Toru Dutt, one of 19th century India’s greatest poets in English, was also one of the first Indian authors to write in French. An ardent Francophile, she translated dozens of poems and completed a novel before her death at the age of 21 in 1877. During her short life, Dutt was almost unknown in France, which she had visited only for a few months in 1869, as part of her parents’ programme to provide her and her siblings with a European education.

In early 1877, however, Dutt – already suffering from a fatal illness – wrote a letter that would transform her reputation, making her a celebrity figure of francophone literature. She had just read Women on Ancient India and wrote a note of appreciation to its author, Clarisse Bader. A journalist, historian and Orientalist, Bader had written the book when she was 22 and recognised Dutt as a kindred spirit.

The two women exchanged several letters, discussing Sanskrit and French literature, as well as their shared Catholic faith, until their correspondence was cut short by Dutt’s demise. Dutt’s father sent Bader the manuscript of his daughter’s French-language novel, The Diary of Mademoiselle d’Arvers, asking her to ensure its publication in France. Bader succeeded spectacularly, engaging a major French publisher the following year and she wrote an introduction to the novel which set the stage for France’s enthusiastic reception of Dutt’s work.

Much in common

In her introduction to The Diary of Mademoiselle d’Arvers, Bader argued that Dutt’s work demonstrated a masterful blend of Indian and European cultures. Although the novel takes place entirely in France, focusing on the doomed love of a young Breton girl, Bader believed that “we can detect an Indian influence in the heroine’s gentle, tender nature” and in the “poetic comparisons” of Dutt’s prose. For Bader, appreciation for Dutt’s literary style went hand-in-hand with sentimental reminiscences – “Although I never saw Toru, I loved her.... Many times, while reading the story of Mademoiselle d’Arvers, I thought I heard Toru herself.”

The two women, who might both be described as progressive Christian feminists, had much in common. Not least, Bader insisted, was a shared love of France. Bader cited a lengthy passage from Dutt’s diary in which the future novelist – then a 15-year-old expatriate in England – recounted her horror at France’s defeat in the Franco-Prussian War (1870-1871). “She loved our country, and she demonstrated that love in the hour of France’s agony,” she wrote and in return, France must “preserve the memory of the young foreigner who, in a moment when our country had been humiliated, wanted to become a part of it in her language and in her heart”.

Bader’s vision of Dutt was a partial one that emphasised the latter’s Christianity and love of France at the expense of other facets of her life and work. It was an image made to appeal to the French reading public, many of whom were brooding resentfully over their country’s recent defeat at the hands of a newly united German Empire. And France’s new republican government was vulnerable to the machinations of monarchists and outside powers. To know that a sensitive young author from a distant country had been moved by France’s plight and admired its culture was a balm for its wounded pride.

Positive reviews

The Diary of Mademoiselle d’Anvers was widely reviewed in the French press, with hardly a word of negative criticism. The literary review Polybiblion rhapsodized: “In these pages there is a spiritual feeling that is both poetic and mystical.” Reviewers were especially interested in Dutt as a “Friend of France” (the title of at least two different articles about her), one who had sympathised with the country when it was weak, isolated and depressed.

James Darmesteter, one of France’s most eminent Orientalist scholars and a literary critic in his spare hours, ranked Dutt alongside Byron in an 1883 study of English literature. Like Bader, he urged that “her name must remain particularly beloved to France, which she loved so much”.

Throughout the last years of the 19th century, Dutt was frequently cited in the French media as a famous Francophile, as proof that French culture still attracted intelligent admirers throughout the world – admirers who enriched that culture themselves. Indeed, while the most sensitive readers, including Bader and Darmesteter, tried to see Dutt’s work as a meeting-point of Indian and European literary traditions, many argued that her work was French “in inspiration and in form” and almost regretted how thoroughly the Indian author had become “assimilated.”

Literary pioneer

For a while, Dutt’s literary reputation in France seemed to be secure and she was becoming a familiar reference – the “Christian Hindu” with a “French heart”. But by the close of the 19th century, she was all but forgotten. A newly assertive France, pursuing colonial expansion throughout Africa and Asia, seemed to have lost interest in the sympathy of an Indian author. But even at the height of Dutt’s popularity, in 1885, there were disturbing signs of what was to come. A critic concluded a long, enthusiastic essay on Dutt for the Christian Review by observing that it was heartening to see that French culture could be so inspiring to an educated Indian. This bode well, the author argued, for France’s efforts to “extend its influence in the Far East” and to make “useful conquests” there.

As one of India’s first global literary celebrities, Dutt can be seen as a pioneer, showing the way for generations of Indian authors who found audiences abroad. Scholars in the 21st century, rediscovering interested in India’s long-neglected trove of French language literature, are giving Dutt and her work a new lease of life. But her legacy also reveals how critics create and destroy reputations with little regard to an author’s merits or message. Still more troublingly, while literature can unite people across geographical and culture differences, it can also fuel national chauvinism and imperial ambitions. A passion for France widened Dutt’s literary horizons and taught her to identify with history’s victims. France’s passion for Dutt was far more ambiguous.