I have been thinking lately of Eliza Fay, who has been dead since 1816. Neither beautiful nor rich, she left behind a fascinating memoir in the form of letters. Original Letters from India is an account of the many trials—and they were at times harrowing—that she endured when she left the safety of England in 1779 to venture into strange lands with her useless husband, an Irish attorney. E. M. Forster wrote the introductory notes, which are in themselves a good reason for picking up a copy.
Forster is, in fact, responsible for the fact that we can pick up a copy; he stumbled upon an early edition of the book while researching A Passage to India and convinced Virginia Woolf and her husband to publish a reprint. It would be sad not to have Eliza’s book available for reading—it would be even sadder not to have Forster’s introductory notes.
I read the book three years ago, and I was thinking of Eliza Fay again this week because she had amazingly foul luck for nearly all of her life, and I have had a week of mildly foul luck myself. Eliza is a fine model of how to meet misfortune, so I picked up the book and reviewed parts of her story. In one example, Eliza and her husband are held as political prisoners (temporarily) in Calcutta. As if this weren’t bad enough, they lose the only money they have with which to buy their freedom. Eliza’s recounting of this incident is entertaining but lengthy, so I’ll go to Forster’s notes for the recap:
When the verandah in which they had hidden their savings was twitched off by a monsoon, [Mr. Fay] abandoned himself to lamentations while she calculated the direction of the wind and finally discovered the money in a far away tuft of grass.
Forster adds with obvious admiration:
[Eliza’s] floods of tears and fainting fits are always postponed until a convenient moment: they never intrude while she is looking after her luggage or outwitting her foes.
Unlike Eliza, I am feeling somewhat daunted by my troubles, piddling though they are. Mine began, not with a journey to India, but with a shopping trip to Burlington. (We did have a delicious lunch at an Indian restaurant before running our errands, however.) After lunch, we knocked out our three errands: Aldi, to pick up a few things; Great Clips, so that Ernesto could get a trim; and a stop at Walmart, which seems to be the sole source for the window fly-catchers we like because you can actually see all of the tiny, horrid gnats that collect on the sticky strips, and it gives me great satisfaction to see them stuck. If that sounds cruel, well, all I can say is that you have neither inhaled nor ingested them in the numbers that we have.
At Aldi, we packed all of our items into a box and Ernesto wheeled it in the shopping cart toward the car. The box was heavy, so I hurried ahead of him and used my key to pop the trunk open. Then I trundled the shopping cart all the way back to the store because there was not one single soul in the parking lot to give it to. That was the last time I remember seeing my keys.
I read a magazine at Great Clips while Ernesto got his hair cut. At Walmart, Ernesto caught sight of the Dr. Scholl’s foot machine and decided that he wished to have his feet mapped. He doesn’t have any problems with his feet, but he couldn’t resist a free ride on the foot-mapping machine. So he stood first on one foot, then the other, and cycled through the process and was told in the end that he had handsome arches and healthy feet but that (of course) he would benefit greatly from Dr. Scholl’s insert C320. He didn’t buy any inserts, but I believe that he found the experience of having his feet mapped refreshing in itself. Because it was free.
Anyway, we picked up fly-catchers and soap and olive oil and goat’s milk and were on our way back to the car when I realized my keys were not in my purse. They are a good-sized set of keys, too, reinforced by two ornamental fobs and about four mini-cards for various grocery stores and pharmacies. The entire bunch is gone. I went back into Walmart to see if perhaps they’d already been found and turned in, and at the customer service counter the clerk reached into a cubby and brought out a basket filled with about 70 sets of keys, festooned with mini-cards. If you have lost a set of keys in the last ten years, I suggest that you stop by your local Walmart. I’m sure they have them. Mine, however, were not there.
We went home, went through every shopping bag we had brought back, and I removed everything from my purse except the lining. Then I combed through the car, every inch of it. Nothing. I called Great Clips, and they said the keys weren’t there. I couldn’t find a phone number anywhere for Aldi, so I drove back to town, scoured the parking lot, and left my name at the office so they could call if the keys turned up. I forgot to ask them why they don’t have a listed phone number.
On my way to check the parking lot at Great Clips, the skies opened up and the rain poured. It was raining so hard that the Great Clips stylists, whose customers had fled, were all looking out at the deluge and watched me as I ran under the building’s overhang. One of them opened the door. “Keys,” I said, and the stylist at the door nodded. “We didn’t see them,” she said brightly, and we both looked toward the corner where I had been seated while reading about the year’s hottest colors in More magazine. There was no possible place for keys to hide there. “Maybe they’ll turn up when we sweep!” she said encouragingly, but I could not be cheered. “They’re not here,” I said, and plunged back into the storm.
I even checked the storm drain in the parking lot at Walmart, thinking that the number of my keys (or the sheer bulk of all those mini-cards) would surely prevent them from falling through the grate. Nothing. When I got back home, I removed the spare tire in the trunk and checked the cavity, then ripped out the lining of my purse.
Now, having exhausted all my resources, I no longer believe that I will discover the keys in a far-away tuft of grass, or anywhere else. They are gone. So this seems like a convenient time for a flood of tears. Perhaps I’ll cry in the manner of Eliza Fay, writing her first letter to her family from Calais, still within sight of her homeland: “My very heart seems to melt as I write, and tears flow so fast as to compel me to shut one eye while I proceed.”
I’m ashamed not to be as courageous and indomitable as Mrs. Eliza Fay, but even Forster admitted that she had her own shortcomings. “Geography could never have been her strong point,” he says, “for she thought that the Alps were only one mountain thick…. Writing she adored—never happier than when the pen is in the hand—but her grammar was most personally her own.”
Imperfect she may be, but Mrs. Eliza deserves the last word. This passage is from her preface to the letters. She is speaking of herself in the third person as the heroine of her journey, but I am adopting the message as my own:
Shadows, clouds, and darkness still rest on the remainder of her pilgrimage, which calls for the pilotage of kindness and the Day-star of friendship. She has, however, by the blessing of Providence been constantly enabled to rise superior to misfortune, and will not now in the evening of her days, derogate from the unostentatious energy of her character, or seek to solicit the pity of her readers by wearisome retrospect or painful complaint.
Update 8/23/13: My keys have returned safely home! I went back to Aldi this week, and inquired again at the office there. This time, they were there. One ornamental fob had been badly damaged and had to be tossed; probably it was run over. Doesn’t matter. I rise superior to misfortune!