Colonialism in Victorian English Literature
Colonialism in Victorian English Literature
The Victorian period in British history marks the high point of British imperialism. Though the British policy of colonial expansion had begun earlier, during the nineteenth century Britain not only consolidated its existing empire, but also experienced an unprecedented expansion in its colonial possessions. This process began after the 1857 Mutiny in India, when India was placed under the direct control of the Crown, and continued through the scramble for Africa in the late 1800s, so that by the end of the century it could be proudly proclaimed that "the sun never sets on the British Empire." The tremendous upsurge of imperial activity during the nineteenth century, though physically taking place in areas distant from British shores, had a broad and pervasive impact on British culture. The literature of the period is thus inextricably embroiled in the imperialist project. In the view of many critics, irrespective of the direct involvement of individual literary works with the colonial enterprise, the overall contours of Victorian literature are consistently shaped by the influence of colonial ideology, which informed the collective unconscious of the British public during the entire period.
The most obvious influence of colonialism on Victorian literature is evident in the colonial novels of writers like H. Rider Haggard, Rudyard Kipling, and Joseph Conrad. These novels, which include works like Haggard's She (1889) and Kipling's Kim (1901), are usually set in the distant lands that Britain colonized and attempt to expose the insular domestic public to the exotic strangeness of their country's colonial possessions. The reality of colonialism enters these texts as the necessary background that makes possible their narratives of adventure and romance. The linking of colonialism with the genre of the romantic adventure story is also evident in the abundant children's fiction of the time, which includes works by Robert Louis Stevenson and R. M. Ballantyne. While using Britain's colonial enterprise as the setting of their narratives, such novels also participate in the construction and propagation of colonial ideology by providing an implicit justification for British imperialism. Colonialism, therefore, appears in these colonial novels not only as the literal backdrop for their narrative action, but also as the ideological framework that provides the raison d'être of the action.
The impact of colonialism, however, is not restricted to the so-called colonial novels. The nineteenth century's dominant genre of domestic fiction is also implicitly informed by colonial ideology. Though the novels of writers like Jane Austen, Charlotte Brönte, Charles Dickens, and George Eliot focus on domestic British society, Britain's overseas possessions frequently play an important role in the action. Thus, Sir Thomas Bertram's estate in Mansfield Park is maintained by his possessions in Antigua while David Copperfield's Mr. Micawber achieves success in Australia and St. John Rivers in Jane Eyre leaves for India to fulfill his missionary aspirations. Colonialism thus provides an expanded canvas even to the domestic novels, which reveal the inextricable involvement of domestic British society in the colonial enterprise. At the same time, the implicit presence in these novels of ideas such as the savage nature of natives and the white man's burden of bringing civilization to them also involves these texts in the dissemination of racial and colonial ideologies that provided the conceptual framework for colonialism.
Though an awareness of the colonial presence in Victorian literature is evident in critical studies during the first half of the twentieth century, such criticism is usually restricted to an examination of colonial novels and an evaluation of the authors' differing attitudes to the colonial enterprise as reflected in their writings. It is only in the latter half of the twentieth century, in the so-called postcolonial period, that critics have explored the pervasive influence of colonial ideology throughout nineteenth-century British culture and society. Edward Said's Orientalism (1978) is a seminal work in this respect, providing an exhaustive analysis of the West's construction of the Orient as its "other." Such a construction, Said argues, is not motivated by any desire to represent faithfully the reality of the colonized cultures and their people. Instead, it works as a form of ideological control, allowing the West to create a series of Manichean oppositions between the colonizer and the colonized that make the latter manageable and provide a moral justification for the colonial enterprise. Even literary works like Conrad's Heart of Darkness (1902) that overtly question the validity of colonialism are informed by this Manichean aesthetic, which problematizes their critique of imperialism. In such cases, while the colonized "other" functions as a vantage point for a self-critique of Western civilization, it is still not allowed to articulate a distinct subject-position of its own.
The use of the "other" for self-critique and the construction of alternative subject-positions within the British context is also explored by feminist postcolonial critics like Gayatri Spivak and Jenny Sharpe. These critics analyze the relationship between colonial ideology and the growth of British feminism in Victorian England evident in the works of writers like Jane Austen and Charlotte Brönte. Similarly, colonial ideology is also seen to have an impact on the representation of domestic class relations, whereby the lower classes are frequently portrayed as internal "others" who share the characteristics of the colonized and hence require similar strategies of control. By thus exploring the class, gender, and racial politics that inform colonial ideology, postcolonial critics reveal the complexities of colonialism and its multi-faceted influence on Victorian society and literature. At the same time, such criticism reveals a contemporary relevance to the literary output of the nineteenth century. The exploration of the ideological complicities and resistances that characterize Victorian literature provides an insight into the complex ideological configurations of neo-colonialism that are an inescapable reality of late-twentieth-century culture and politics.
