleanor–whose story is based on actual diaries–we have a keenly intelligent and observant narrator. Her descriptions of her profoundly unfamiliar world are vivid and sensual. The stultifying heat, the sensuous relief of the monsoon rains, the aromas and colors of the gardens and marketplaces, the mystifying grace and silence of the Indians themselves all come to rich life on the page. When she, Harriet, Henry, and ten thousand soldiers and servants make a three-year trek to the Punjab from Calcutta under Henry’s failing leadership, Eleanor’s impressions of the people and landscape are deepened, charged by her own revulsion and exaltation: “My life,” she says, “once a fastidious nibble, has turned into an endless disorderly feast.”
Harriet, whose passivity conceals a dazed openness to the true India, and Henry, with his frightened adherence to the crumbling ideals of empire, become foils to Eleanor’s slow but inexorable seduction.
Historically precise, gorgeously evocative, banked with the heat of unbidden desires, One Last Look is a mesmerizing tale of the complex lure of the exotic and the brazen failure of imperialism–both political and personal. It is a powerful confirmation of Susanna Moore’s remarkable gifts.
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Aboard the Jupiter, 2 February 1836
There was another storm this morning, leaving a foot of water in my cabin, and now a rat scrabbles amongst my sodden books. There is a stench of rotting hides. My own excrement floats back and forth. The journal I began when we sailed last October is ruined. I have started anew—this is my first entry.
As sick as death, I’ve eaten only oranges, and the teaspoonful of arrowroot I take each morning (I just devoured the last five oranges in the world crouched against the bolted door of my cabin, terrified that someone would take them from me). We have not seen land, nor another vessel—not even a sea monster—in seventy-two days. There is no coffee, no biscuits, no marmalade, no ale.
Henry is not sick—he eats whatever food remains and dines again with the sailors. They’ve grown fond of him, I hear. Harriet is not sick—to my astonishment, she’s never been better. Cousin Lafayette, of course, is a good sailor. Henry convinced the crew to tie Lafayette to the mast for his twenty-fifth birthday and douse him with sea-water. He spends much of his time with the ladies, particularly the lovely Miss Haywood—he aims to improve her whist. Frolic, like Harriet, is having a lovely time. The dog has a little window of his own, tacked with netting, where he sits and utters odd moans of pleasure at the foam.
Rather we were transported to Botany Bay in a ship full of Irish poachers than this! At least we’d have had the pleasure of a little felony.
Aboard the Jupiter, 4 February 1836
I cannot conceive what it is like for the passengers below, packed tightly with the captain’s private stores of cheese and hats to sell—the hatches are closed to prevent flooding. The wailing of the eighty-four hounds belonging to a Welsh army captain is ceaseless. A company of soldiers—who ate all the poultry before we’d left the Thames—drills up and down in new hobnailed boots, more thunderous even than the loose casks rolling across the deck. (We are most grateful that the crew is barefoot.) Harriet’s maid Jones is so unhinged that Dr. Drummond has tied her to a chair.
Two sails were carried away in the storm and a drunken German piano tuner traveling to Ceylon lost overboard. Henry says it is a great pity, as piano tuners are hard to find in the East. There was a gathering on deck at sunset to ease his way to his Reward, but I could not bring myself to attend.
My sheets are stiff with blood; my hair heavy with salt. There are no clean clothes. My nightdress was so soiled, I stuffed it through the porthole and watched it disappear in the dirty yellow sky.
Aboard the Jupiter, 5 February 1836
I sleep when my exhaustion is so great that even I cannot resist—the click of the cockroaches cannot keep me awake, nor the sailors singing “May God Sink the Sea,” nor the groan of the bulkheads as they strain to split in two. The ocean streams heedlessly past, so near it seems to surge through my body. The movement of the ship both lulls and torments me—a glide forward and then a trembling pause until the ship relinquishes with a shudder and swoons into the trough of the next swell. It puts me in mind of the plea- sures of love.
St. Cléry hides in his cabin with green-sickness, and Henry’s manservant, Crick, is covered in boils.
Aboard the Jupiter, 8 February 1836
No matter how loud I scream, no one can hear me.
