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Inspiring Bridgerton: the real South Asian women in Regency-era England

The second series of Regency romance hit Bridgerton will welcome Simone Ashley, a British actor of South Asian descent, in a lead role. As the presence of sisters Kate and Edwina Sharma touches on the histories of people from Asian heritage in Regency England, Durba Ghosh, professor of history at Cornell University, introduces the real elites of Asian descent who socialised in the ballrooms of Georgian London…

Simone Ashley as Kate Sharma in Bridgerton, next to a Regency portrait of Kitty Kirkpatrick.
Published: January 18, 2022 at 11:40 am
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The image of Georgian and Regency England, received from accounts by Jane Austen and others, suggests a series of balls, teas, and theatre that allowed elite women and men to meet and marry in a socially appropriate way. Film and TV adaptations of Austen novels might make us think that ‘elite’ meant ‘white’, and that whiteness was the only way to join London’s social circuit. In fact, at the turn of the 19th century, elites of Asian descent circulated through London, socialising with those who gathered in the city that would become the heart of empire. Considered aristocratic because of their status at ‘home’ on the Indian subcontinent, the women who moved through tea parlours, salons, and ballrooms would have been educated, fluent in English and Persian, and used to living among Europeans.

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Even though women of Asian lineage are typically not known for being free to travel or socialise with members of the opposite sex, the histories of Kitty Kirkpatrick, Helene Bennett, and Elizabeth Ducarel suggest otherwise.

A portrait of William Kirkpatrick and Catherine Aurora 'Kitty' Kirkpatrick, c1805
A portrait of William Kirkpatrick and Catherine Aurora 'Kitty' Kirkpatrick, c1805. They were the children of British official James Achilles Kirkpatrick and Khair-un-nissa, a young Muslim woman at the Hyderabad court. (Image by Alamy)

Kitty Kirkpatrick, aged four, arrived in London with her brother, William, sometime in September 1805 accompanied by a British official. Her father, James Achilles Kirkpatrick, and her uncle, also William, had been residents, who were representing British political, economic, and military interests in the princely courts of India. Members of the East India Company’s administration, the Kirkpatrick brothers were “white Mughals”, as historian William Dalrymple has called them. When James Achilles Kirkpatrick died, he asked that his children be sent to England and cared for by family members. Born of his relationship with Khair-un-nissa, a young Muslim woman in the household of the nizam's court in Hyderabad, the two children were separated from their mother and raised as Europeans. Once in England, the children were renamed William George and Catherine Aurora.

Bridgerton: everything you need to know

Step into the ballrooms of Regency England, and catch up on the real history that underpins seasons 1 and 2 of Bridgerton, from the real royals to the palaces and promenades | Read more
Bridgerton. Simone Ashley as Kate Sharma, Jonathan Bailey as Anthony Bridgerton

Catherine, whose nickname became Kitty, later became acquainted with Scottish philosopher Thomas Carlyle, who described her as "a strangely-complexioned young lady, with soft brown eyes and floods of bronze-red hair, really a pretty-looking, smiling and amiable, though most foreign bit of magnificence and kindly splendour; … half-begum in short; an interesting specimen of the Semi-oriental [sic] Englishwoman.” Kitty and Carlyle travelled in the same social circles, in which it seemed widely known that Kitty’s mother was Asian.

Portrait of Khair-un-nissa, a young 18th-century Muslim woman
Khair-un-nissa, a young Muslim woman who had two children with "white Mughal" James Achilles Kirkpatrick. (Image by Alamy)

Relocating to England

Kitty’s mother, Khair-un-nissa, was dispossessed of her children and remained in India. But several women who had been members of courtly households in India and partnered with British or European officials in India were brought to London, particularly if they had the skills to read and write. One example is the case of Halima Begum, who was a Muslim noblewoman at the nawab’s princely court in Lucknow. She was also the sister of Faiz Bakhsh, the longtime partner of William Palmer, a military official who had served as a resident of the East India Company in Lucknow. Halima, who was painted by German artist Johan Zoffany in the unfinished Palmer family portrait (below) was previously (and mistakenly) identified as Palmer's second wife. We now know she was attached to General Benoit de Boigne, a French mercenary soldier who had fought for the East India Company.

Halima likely met de Boigne when he visited Palmer in Lucknow, sometime between 1783 and 1788. She was considered accomplished because she could read Persian and English. While still in India, they had two children. When de Boigne left India, he had a huge fortune and was able to bring Halima and their two children with him to London, likely in 1797. Even though Halima and de Boigne never married, the four of them settled on Great Portland Street, which was emerging as a fashionable area that was further improved by the development of Regent’s Park. Shortly after, however, de Boigne left Halima for a young aristocratic French woman whose family had been thrown out of Paris after the revolution; nonetheless, he continued to provide an income for Halima and their children, as well as for the other children he had fathered in India.

