The dramatic story of Mehdi Hasan and Ellen Donnelly, whose marriage convulsed high society in nineteenth-century India and whose notorious trial and fall reverberated throughout the British Empire, setting the benchmark for Victorian scandals.
In April 1892, a damning pamphlet circulated in the south Indian city of Hyderabad, the capital of the largest and wealthiest princely state in the British Raj. An anonymous writer charged Mehdi Hasan, an aspiring Muslim lawyer from the north, and Ellen Donnelly, his Indian-born British wife, with gross sexual misconduct and deception. The scandal that ensued sent shock waves from Calcutta to London. Who wrote this pamphlet, and was it true?
Mehdi and Ellen had risen rapidly among Hyderabad’s elites. On a trip to London they even met Queen Victoria. Not long after, a scurrilous pamphlet addressed to “the ladies of Hyderabad” charged the couple with propagating a sham marriage for personal gain. Ellen, it was claimed, had been a prostitute, and Mehdi was accused of making his wife available to men who could advance his career. To avenge his wife and clear his name, Mehdi filed suit against the pamphlet’s printer, prompting a trial that would alter their lives.
Based on private letters, courtroom transcripts, secret government reports, and scathing newspaper accounts, Benjamin Cohen’s riveting reconstruction of the couple’s trial and tribulations lays bare the passions that ran across racial lines and the intimate betrayals that doomed the Hasans. Filled with accusations of midnight trysts and sexual taboos, An Appeal to the Ladies of Hyderabad is a powerful reminder of the perils facing those who tried to rewrite society’s rules. In the struggle of one couple, it exposes the fault lines that would soon tear a world apart.
A deftly told tale of colonial prejudices, legal skullduggery and dubious justice.
Makes for absorbing reading that is also immediately recognizable in the modern day. In the 21st-century world of ‘cancel culture,’ when rumors and innuendo can spread rapidly from smartphones to laptops and careers can be damaged at the whim of social-media mobs, the fate of Hasan and Donnelly has an appalling relevance.
The value of the book lies in its angles of vision, its understanding of the social complexity of India under the Raj, and its revelations of unexpected links between people of all races, usually on the fringes of society…[A] fascinating work.
Cohen’s meticulous reconstruction of the accusations and counteraccusations at the trial offers a compelling glimpse into the entanglements of race, class, gender, and sexuality during this period…A story that is both thought provoking and well told, and one that will draw in specialist and nonspecialist readers alike.
Cohen gives us a detailed description of the trial from both sides, and the story is both riveting and sad…[He] brings the people to life as they lie, connive, exaggerate and, occasionally, try to tell the truth…This isn’t just a salacious sex story, but a revelation of a society plagued by moral ambiguity and political chicanery.
A charming, captivating book. Cohen has a marvelous feel for the doomed couple at the heart of a now-forgotten scandal. The princely state of Hyderabad comes vividly to life within the world of British India.
In this elegantly written book, Cohen shows how a sexual scandal of a relationship between an English woman and a Muslim man in colonial India reveals a surprising story, of many twists and turns, about social mobility, racial uncertainty, and gendered respectability.
The time has truly arrived for the Hyderabad pamphlet scandal to be told, not only for readers interested in South Asian history, but also for those interested in the history of race, gender, and colonialism more broadly. Cohen has a gift for cultivating a strong sense of place, often with evocative and perceptive descriptions of a room, a photograph, or a cluster of political actors.
An engaging narrative of the infamous pamphlet scandal and its revelations about social, cultural, sexual, and political life in the British Raj and princely India. Cohen offers a thoughtful and persuasive analysis on key issues of race, religion, gender, and colonialism.
- 368 pages
- 5-1/2 x 8-1/4 inches
- Harvard University Press
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