Aboard the Jupiter, 12 February 1836
I am feeling better now. It is so hot now we’ve passed the Equator, I wear only a muslin camisole under my dressing gown. (By the time we reached Rio de Janeiro, I’d given up wearing stockings or dressing my hair.) My maid Brandt is disappointed that I refuse to unpack my finery, in fear that soon we will be obliged to dress like Ali Baba (she has never forgotten the evening that my mother, who’d been once to Syria, came down the staircase wearing Damascene pantaloons and a jeweled dagger at her waist), but she is too busy quarreling with the new half-caste maid, Rosina, to make a fuss.
Harriet, good girl that she is, happily keeps up her regime, wearing her corset without complaint, plaiting and plaiting again her hair into two splendid coils, splashing in the buckets of salt water the young officers conspire to bring her—Capt. Chesnell is said to have challenged Lt. Galsworthy for twice going out of turn. She busies herself writing longish letters when she is not memorizing Lalla Rookh. I worry that my sister will have a difficult time of it when we arrive. Harriet is used to comfort and quiet and a certain kind of society. That she is a trifling bit simple will be an advantage, for once. I used to sit in my cabin and think of ways to frighten her (it is not as easy as one would think—she is not embarrassed by fairies). I’d set off to find her with something akin to glee, but her guileless gaze, turned on me in bewilderment as I prowled round her, robbed me of my purpose. She is so biddable, so eager to please that I would creep back to my cabin in shame.
Life on board ship, while not being Paradise to all, as Brandt insists on reminding me, is nothing compared to what awaits us.
Aboard the Jupiter, 18 February 1836
Yesterday, an unearthly howl, one I’ve not heard before, racketed through the ship like a troupe of demons. (At first, I thought that I was howling.) I bestirred myself to the kennel where Lafayette keeps his dogs, but they were dumb with fear, cringing against each other. Eighteen puppies have been born in four months. I never liked a greyhound—too eager—but these were pitiable in their distress. Even Capt. Llewellyn’s hounds were speechless for once.
Tonight when I heard the horrible scream again, I slid from my berth, making my way as best I could across the fen that was once my mother’s carpet (we were obliged to provide our own furnishings), and threw open the door. There was no one there. I could not bear to return to my berth—it reeks of too many other filthy souls—and found myself wondering if Henry were still awake. I went down the dark passage, my hands skimming the walls to keep from falling. Lafayette chipped one of his teeth in a fall last month.
The door to Henry’s cabin was open. I stepped inside. He was sitting in an old armchair from Ravenhill, bent over a map. I made myself a place on a narrow bench built into the wall. There was a basket of mending on the bench, waiting for Crick to recover his senses, if not his skill with a darning egg. (I used to slip into Henry’s room when he was away at school to look at his things. I used to take his stockings to bed.)
“You have worn your stockings to shreds, my dear,” I said, looking into the basket. The bench was seeping and the damp wood was cool beneath my dressing gown.
“Yes.” He made an attempt to move his chair closer to me, forgetting that it was nailed to the floor. I snipped a thread from my bodice with a pair of tiny gold scissors from the sewing basket.
“Shall we resume Mr. Berwick’s Life?” I asked. I glanced at him, wondering if his curious giddiness of the last few weeks had finally passed. He still resembles a convict—the bits of hair clipped from his poor head for souvenir locks have yet to grow back, rendering his pale eyes too large for his face.
He put the map aside with reluctance. I lighted another lamp, and found the Berwick, its pages brittle, and opened it to my place. “I had long made up my mind, not to marry while my father and mother lived, in order that my undivided attention might be bestowed upon them. My mother, had indeed, sometime before recommended a young woman in the neighborhood to me as a wife—she did not know the young lady intimately—but she knew that she was modest in her deportment, beautiful and handsome in her person and had a good fortune. In compliance with this recommendation, I soon got acquainted and became intimate with her, but was careful not to proceed further, and soon discovered that ’tho her character was innocence itself she was mentally one of the weakest of her sex—”
He interrupted me. “Do you remember the time Aunt Sally caught her skirt climbing a stile and tumbled head over heels, landing on her feet with her dress over her head?” He began to laugh, scratching his short gray beard. Crick has been too sick to shave him.
“You always forget that I wasn’t there,” I said. “Harriet was there.”
“And the next week Glamorgan had made a dozen tartan pantaloons for her to wear under her hoops. In Father’s books they never wore underlinen. Much nicer.”
“For all the times you have told me this story, I wish I had been there.” With thee conversing, I forget all time.
