Let there be Light: Finding Beauty in Sophia’s I am the Best! Letters

In Hartly House, Phebe Gibbes gives the reader a view of India from the eyes of an English teenager named Sophia. Sophia is writing to her friend Arabella and many of the letters remind me of high school style one-upmanship. She is constantly rubbing her friends nose in the sights shes seeing, and the fact that she is traveling the world while poor Arabella is stuck at home in England. Furthermore, she is constantly talking about how wonderful and beautiful she is (usually in relation to some man admiring her) and whining about her love life. So, when Sophia uses allusions to the classics within her letters (in the form of references, quotes, and poetry) one could be forgiven for simply thinking it is just another way for Sophia to make her “friend” feel more inferior by throwing her education in her face, yet these references aren’t just thrown in there. There is obviously some reason for the author adding them (because Sophia is spoiled and pretentious enough without them). These allusions tie this work to the classics, which was a common enough thing for literature of this time, and I imagine part of the reason these poems and quotes are worked into Hartly House, is to make the book more credible, and to give a nod to other works as other authors did. There is something else I noticed about the quotes, though, that I found interesting. Many of the quotes and references have to do with light.

In her second letter Sophia writes, “I cannot, like Mr. Apollo, lay aside my rays, that your optics shall be enabled to contemplate, however brilliant, the dazzling objects I gradually open to your view,” (Gibbes, 7). First of all, Apollo is the god of poetry and I think one could stretch that to all fiction writing, also Apollo is considered the god of light. This is probably because he is associated with Helios (the titan of the sun). The line in the letter itself is also all about light, “rays,” “brilliant,” and “dazzling,” all give this impression of sunlight. This is not the only reference to the classics that is connected to light. Granted Sophia may be using this imagery to connect to the climate of India which is completely different than England… But of course Sophia isn’t real, and so I think that Phebe Gibbes was trying to use these works to remind the reader that there is beauty here even if at first glance all we see is a spoiled rich kid bragging to her “friend.”

-Katie Oswald


Gulliver(Sophia) The Second

In the novel Hartly House, the main character Sophia mirrors Gulliver from Gulliver’s Travels in my ways. She begins to behave just like his and its a trait that Phoebe Gibbes does not let slide by the reader as Sophia herself admit in letter XXXVII where she states:

“I am undone! I have beheld so brilliant, so divine,a spectac1e— am so rlazzled, and so captivated, and, like Gulliver in the land of Lilliput, find all the objects around me so diminutive and so mean”(269).

From looking at this quote we can see that Sophia is clearly making a comparison between her and Gulliver. What is most interesting about this is that both Sophia and Gulliver felt as if they were better than those people back in their home land. Sophia begins to believe she is better than her lifetime friend  Arabella and Gulliver feels as if he is now magically better than the rest of his people back in England simply for ever meeting and being around the Houyhnhnms. The reference used by Sophia is perfect for her situation because she even used the words “brilliant”, “divine”, and “spectacle” which can refer to the wonders of the materialistic thing she also describes in page 271. Sophia is captivated by the materialistic side of the new land while Gulliver admires the Houyhnhnms for their intellect, intelligence and sophistication. Both Sophia and Gulliver become enchanted with the things they discover in their travels and pay no attention to the worlds they came from. Sophia is everything she is criticizing.

It is important to analyze and discover what are the exact things that make them feel this way. Is it that they feel more entitled than the rest of the people they have encountered? That might be possible taking into consideration the harsh way they critique the people they encounter. Gulliver is taken by the cold, intellectual and weird culture of the Houyhnhnms that he forgets they are not human and in fact giant talking horses. Sophia on the other hand writes so focused on the flashy clothes, jewels and processions and shows no interest in the people that she forgets they are humans just like her and that they are are more than just their clothing and jewels.

-Noel Nevarez

Sophia the Pretentious

In Phebe Gibbes’s Hartley House, Sophia often utilizes references to works from authors such as Dryden and Milton to demonstrate her ‘English Class’. In the book I think that Sophia utilizes the allusions or references to great english works so that she can brag about how much ‘cooler’ she is than her dear friend Arabella. Sophia in one of her many letters stated “But perhaps, instead of thinking yourself obliged to me, you will, with true European sangiford, suspect me of self- gratification in my descriptions; beware, however, of such erroneous conclusions, as you value the future favors of your own…” (Gibbs, p.14). This quote demonstrates sophia need to brag and show off to her friend how much class and cultured she is. The author does this in order to illuminate the obsessiveness the English had with their own cultural class hierarchy and to also offer a satirical analysis of the way in which the english language was used in such a complicated way to demonstrate ‘intelligence’ and along with that, ‘class’. Her reference to Dryden also emphasizes this in that Dryden was known for his admiration of the english language  so much so that he wrote The Indian Emperor, in closed couplets and iambic pentameters in a true heroic drama style. Although written in fancy English, Drydens drama is hard to follow and not easy for the average person to understand, even at that time in period. This is significant because although he is trying to uplift the english language, he is essentially uplifting nonsense. Ironically the more complicated and rare your diction and complex sentence structure was, the more intelligent you sounded which lead to a superiority complex and class distinction; even Sophia relies heavy on her cultured references and large amount of words to brag to her friend Arabella to demonstrate to Arabella how high society she is and to the reader how immature and spoiled she is.

