Excerpted from One Last Look by Susanna Moore. Copyright © 2003 by Susanna Moore. Excerpted by permission of Vintage, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Susanna Moore is the author of the novels The Big Girls, One Last Look, In the Cut, Sleeping Beauties, The Whiteness of Bones, and My Old Sweetheart, and two books of nonfiction, Light Years: A Girlhood in Hawai’i and I Myself Have Seen It: The Myth of Hawai’i. She lives in New York City.
Susanna Moore is represented by Random House Speakers Bureau (www.rhspeakers.com).
A Conversation with Susanna Moore
Q: What was your inspiration for writing this novel? Was it based much on the real Governor-general of India and his sisters and did they travel to Calcutta from England in 1936?
A: I lived in Calcutta for five months in 1999. While I was there, I read many journals, diaries, collections of letters and histories. While reading Up The Country by Emily Eden, who traveled to India in 1836 with her sister Fanny, her nephew, and her brother George Eden, Lord Auckland, I began to wonder what her life would have been—it seemed to me so clear from her letters that she was not telling the whole truth. I didn't know if she even knew the truth herself; most likely she did not. But I began to think about Calcutta in 1836: what would it have been like for Emily Eden and her younger sister, Fanny? That is how I began to write One Last Look.
Q: The language is, at times, reminiscent of Jane Austen. How did you go about finding the right pitch/conversational tone for these particular English aristocrats?
A: For two years I read everything I could find about England and India in the first half of the nineteenth century. I kept a notebook which turned into six large notebooks by the end of the two years. There are passages in the novel that are taken verbatim from the diaries of Emily Eden and Fanny Eden and another extraordinary traveler, Fanny Parkes.
Q: What does it mean in the story when a merchant says, “Calcutta is a pot of honey”?
A: "Calcutta is a pot of honey" means that in the first half of the nineteenth century, before the society became truly Victorian in feeling and tone, Bengal was a place to make money. The Governor-Generals returned to England rich men. It was a bountiful, lush, prosperous, easy place to make a fortune—in coal, in jute, and particularly cloth. It was also a very important market, like China, for export goods.
Q: The lives of women, even the aristocratic ones, come across as incredibly stifling, even when on colonial soil far away from home. Do you think this was true? And while your previous novel, the contemporary thriller set in New York, In the Cut, is so completely different in tone from this one, it could be said that each has a smart, strong, and observant woman at the center. Do they seem at all similar to you?
A. The lives of women were stifling. That is, in part, what interested me. It is possible to say that all of my books concern themselves with the notion of what it means to be female—whether it is in New York City in 2000 or Calcutta in 1836. In that way, my books really are the same.
Q: The relationship between the two sisters, Eleanor and Harriet, and their brother, Henry, is very close—to the point where Eleanor considers accompanying her brother to India her highest calling. Was that unusual for the time?
A: It was most usual for sisters when they were unmarried to remain together, and with other members of their family when it was possible. It was a matter of decorum as well as money. Because Eleanor is particularly close to her brother, remaining behind would have been out of the question. She also served a most practical purpose, in that Henry was a bachelor without a hostess. She was able to bring sophistication and intelligence to her role as mistress of Government House. Henry needed her with him for that, as well as for companionship and to exercise his familial responsibility.
Q: Concerning the people who really did live in this Imperialist society, do you think they felt they deserved to be there or was it simply fulfilling their duty to the crown? In other words, did they really think of themselves as good “agents of change” or was there guilt in exploiting others?
A: It seems to me from everything I have read, apart from the wonderful Fanny Parkes, the real heroine of the Raj, that almost everyone in India certainly thought they should be there, as agents of change, as agents of commerce, as agents of empire.
Q: Having grown up in Hawaii, did you relate at all to your character’s desire to take all the seductive color and beauty of India and recreate it back in England?
A: Growing up in Hawaii, which is not physically unlike south India, did help me to feel comfortable in India from the very start --- I have been there five times --- but it is an utterly different culture. I knew that I could
only write about it as an outsider, which is why Eleanor was born.
Q: You also have a travel book coming out this year: where to?
A: The travel book, just published by National Geographic Directions as part of the series that includes Oliver Sacks and W.S. Merwin and Louise Erdrich, et. al, is about Hawaii. It is called I Myself Have Seen It: The Myth of Hawai’i.
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?