Mansfield Park (novel) 1814
R. M. Ballantyne
Coral Island (novel) 1857
Jane Eyre (novel) 1847
Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (novel) 1865
Through the Looking Glass (novel) 1871
The African Witch (novel) 1936
Mr. Johnson (novel) 1939
The Nigger of the "Narcissus " (novel) 1898
Lord Jim (novel) 1900
Heart of Darkness (novel) 1902
David Copperfield (novel) 1849-50
Great Expectations (novel) 1860-61
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
The Lost World (novel) 1912
Middlemarch (novel) 1871-72
E. M. Forster...
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SOURCE: "The Happy Years," in Novels of Empire, Columbia University Press, 1949, pp. 38-64.
[In the following extract, Howe explores the depiction of British men and women in India in Victorian novels, focusing on the representation of women, younger sons, missionaries, and Anglo-Indians.]
We should not believe, of course, that novels about India have always been peopled exclusively with psychoneurotics, white or brown. There were many happy years before the middle of the nineteenth century when one could read novels with Indian settings from the Minerva Press and Mudie's and still sleep quietly of nights. We may return to those days for a while and see how the Anglo-Indian stories, like so much other English colonial fiction, fitted into the well-established patterns of the English novel.
The novelists had thirty or forty "quiet" years of the earlier nineteenth century in which to do this, years in which scarcely anyone at home, as was so often the case while "reluctant" British expansion was going on, needed to be conscious of India at all. No one needed to be uncomfortably aware of her as a "problem." If we may believe the novelists, the apathy and ignorance about India prevailing at home are the despair of soldier and civilian alike. Many distinguished Governors-General, before the Crown took over India from the East India Company in 1858, had...
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Colonialism And Gender
Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak
SOURCE: "Three Women's Texts and a Critique of Imperialism" in Critical Inquiry, Vol. 12, No. 1, Autumn, 1985, pp. 243-61.
[In the following essay, Spivak examines Jane Eyre, Wide Sargasso Sea, and Frankenstein to reveal the manner in which imperialist ideology structures the expression of nineteenth-century feminist individualism.]
It should not be possible to read nineteenth-century British literature without remembering that imperialism, understood as England's social mission, was a crucial part of the cultural representation of England to the English. The role of literature in the production of cultural representation should not be ignored. These two obvious "facts" continue to be disregarded in the reading of nineteenth-century British literature. This itself attests to the continuing success of the imperialist project, displaced and dispersed into more modern forms.
If these "facts" were remembered, not only in the study of British literature but in the study of the literatures of the European colonizing cultures of the great age of imperialism, we would produce a narrative, in literary history, of the "worlding" of what is now called "the Third World." To consider the Third World as distant cultures, exploited but with rich intact literary heritages waiting to be recovered, interpreted, and curricularized in...
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Monsters And The Occult
SOURCE: "Imperial Gothic: Atavism and the Occult in the British Adventure Novel, 1880-1914," in Rule of Darkness: British Literature and Imperalism, 1830-1914, Cornell, 1988, pp. 227-53.
[In the book-length study excerpted below, Brantlinger examines the genre he identifies as "imperial gothic," which uses spiritualism to emphasize the themes of regression, invasion, and the lack of British heroism. In this excerpt, the critic argues that the genre is symptomatic of the gradual disintegration of British imperialism towards the end of the nineteenth century.]
In "The Little Brass God," a 1905 story by Bithia Croker, a statue of "Kali, Goddess of Destruction," brings misfortune to its unwitting Anglo-Indian possessors. First their pets kill each other or are killed in accidents; next the servants get sick or fall downstairs; then the family's lives are jeopardized. Finally the statue is stolen and dropped down a well, thus ending the curse.1 This featherweight tale typifies many written between 1880 and 1914. Its central feature, the magic statue, suggests that Western rationality may be subverted by the very superstitions it rejects. The destructive magic of the Orient takes its revenge; Croker unwittingly expresses a social version of the return of the repressed characteristic of late Victorian and Edwardian fiction, including that blend of...
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Bhabha, Homi K. "The other question: difference, discrimination and the discourse of colonialism." In Literature, Politics and Theory, edited by Francis Barker, Peter Hulme, Margaret Iversen, and Diana Loxley, pp. 148-72. London: Methuen, 1986, 259 p.
Uses the writings of Frantz Fanon to argue that the construction of the colonial stereotype of the "other" is characterized by an ambivalence which reflects the contradictions inherent in colonial discourse.
Bivona, Daniel. Desire and Contradiction: Imperial Visions and Domestic Debates in Victorian Literature. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1990, 153 p.
Reveals the pervasive influence of imperialist ideology by tracing its impact on domestic novels where constructions of the "other" act as a form of self-reflection.
Bratton, J. S. "Of England, Home and Duty: The Image of England in Victorian and Edwardian Juvenile Fiction." In Imperialism and Popular Culture, edited by John M. MacKenzie, pp.73-93. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1986.
Focuses on children's fiction as a vehicle for indoctrination of England's youth into imperialist ideology.
David, Deirdre. "Children of Empire: Victorian Imperialism and Sexual Politics in Dickens and Kipling." In...
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