Immolation & Education


For a long period of time in India, being a devoted wife might include grabbing the groceries for dinner, taking the kids to school, and burning yourself to death.

As they approached, my ears drank in the most delightful sounds; a band of music, as is the custom, occupied each of them, playing the softest airs; and from the tout en semble, brought Dryden’s Cydnus and Cleopatra in my recollection. (9)

– Sophia Goldborne in “Hartly House, Calcutta”

It is evident, that Sophia is quite clueless throughout her efforts of epistolizing the events she sees in plain sight, however, there is a constantly reoccurring theme of irony, in which it is the readers’ duty to acknowledge and take note of, to assimilate and connect the key implicit points in this historical setting of Anglo-Indian affairs, that Sophia is otherwise not aware of.

For Sophia, the celebrations are glamorous and fun, and she remembers dramas that she experienced back home in England. Although she is merely reminded of Dryden’s Cydnus and Cleopatra through the musical ensemble, there is a critical point to address as she begins to establish her descriptions of the cultures and traditions of the time. Digging deeper into the tale of Cydnus and Cleopatra, we learn about how desperate Cleopatra was to be the perfect lover and commits herself to self-sacrifice in honor of her husband after his passing. This example of an extreme level of marriage devotion can be linked to the Sati ritual in India. Sati means “the husband is to be followed always”. It was a customary virtue before modernity for a female widow to burn herself to the pyre, to follow her husband. Again we can thank Raja Roy for disseminating the notion that this wasn’t very ethical. Sophia is unknowingly referencing a deeper tradition that was prevalent previously, that approaches on issues of femininity, and gender equality. The core of this novel is to take into consideration what lays beneath the surface of what Sophia naively envisions.

The status of English literature at the time is immense. The culture of India and the language of English are beginning to mesh together in a willing cohesion of intercultural transformation. The works of several scholars and thinkers alike have impacted the lives of various cultures around the world. Sophia shares her knowledge of English continuously in her letters, but the implicit reasoning to this is tied directly to generalized English sentiments in India at the time. The feeling of uncertainty proved to be enough for many visitors to feel the need disseminate their language about.


Thomas Pham

Gibb me Liberty

Close reading has brought out some marvelous things in Phebe Gibb’s Hartley House, Calcutta. I was not closely paying attention to the use of ego and centralism that Sophia subtly displayed. I do see a particular romance to that in what Dryden displayed in “Indian Emperour.” There are 2 men which are drawing Sophia Goldborne’s interest, and one (Doyly) who she does not have too much romantic affection for. Like Cortez, Sophia is in the liking of foreign men. We as readers, we see a significant amount of sentimental expression that sways our feelings. This is inspired by works like Pope’s and Dryden’s.

There is a sort of forgiving matter, although reluctant since showing a bratty attitude, for Sophia. As a reader I give her the benefit of the doubt because she is only 16 and expresses many giggly, gossip-like ideas. Ok, ok, I’ll focus on one point. The discussion today in class was terrific. We really did bring out some close readings that were a result of fantastic analyzing. Our group mentioned how Sophia was misusing Pope’s quotes. Sophia uses a lot of controlling words such as “temperance” and “regulation” (87) that draw attention to the fact that there is a hierarchy and superiority. It’s funny how she thinks she is intelligent, but in fact, it is dangerous how she is misusing quotes and that goes to show how her mind has developed stereotypes. There is a really interesting comparison to Gulliver’s Travels and the Wyndham way of being. “Kindness, Benevolence, and contentment” (87) were all ideals that the Wyndhams abided to. The ego with the use of “I” versus “others” mentality (269) goes to show that there is a colonial othering. By placing them as inferior, it shows the arrogance of Britain. In Pope’s “An Essay on Man: Epistle 1”, “Lo! the poor Indian, whose untutor’d mind” (Pope) we can see that Sophia quotes him wrong in the sense that Pope was referencing the Indians in the U.S. rather than actual Indians. Her incorrect quotation in the letter puts danger in the sense of her misunderstanding and carrying that over to the way she comforts herself while in her stay in India. She quotes excessively English literature to make herself feel comfortable and at home while in India.


