This brief biography is excerpted and adapted from An Encyclopedia of British Women Writers. Ed. Paul Schlueter and June Schlueter (New York: Garland, 1999).
BORN: 9 April 1865, Stoke Bishop, Gloucestershire
DIED: 4 October 1904, Madras
DAUGHTER OF: Colonel Arthur Cory and Fanny Elizabeth Griffin
MARRIED: Colonel Malcolm Hassels Nicolson, 1889
WROTE UNDER: Laurence Hope
Among the most popular poets of the Edwardian period, widely admired
for her exotic, largely fictitious "translations" of Indian love lyrics, Nicolson
has long been unduly neglected by literary historians. Perhaps the only
Anglo-Indian woman poet to achieve widespread acclaim, she "succeeded where
most modern poets have failed," James Elroy Flecker wrote in 1907: "she
has created for herself a world of admirers, a multitude of initiants--a
Public." Thomas Hardy attributed the popularity of her poems to "their
tropical luxuriance and Sapphic fervour." Some of the lyrics reflected
the poet's experiences in various regions of India, North Africa, and the
Far East; some have an air of veiled autobiography or confession, while
others may be read as oblique reflections on the position of women in the
British Empire. In many poems, the exotic offers a site for an often-transgressive
exploration of sexual themes: submission and domination, obsession, female
desire, violent sexuality. In her most famous poem, "Kashmiri song," the
speaker pines for the "Pale hands I loved beside the Shalimar," concluding,
"I would have rather felt you round my throat / Crushing out life, than
waving me farewell!" Although in 1904 her brief literary career was abruptly
brought to a close by her suicide (less than three years after the publication
of her first volume), her work continued to grow in popularity in the following
The second of three Cory daughters, Nicolson was born Adela Florence Cory in England while her father, then a captain in the Bombay Army stationed at Lahore, was on furlough, raised by relatives in England, and educated in Richmond and abroad. When she arrived in Lahore at sixteen her stay was cut short by the illness of her father, then co-editor of the Civil and Military Gazette, but after his recovery in England, the family returned to India where Colonel Cory took up the editorship of the Sind Gazette in Karachi (his former position in Lahore having been filled by Rudyard Kipling). She and her sisters Isabell and Vivian (later the novelist Victoria Cross, q.v.) assisted their father with the newspaper. In 1889, at 23, she married Colonel Malcolm Hassels Nicolson, 46, of the Bombay Army, commander of a native regiment, veteran of the Second Afghan War and an expert linguist. After several years of regimental duty in various regions of NW India, he was promoted in 1895 to General and for the next five years served as C.O. of Mhow, the head-quarters of the Western Command, where much of Nicolson's verse was written.
The Garden of Káma (India's Love Lyrics, in its American editions), Nicolson's first collection of verse, was published in 1901 (The Nicolsons had returned to England the previous year). Reviewers were uncertain about the authenticity of the translations. Some attacked the book on moral grounds, but the male pseudonym and pretence of translation protected Nicolson from the worst of these charges. Spurred by the success of Amy Woodforde-Finden's musical arrangements of "Four Indian Love Lyrics" in 1902, The Garden of Káma went through dozens of printings.
In 1903, returning to London after a sojourn in North Africa, she was drawn briefly into the circle of Blanche Crackanthorpe, at whose home she met Thomas Hardy, who became an admirer of her work. A second volume, Stars of the Desert, was completed, and published in September. It contained additional Indian poems, as well as more recent verses set in North Africa, and a few set in the Far East. Shortly thereafter, the Nicolsons again left England, this time for Southern India. In August, 1904, General Nicolson died during a routine prostate operation; Nicolson, prone to depression since childhood, poisoned herself two months later in Madras. She was 39.
The 1905 posthumous collection, Indian Love (Last Poems in America), revealed the poet's gender (which, along with her true identity, had been published by the Critic as early as 1902) in a photographic portrait. The dedication of the volume to her late husband in a poetic "suicide note," which alluded to the "vain . . . regret / That pours my hopeless life across thy grave" invited the reader to view her death as a kind of sati; despite the dedication's disclaimer that "I, who of lighter love wrote many a verse, / Made public never words inspired by thee," readers detected a confessional note, intriguing to some, distasteful to others. Again, the volume sold well, but failed to garner public recognition from established poets. (A preface to the volume by Thomas Hardy, who had written an anonymous obituary for the Athenaeum, was rejected by Heinemann.)
A volume of juvenilia appeared in 1907, and different illustrated editions of The Garden of Káma appeared in 1909 and 1914. Two films, Less than the Dust (1916, with Mary Pickford and David Powell) and The Indian Love Lyrics (1923), attest to the continuing popularity of the poems and their musical adaptations over the course of several decades. Nicolson's son edited a Selected Poems volume in 1922 and a Collected Love Lyrics volume appeared in 1929.
The scarcity of letters and other biographical materials has inhibited scholarly studies of Nicolson and her work. Lesley Blanch's biographical essay, compiled with the aid of material provided by Nicolson's son, remains the most important published study to date.