A family portrait of the 18th-century Palmer family
A family portrait of the Palmer family, painted by German artist Johan Zoffany. (Image by Alamy)

Their daughter, who they called Banu, was renamed and baptised Ann, and their son Ali was renamed Charles. The children remained under the care of their mother and for a time, and lived near Hammersmith. Halima, now known as Helene Bennett, corresponded regularly with de Boigne, writing letters in English and updating him on their children’s education. Ann was sent to France to be with her father when she was just 15<, but contracted an illness while travelling and died in her father’s apartment in Paris. De Boigne returned to his hometown of Chambèry, in the Savoy region of France, where he became a well-known civic patron (the bronze monument that he sponsored – the Fountain of Elephants – has become a local landmark and tourist destination). After the death of their daughter, Helene Bennett moved to the outskirts of London while their son completed his education at St Edmund’s College in Hertfordshire. Charles, the son, moved to Chambèry around 1814, where he was formally adopted by his father. He became the Count de Boigne, after his father died in 1830. Helene Bennett lived the remainder of her life in England, in a cottage in Horsham, outside London. She died in 1853, and her tomb in the local cemetery reads that she was the widow of de Boigne.

Visible lives

Halima, aka Helene Bennett, was not alone among women of South Asian descent who came to England in this period. Elizabeth Ducarel, who was originally called Sharaf-un-nissa, had a much more visible life in England, living publicly with her husband and children. She met Gerard Gustavus Ducarel when he was the supervisor of the district of Purnea, shortly after the revenues of Bengal had been granted to the East India Company. She was only 13 years old when they met, leading to speculation that she had been an enslaved person or had not consented to the relationship. When she was 13, she gave birth to their first child; they had six children in total. She followed him in his various positions, eventually to Calcutta where he became the superintendent of the khalsa, or the department of revenue. The children were sent to England to be educated when they were four or five years of age. When Ducarel returned to England in 1784, he brought Elizabeth with him, and they married in an Anglican church in 1787.

Simone Ashley (left) as Kate Sharma, accompanied by Adjoa Andoh as Lady Danbury (centre left), Shelley Conn as Mary Sharma (centre right), Charithra Chandran as Edwina Sharma (right) in series two of Bridgerton
Simone Ashley (left) as Kate Sharma, accompanied by Adjoa Andoh as Lady Danbury (centre left), Shelley Conn as Mary Sharma (centre right), Charithra Chandran as Edwina Sharma (right) in series two of Bridgerton. "Film and TV adaptions of Austen novels might make us think that ‘elite’ meant ‘white’", writes Professor Durba Ghosh. (Image by LIAM DANIEL/NETFLIX 2021)

In her time in England, Mrs Ducarel learned English competently enough to maintain a steady correspondence with her children and extended family members. She was also proficient in Persian, as she continued to write to her family in India. From these accounts, we know that she was socially quite active, attending several evening events every week and being deeply involved with the familial affairs of her children, all of whom married respectably into British society. One Indian traveller to Britain, Mirza Abu Taleb Khan, reported that she was “very fair and so accomplished in all the English manners and language, that I was sometime in her company before I could be convinced she was a native of India.”

Ducarel died in 1800. Elizabeth survived him until 1822<, when she died in the home of her eldest son in Gloucestershire.

These examples – of Kitty Kirkpatrick, Helene Bennett and Elizabeth Ducarel – are a small but very real piece of the history of Georgian and Regency England that rightly inform the casting for the next season of Bridgerton.

Although these women lived and died in England, many in Britain had the experience of siblings, half-siblings, cousins, and relations who had remained in India.

A portrait of Kitty Kirkpatrick, who arrived in London aged four and later became a muse of Scottish philosopher Thomas Carlyle. (Image by Alamy)

One final example should serve as a strong example about how a long-lost sibling in India informed British literature: Kitty was not the only Indian child whose English father insisted that she be relocated to England. These deathbed requests showed how Englishmen made their children European by divesting them of their Indian ancestry. Amelia Thackeray, half-sister of famed novelist William Makepeace Thackeray, should have arrived in London around 1816. Their father, Richmond Thackeray, had died in Calcutta after having served as a district collector in Bengal and secretary to the Board of Revenue of the East India Company. Although Richmond was legally married to Anne Becher, a white woman whose father was also involved with the East India Company, Richmond had had a “natural” child with a woman who was unnamed in his will. In Richmond’s last testament, he instructed that “Amelia” and William should return to England under Anne’s care and guardianship. Richmond’s career in India had been successful: he asked that £100 yearly be granted to his daughter and son each, and £500 to his wife, putting them into the ranks of the very wealthy in England. William eventually attended Charterhouse [school], and then went up to Cambridge; he inherited a substantial sum when he turned 21, which he quickly gambled away.

Recent genealogical research suggests that Richmond Thackeray’s instructions were never followed, and his daughter never arrived in London. “Amelia” was actually Sarah Redfield and she remained in India, marrying James Blechynden (the son of the Richard Blechynden who became famous as the diarist who recorded his many sexual exploits in India). The name Amelia, given to his half-sister by his father, no doubt inspired William Makepeace Thackeray to develop the character of Amelia Sedley, who appeared in his novel Vanity Fair as the compliant and mild-mannered heroine who serves as the socially appropriate foil to the ambitious social climber, Rebecca Sharp.

We might be tempted to think of these Asian women as social climbers, aspiring to join the ranks of the elite and cultivated in England. Instead, we should recall that they were elite and educated in India, which allowed them to adjust to the expectations of social life in Georgian and Regency England.

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Professor Durba Ghosh teaches at Cornell University on modern South Asia, the British empire, gender, and colonialism. Her research specialises on the history of British colonialism on the Indian subcontinent

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