Remember Laurence Hope? The poet who immortalised lost love in the early 20th century? The poet whose verses throbbed with the hot blood of the Afridi warrior who slit his beloved’s throat for being unfaithful? The poet who wrote Kashmiri Song and its most famous line filled with tears colder than the snow on the marble steps of Shalimar Bagh. “Pale hands I loved beside the Shalimar.”

Hope’s poem made Shalimar a symbol of the exotic East. Rudolph Valentino, he of the smouldering eyes and penchant for rough sex, made it popular in his film The Sheikh (1921). The House of Guerlain christened one of their perfumes Shalimar. Restaurants and villas were named Shalimar.

By the time Kashmiri Song was set to music by Amy Woodforde-Finden, it was playing in fashionable cafés across Europe in the years between the World Wars. Soldiers danced a lingering foxtrot to it on their last night out in smoky cafes. In an era when young women entertained the ladies at the piano, while the men sipped port at the dining table, they often crooned the last lines:
Pale hands, pink tipped, like lotus buds that float/ On those cold waters where we used to dwell/ I would have rather felt you round my throat/ Crushing out life, than waving me farewell.

“But Lawrence Hope was not a man. She was a woman,” exclaims Virginia Jealous, an Australian poet, globetrotting birdwatcher and travel writer, who is in India tracking the Hope’s footprints.

We in the audience at Chennai’s Connemara Hotel gasp. The meeting of the famed Book Club of Madras freezes. Some elderly members, munching their cucumber sandwiches, begin to choke.

What does this signify for the poetry? Clearly, the pale fingers the poet talked about were a woman’s. How could a woman rhapsodise about another woman’s pink tipped hands, unless it was a question of the love that cannot speak its name? For let us not forget that this was written in the late Victorian era, when the scandal of Oscar Wilde’s fling with a member of the aristocracy was just beginning to shake the foundations of the tabloids of that era.

The writer of The Garden of Kama, the collection of poems first published in 1901, was a young English girl named Adele Florence Nicolson.

Dressed as a Pathan boy

Adele’s father was a British Army officer who edited the “English Civil and Military Gazette” in Lahore and may well have encouraged a young Rudyard Kipling in his early literary career. She married Colonel Malcolm Hassels Nicholson, commandant of the 3rd Baluchi Regiment in 1889, and followed him all over the North-West Frontier, despite the fact that he was twice her age.

In some accounts, she dressed as a Pathan boy and learnt to speak Urdu, Pashtu and tribal languages, since Nicholson was himself a linguist. The couple was known to be “eccentric”, for they entertained the natives as equals in some cases and Adele dressed in Indian clothes.

Virginia Jealous tells her story with the help of photographs she has clicked. The photograph of Adele is one that also appears in her Wikipedia entry. It shows Adele looking a little like the younger sister of Madame Blavatsky, the Russian half of the founding parents of Theosophy.

The reason that she sought to disguise her gender may have been the taboo on young ladies talking about their feelings, particularly those inclined to having a passion for the natives. For not only did Adele fantasise about Pathan warriors, she seemed to have lost herself in the arms of a boatman when she came down to Calicut in Kerala. As she wrote: “Things of beauty, are free to all.” Was she the first to establish the hippie trail from Kashmir to Kerala?

Passed down the family

As Virginia Jealous explains, her father John Jealous was the first to track down the Adele trail. It brought him to Chennai, where he discovered that Colonel Nicholson succumbed to a botched prostate operation. He had hardly been consigned to his grave at St Mary’s Churchyard in Chennai when Adele took a poison and was buried soon afterwards in the same grave. She was only 39. The grave can still be seen.

The story does not end here. The Nicholsons had a son, a boy of four, Malcolm the Second. When he grew up, he kept a track of his mother’s poems and had them published. His son, another Malcolm, took the memorabilia with him to Majorca, where he passed away not too long ago. The letters, poems and paintings by Adele, who was also a talented artist, might soon find their way into the larger world.

The mystery of Lawrence Hope, who was Adele Florence Nicholson, may come back to haunt all of us who first heard the sad refrain of “Pale hands I loved besides the Shalimar”.