Eliza Draper was born in India, at the Anjengo factory on the south Malabar Coast in 1744. Her father, May Sclater (whose unusual first name was taken from his mother’s surname) was serving as secretary to the chief of the East India Company, Charles Whitehill. Her mother, Judith was Whitehill’s daughter. She had two daughters, Eliza and her younger sister Mary.
Eliza was orphaned at an early age and taken by her grandfather to live in Bombay. At the age of seven or eight she was sent to England to be educated.
In 1757 she returned to Bombay and on 28 July 1758 at the age of fourteen, married Daniel Draper, 17 years her senior. Draper served as secretary and Portuguese secretary to the Bombay government.
Within four and a half years of marriage Eliza had given birth to a son and daughter. In 1763 the family were granted leave to return to England so that Daniel Draper could go there ‘for the recovery of a spasmatic complaint of [the] right hand’. He returned to India alone in March 1766. Eliza’s children were sent to school at Salt Hill, near London, and she prepared to join her husband.
It was in January 1767 that Sterne met and fell in love with Eliza. Eliza, now twenty- three, was often known as the ‘Belle Indian’. She was considered to be intelligent, widely read and a good writer. Their story is told on this website and comes to an end with the death of Sterne in 1768.
Eliza Draper after Sterne
Life was to be very different for Eliza upon her return to India. Daniel Draper was appointed as chief of the Tellicherry factory in Malabar within months of the Earl of Chatham’s arrival in Bombay, obliging her to somewhat grudgingly pack and move six hundred miles south of Bombay.
Though Eliza seems to have grown to admire the Tellicherry Station, describing it as the ‘Montpellier of India’ (Wright and Sclater, 1922, p. 78) on numerous occasions throughout her correspondence, the married couple’s later move to Surat was to prove luckless. Eliza’s letters from this period show dissatisfaction with life in Gujarat and Daniel was soon to face disgrace, losing his lucrative post through ‘neglect of the orders of the Government’ (Wright and Sclater, 1922, p. 126).
After the Drapers’ return to Bombay in the early months of 1772, Eliza became gradually more and more estranged from her husband. He in turn had grown choleric after his fall from grace and displayed nothing but indifference to his wife’s ennui. The Drapers took up residence in Belvedere House on Mazagon, one of the seven islands of modern day Bombay (Mumbai). Today the site of her former home is occupied by a train station, a solitary plaque marking where the bungalow once stood.
It was from this bungalow that Eliza fled on the night of 14 January 1773 seeking the protection of Commodore Sir John Clarke, whose flagship lay in the harbour of Bombay at that time. The common romantic version of the elopement tells of her descending by a rope into a boat waiting below. Whether or not this is true, Eliza’s break with her husband was both daring and permanent. Records suggest that Daniel Draper initiated some form of legal proceeding against Clarke during February of the same year; however he seems to have given up hope of success by May, after which he never again attempted to restore his wife to his side.
By December 1774 Eliza had returned to England, taking up residence in the fashionable London locale of Cavendish Square. Here she was to remain until her untimely death in 1778. With still a little touch of the “Belle Indian” about her, Eliza basked in the reflected fame of Sterne throughout the final years of her life and it was probably with her approval that the Letters from Yorick to Eliza appeared in print for the first time in 1775.
As if to further secure Sterne’s now famous favourite’s exalted place in the eyes of posterity, the acclaimed artist Richard Cosway painted a lavish portrait of her in 1777. The extravagant armchair in which she sat for her portrait is now part of the V&A collections.
It was in the final years of her life that Eliza became intimate with the second great literary figure of her life, the French writer and Royal Society fellow Abbé Raynal. The last (but by no means least) of Eliza’s romantic consorts, Raynal was best known as the author of L’Histoire Philosophique et Politique des Établissements et du Commerce des Européens dans les deux Indes, a work which was met with great enthusiasm on the English side of the Channel due to its favourable treatment of the British colonial project. Though Raynal had met Eliza previously during her time in Mumbai, it wasn’t until 1778 that, inspired by her companionship, he finally fell to a ‘sensation unknown to me’ (Wright and Sclater, 1922, p. 178).
Raynal, like Sterne before him, gave way to a passion that he allowed to run wild. He too envisaged that Eliza would one day make a home with him, but his dreams, like Sterne’s, were short-lived. On 3 August 1778 Eliza Draper died of unknown causes, possibly at the residence of her kinsman Sir William Draper. She is buried in Bristol Cathedral beneath an opulent monument dedicated to her ‘Genius and Benevolence’ and believed by many to have been set up upon the request of Raynal.
Arnold Wright and William Lutley Sclater, Sterne’s Eliza (London: William Heinemann, 1922)
Nathaniel Wolloch, History and Nature in the Enlightenment (Farnham: Ashgate Publishing Limited, 2011)
The Royal Society Library and Archive Catalogue