-Daniel Estrada

Conversion for a second

In Phebe Gibbes Hartly House, Calcutta we encounter the repetition of great English writers that influence the transition of the English language in their own time; they are presented by Sophia who is herself presented at a transition point in her life; entering adulthood at age 16. While at the same time explores far outside the horizon of her English cultural world. She sets foot in a forbidden world, being a part of a family that owned the East India company; she was able to travel outside of England. Letter XXVI, Sophia begins to complain to Arabella about religion “ashamed of the manners of modern Christianity… I am become a convert to the Gentoo faith” (190-1). This seems all in attempt to persuade Arabella that she is in fact learning something about the Indian people, such as their religion and how they seem to be more humble than those that are in the Christian believe. Although she is somewhat of a hypocrite, and ignorantly uses the word Gentoo, which is somewhat of a slang at this time period. But does a sudden shift in a talk about going to a theater and expressing the fact that she wished to be back in England.

English is a powerful tool, in one instance it seems that Sophia attacks the Christian faith but as soon as politics kick in (which was seem to be influenced by the theater as talked about in lecture) she reverted back to her state of national pride which proofs to be stronger than her religious beliefs “politics again!…in a country where so large a number of its inhabitants dare to deny her soul… o how I at this moment wish my self in England!” (195). Because it seems that the Indian people don’t seem to appreciate the or enjoy the theater the way she does.

In letter XXVII, Sofia continues to express how privileged she is to be attending the theater and vainly say’s it “will be honoured with [her] presence” (195). She holds herself in a high pedalstone This alone is She continues to add that the theater and how the whole event will be present with European culture, exhausting the English culture after the admiration parade she threw for the Indian religious beliefs.

Sophia is blinded by the England culture of the English language, that just like she holds herself high, she holds the English language at a high standard vaguely references John Milton’s Paradise Lost “Not of themselves the gay beauties can please/ We only can taste, when the heart is at ease” (196). It is ironic that Sophia uses the works of John Milton who was an elitist and promoting the English language to be sacred, not only to knowledge but to religion. Sophia is blinded by her arrogance to be right on both sides of the cultural spectrums baffles the reader but also makes her comical yet in a paradoxical way, sophisticated as she proofs to have knowledge of the greats writer John Milton, who made his own contribution to the English language. In this letter she is showing her true colors. Although she wants to show sympathy for the people of India and their culture, she is taken a bite out of the apple of sin.

Enrique Ramos

The New Latin

Phebe Gibbes include a myriad references to older English works. It is entirely possible that these references, allusions and quotations are hinting towards English’s status as the “new Greek,” or “new Latin.” That is to say, it is well within the scope of reason to assert that older English works are taking the place of Greek and Classical works in terms of importance and scale. While older individuals such as Dryden and Milton constantly used references to Greek and other classical non-English literature as a ways to almost, assert themselves as superior, better educated or otherwise smarter, more well read, or otherwise better than, so too would someone like Phebe Gibbes use older English texts to assert their dominance and authorial superiority.

This concept is a continuation of a prior concept mentioned earlier, the idea that English itself is a method to assert cultural or otherwise dominance over a non-English group, such as the indigenous Indian people or “Hindoos” as some would call them. So while English is becoming weaponized as a means of control and power, English is simultaneously being elevated to a new level, a level on par with the “greater” or “superior” languages of Latin and Greek. A reference to Shakespeare, Milton or Dryden is the new reference to Homer and Socrates.

In Letter IX, there is an interesting passage. “I shall be asked, by way of answer to my wild question, ‘Can wealth give happiness? – Look round and see, what gay distress, what splendid misery!’ which is so truly English, there is no standing; I therefore hasten to conclude myself” (68). What is most interesting about this passage is not the actual quotation “can wealth give happiness…” by Edward Young, but her commentary on the subject. This profundity that we are given is “so truly English.” This seems as though it should be a universal question asked throughout the world! A fundamental philosophical question, “can wealth give happiness?” And yet no, because an Englishman said it, because it was asked in the “new Latin,” the sentiment, the thought, the profundity, is a truly English thought, and not a universal question.

Ross Koppel

Forced Assimilation


Phebe Gibbes Hartly House, Calcutta (1789) is filled with english literary references from the likes of  Dryden, Milton, Pope, Shakespeare, and many more English authors. Gibbs’s quotes Pope’s “An Essay on Man: Epistle I” to justify and articulate the forced assimilation that the native Indians went through. Pope states that,

For me the mine a thousand treasures brings;

For me health gushes from a thousand springs;

Seas roll to Wait me, suns to light me rise;

My footstool earth, my canopy the skies.

Sophia, language and tone does not match the reality of this example of the British imperialism. Sophia makes it seem that the natives we dying to read English colonialism literature. For example, Sophia states that “from all i have already seen and heard, that numbers of them are proud enough to believe, and apply to themselves, the poet’s language.” (Gibbes 48) Sophia is so naive that she actually believes that these people are studying british literature because they want to not because they are being forced to. A majority of these natives do not have there own free will, they are in servitude to the colonialists. Sophia fails to realize that whatever these british colonist tell their native servants to do they will do regardless if they actually would have done it with being ordered too.