He didn’t catch my tease. I wouldn’t say that Henry has wit, although he is superb with puns. “I could swear you were,” he said.
“No. I’ve certainly come to regret it.”
“Have you concern of these things?”
He was puzzled for the briefest moment. “These things?”
“I leave that to my sisters.” He was looking at my feet. As it is always my delight to oblige him, I lifted my dressing gown so he could see my ankles. I was wearing a pair of red morocco slippers; I was not wearing stockings. (When we were young, he liked me tied to my spine board and trussed like a goose.) “Shall I read on?”
He grunted. I pulled the lamp closer. “The smirking lasses had long thrown out their jibes against me as being a woman hater, but in this they are greatly mistaken. I had indeed been very guarded in my conduct towards them, as I held it extremely wrong and cruel to sport with the feelings of any one of them in making them believe that I was in love with any of them, without really being so; in this (which was one of my resolves) sincerity and truth are my guides.” I looked up and saw that he had gone back to his map. I laid aside the Berwick, of which I am not over-fond, and, rescuing Saint-Simon from the exile of my pocket, eagerly returned with him to Paris.
Reading Group Guide
A New York Times Notable Book
“Intriguing. Moore’s most organic, most consistently engaging novel . . . conjure[s] the heat and light and color of this hot, beautiful land. . . . A compelling and richly textured story.” –The New York Times
The introduction, discussion questions, suggestions for further reading, and author biography that follow are designed to enhance your group’s discussion of One Last Look, Susanna Moore’s lushly evocative novel about three aristocratic English siblings in 1830s India.
1. What is the effect of telling the story through Eleanor’s diary entries? How would the novel have been different if it had employed a more conventional narration?
2. Early in the novel, Eleanor wonders “if generations of privilege have conspired to inure me to this place; I see all the naked creatures squatting at the doors of their huts and feel nothing but disgust” [p. 29]. Why would her privilege prevent her from feeling compassion for these “creatures”? How does her attitude toward the suffering and poverty of India change over the course of her time there?
3. “I have thought from time to time in my life as to what it means to be female,” Eleanor writes, “but never before did I consider what it signifies to be English; now I think of it endlessly” [p. 87]. Why does being in India make her so conscious of her Englishness? How does it change her view of England and English imperialism?
4. Bishop Maxwell-Lewis asks Eleanor if she believes in the three C’s: Commerce, Christianity, and Civilization. In what ways have the British used these concepts to justify their domination of India?
5. Eleanor and Henry think that Harriet has “gone all jungly” [p. 81]. What do they mean by this? How is Harriet’s response to India deeper and more intimate than theirs? Why is she so enchanted by the jungle? How does living in the jungle change her view of English civilization, its comforts and moral restrictions?
6. What kind of relationship does Eleanor have with her brother Henry? Why is she so attached to him? How are we to understand the sexual dimension of their relationship?
7. What are the specific motives for Henry and Lafayette coming to India? How are their plans complicated and frustrated by the reality they encounter there?
8. Eleanor wonders, “The writing of women is always read in the hope of discovering women’s secrets. Will my secrets be discovered?” [p. 239]. Is it true that women’s writing is read with this purpose? Why would that be so? Has Eleanor revealed her secrets in her writing? Is reading another person’s diaries always an act of voyeurism?
9. As she prepares to leave India, Eleanor tells the Bishop: “I myself can no longer distinguish between what is real and what is chimera, yet this feeling that I have, this elation of toiling through isolation and wonder, will soon be gone and I will mourn for the rest of my life its going!” [p. 277]. Why has her experience in India made it impossible for Eleanor to tell dream and reality apart? Why does she feel she will mourn its loss for the rest of her life?
10. Is One Last Look primarily a personal or a political novel? How does Susanna Moore balance these aspects of the book?
11. One Last Look is set in India in the 1830s. In what ways does it speak to our own time and circumstance? Can the novel be read as a cautionary tale about feeling superior to and exploiting other cultures? How relevant is the British overthrow of the Afghan leader Dost Mohammed in the novel to the current situation in Afghanistan and Iraq?
12. At the end of the novel, Eleanor tells Harriet: “I am so thankful for all that has happened, not least because it has cured me of almost everything I once believed” [p. 286]. What beliefs has Eleanor been cured of? How has her experience in India fundamentally changed her? How is she a different person when she returns to England?