The Highland Lady in Ireland takes up the story of Eliza Grant’s life ten years after the end of her Memoirs. At the end of the Memoirs, Eliza & her husband, Colonel Smith (Hal) have left India, where they met & married, & have sailed for Ireland. Col Smith had inherited a family estate, Baltiboys, near Dublin, after the death of his brother, and Ireland will be Eliza’s home for the rest of her long life. The Diary was written during the 1840s & the dominating theme is the dreadful potato famine that devastated Ireland during this decade.
The Smiths had spent the past ten years building up the estate, helping their tenants to improve their farms, building a school & doing all they could to create a happy, prosperous estate. In all this work, Eliza’s hand is evident. Growing up at Rothiemurchus in Scotland she had seen how important it was to have the owner living on the estate. Absentee landlords were a problem everywhere & in Ireland during the famine, it was the estates where the owners lived & took an interest in their property & their tenants that fared best.
Eliza’s world is a very patriarchal one. She treats her tenants & employees somewhere between recalcitrant children & rational beings but her motives are good. The Smiths were not rich. They often borrow from their land agent to tide them over until the next rents are due. Eliza often writes that only the Colonel’s army pension & her own literary efforts are keeping them afloat. During the hard years, the family retrenched, doing without many little luxuries that other landowners would take for granted,
Wretched land, what sufferings the most meritorious of its inhabitants are undergoing, all more or less stricken and no prudence on the part of the wiser able to secure them against the pressure of the evils resulting from the want of principle of the improvident… I often pray that my senses may be preserved to me, and that my health of mind and body may stand this struggle, and aid me to preserve an invalid husband and our dear children from much of the real poverty round them – they miss their luxuries – necessaries they still have and will have… but the want of enough to help to relieve others is a painful part of these unhappy times. To keep our own people from starving absorbs all there is to spare.
Eliza’s marriage was very happy. She mentions her invalid husband above, and Hal was quite a bit older than Eliza, but asthma is his main complaint & generally he lived a very active, outdoor life. I love this comment she makes about Jane Austen’s Emma,
John (Robinson, Agent for the estate) sent me Emma which delights me more than ever. Mr Knightley is more charming than I even used to think him for he is exactly Hal – and I was alas! always reckoned like Emma.
Eliza & Hal’s three children, Annie, Janie & Jack, are the much loved focus of her life. The girls are 10 and 8 at the beginning of the Diary & by the end of it Eliza is worrying about the intentions of a young Mr King who is paying Annie conspicuous attention. She has become a complete Irishwoman through her marriage & her love & pride in Baltiboys & she takes Ireland’s part in all the political discussions of the day about the famine & what Britain should do to help. She has very strong opinions about politicians & a pretty poor opinion of young Queen Victoria.
Her Scottish family cause her a lot of anxiety nevertheless. Her father & brothers, William & John, are ruined by the collapse of the Union Bank of Calcutta. They had invested in it heavily (William was a Director) but, even worse, had speculated with other people’s money & when the bank collapsed, their careless if not fraudulent activities were revealed. Eliza’s father is on his way back to England from India to live out the rest of his life dodging creditors when his health gives way & he dies at sea. Eliza is staying with her mother in Edinburgh when the news arrives,
Who was to tell my mother, Jane (sister) was totally unfit, even James (brother-in-law) shirked it. I came in and kneeling down beside her took her hands. ‘Mother’ said I very sorrowfully, ‘Jane and James have come.’ ‘Who have come’ said she quickly. ‘Jane and James’ I said again clasping her hands and kissing her, ‘and no one with them, and the Hardwicke has come.’ She looked at me for one moment, such a look, paused. ‘My child’, she said very low and very slowly, ‘I never expected him.’ Old highland days came back upon her and she wept for the first time abundantly.
By the end of the 1840s, Eliza hopes that the worst of the famine is over and that she and her family can look forward to some years of less worry & more prosperity. The Diary, like the Memoirs, was written for her children but Eliza is a natural writer & can’t help putting her life down on paper. Her sense of duty, her humour & her trenchant opinions make this a fascinating look at life in Ireland in the mid 19th century.