The language and tone that Sophia uses in these section illustrates her disillusionment. She fails to realize that the british involvement in India is purely for monetary advancement, and these colonists will do anything and say anything to justify it. Shes describes this assimilation as “both human and divine” her choice to use the term divine masks this assimilation. The use of religious terminology escalates the native indian’s forced assimilation into British Culture.
-Conor Morgan

Thomson and the assigned close reading

On page 46 of the Gibbes, Hartley House reading assigned for this week there is a passage taken from a poem by James Thomson of no title and beginning with the phrase “Bear me, Pomona, to thy Citron groves!” (46). This passage is a rather famous one, being cited by Goethe and a number of more recent sources. It is used in the text to relate the narrator’s feeling when in Bengal and to encourage Arabella to visit Bengal (or merely to make her feel jealous or a number of alternate possibilities). The purpose of the inclusion is fairly obvious, the narrator says in reference to the poem that “…poetry, Arabella, is the natural language where all is loveliness, and magnificence, and power exhaustless as infinite,” (46) and that there is an “immensity of [her] subject” (47). This meaning that the poetry is intended to give a sense of the scope to Arabella. In other words, I have provided the specific function of the poem in the text.

Now although we have the specific function since our narrator just told us what it was, the prompt did ask for a close reading, so I think it is worthwhile to go back and do one. In the poem itself there is slight mysticism or personification of various elements of nature (the breeze fanning, the fruit fever-cooling, the berries being in ‘humble station and unboastful worth’, and the ‘pride of vegetable life’). This adds to the mystery of the place being described. There is allusion to Jove (roman god) and Pomona (character in paradise lost), who everyone reading the poem is likely to be familiar with and be able to tie in their understanding. Furthermore there is slant rhyme in some of the couplets coat // jove, wave // shade, etc which is either coincidence or intended to bring attention to those parts of the poem (one is mid-way through and the other is at the end so this is likely). This seems to add to the text a certain amount of mythology (literally) and a more displaced sense of mysticism. Thus we have a close reading done of this poem.

As to why Sofia Goldborne ‘obsessively’ quotes English literary works it appears that the works are used to reinforce ideas within the text in a clean-cut way. In this specific passage I would say it does a good job of adding reinforcement, she describes “its fever-cooling fruit : deep in the night the massy locust sheds quench my hot limbs” (46) as “glowing descriptions of a climate and its characteristics” (46-47) which in turn are applied to Bengal. It doesn’t get much more straightforward in application than that. The choice of words on this question make me think I am being led to say that Goldborne is in some way trussing up her references in an attempt to make it more academic or hard to read but I don’t get that impression at all. Perhaps we should recognize that author’s considered these works as important to their own, or that since the audience should have prior knowledge then they should be able to reference them (references are, of course, a literary tradition going much further back than the 1700s). This paragraph addresses the last two questions of the prompt.

Joshua Jolly

Gulliver’s Ego

Sophia Goldborne begins the story by referencing “the splendor, as it is modestly styled, is of itself, my Arabella, sufficient to turn the soundest European head” (7). Since the beginning her ego has been high and she only continues to inflate her ego by comparing the “modest” presence of Calcutta to that of her home in Europe. She has this constant need to continue writing to Arabella, which is us the readers, and prove to Arabella just how much she has grown as a person in a sophisticated sense. She is becoming stronger and more knowledgeable now that she has left the comfort of her own home to gain experience from the world. Although literature serves the purpose of educating and critiquing society, the way that literature is being used here seems to almost serve the opposite purpose of educating. Her amazement at insistent quotation of English literature makes her believe that she does have some grasp of knowledge and wisdom that goes above the others. She uses such knowledge for others to connect with everything she sees one such reference comes from the moment she steps into a new surroundings. As evident when she says “I beheld so brilliant, so divine a spectacle-am so dazzled , and so captivated, and, like Gulliver in the land of Lilliput, find all objects around me so diminutive and so mean, that I overlook and disregard them at every point” (269). She is ignorant and cannot see past her own existence because she is only thinking about proving to others that she is just a step higher than all those who do not get to live out the experience that she is living. Like Gulliver she is placed in a position of power in which she can describe to the “unfortunate” what she lives through. The English literature makes her ego grow and she starts to blind her from the realism of her situation. The use of Gulliver here draws parallels to a person lost with the crowd but follows because here is no truth to do. The English literature only forces people to take a closer look at Sophia as a person and how truly “broken” she is by believing her superiority over others, when in fact she could be just as ignorant.

-Alexis Blanco