Imperialism at Home

6591131Meyer, Susan (1996) Imperialism at home: Race and Victorian Women’s Fiction. Ithaca & London: Cornell University Press.

This was interesting, and read just fine, but didn’t really ask the questions I wanted it to ask, it didn’t dig deep enough. I’m not sure how much insight fiction can yield, but felt there must be more. The first chapter is titled ‘Race as Metaphor’, and is the argument of the book:

This book will argue that, on the contrary, a close study of the fiction of novelists of the nineteenth century, and a close attention in particular to the use of metaphor in that fiction, reveals that, since the gender positioning of British women writers required them to negotiate an association with ‘inferior races,’ their feminist impulses to question gender hierarchies often provoked an interrogation of race hierarchies. To say this is not to contend, with the optimistic idealism of the feminism of an earlier era, that an awareness of gender oppression has historically given women an easy, automatic comprehension of oppression on the basis of race or class…An attention to their fiction reveals that their gender (and in some cases, class) positioning produced a complex and ambivalent relation to the ideology of imperialist domination, rather than an easy and straightforward one. It was precisely the gender positioning of these women writers in British society, in combination with their feminist impulses and their use of race as a metaphor, that provoked and enabled an (albeit partial) questioning of British imperialism (11).

So for me this study becomes muddied between what in an author’s work is intentional, what reflects their unconscious, and where that comes from. I was reading and kept reacting as a writer, knowing sometimes metaphors are very deliberate but just as often they are not. Other times I reacted as a reader, someone who loves Jane Eyre — and though I know how problematic it is, I still didn’t buy all of these critiques — and really didn’t like Wuthering Heights when I read it so many years ago. Though this might have convinced me to read it again, and better understand why I identified with Heathcliff and despised Catherine with every ounce of me. This looks at George Eliot’s and Daniel Deronda as well, which I am curious about now. But they are so damn long.

So just to pull out a few things I found interesting. In the opening chapter drawing the literary links made between women and slaves or colonised populations, she looks at Anthony Trollope’s ‘Miss Sarah Jack of Spanish Town, Jamaica’ and Dickens Mystery of Edwin Drood and writes:

In both narratives, also, the English house or home has a greater than literal status. The image of the house at once evokes the literal dwelling, the lineage of the family that inhabits it (as in the phrase ‘the house of Cumming’), and the entire Anglo-Saxon race. The domestic space of the home is at once an individual domicile and suggestive of the domestic space in a larger sense, the domestic space of England. In neither narrative is the space of domesticity separate from the concerns of imperialism. The Trollope text, in particular, strongly suggest that what happens in the home is both parallel to and necessary for the construction of empire. (7)

I feel this connection between home and empire — and white men the master of both — is so important.

I also loved reading about the Brontë sisters, the imaginary and colonial worlds they created, how they read chapters to each other as they were writing them. I suppose this is common knowledge amongst English majors, but I had no idea.

I really liked this quote from Thomas McLaughlin’s “‘Figurative Language’ in Critical Terms for Literary Study”, and want to think more about it in terms of what we can learn from literature about these systems of thought, often opaque to those who use them:

‘If figures of speech rely on an accepted system of thought, they also reveal to the critical reader that it is a system, that it is not a simple reflection of reality…Figures of speech, especially spectacular ones, are potential weaknesses in the system, places where the workings are visible, places that remind us that our truths are not self-evident.

There is also a quite extraordinary quote from George Eliot, whose Middlemarch I read too long ago to remember it very well at all. The quote is on race and submission — which figure prominently in this discussion — and interestingly, the art of writing itself and crafting a story. It comes from Notes on “The Spanish Gypsy.”

A tragedy has not to expound why the individual must give way to the general; it has to show that it is compelled to give way; the tragedy consisting in the struggle involved, and often in the entirely calamitous issue in spite of a grand submission. Silva presents the tragedy of entire rebellion; Fedalma of a grand submission, which is rendered vain by the effects of Silva’s rebellion. Zarca, the struggle for a great end, rendered vain by the surrounding conditions of life.

Now, what is the fact about our individual lots? A woman, say, finds herself on the earth with an inherited organization; she may be lame, she may inherit a disease, [34] or what is tantamount to a disease; she may be a negress, or have other marks of race repulsive in the community where she is born, etc. One may go on for a long while without reaching the limits of the commonest inherited misfortunes. It is almost a mockery to say to such human beings, “Seek your own happiness.” The utmost approach to well-being that can be made in such a case is through large resignation and acceptance of the inevitable, with as much effort to overcome any disadvantage as good sense will show to be attended with a likelihood of success. Any one may say, that is the dictate of mere rational reflection. But calm can, in hardly any human organism, be attained by rational reflection. Happily, we are not left to that. Love, pity, constituting sympathy, and generous joy with regard to the lot of our fellow-men comes in—has been growing since the beginning—enormously enhanced by wider vision of results, by an imagination actively interested in the lot of mankind generally; and these feelings become piety—i.e., loving, willing submission and heroic Promethean effort towards high possibilities, which may result from our individual life.

Sometimes I marvel at just how deep racism goes, that easy assumption of white privilege, even recognising the oppression of gender.

There was one other interesting historical tidbit that stood out:

In an intriguing historical parallel, the social standards that mandated the voluminous clothing of mid-Victorian women also provided a significant stimulus to the textile trade: eighteenth-century style was revived in the enormous hoop skirts and numerous petticoats that came into fashion in the early 1850s, reaching their largest circumference in 1860, the year in which The Mill and the Floss was published. Eliot’s mockery of earlier women’s styles also involving colossal quantities of cloth is part of her quiet resistance to the commercial economy of 1860 (152).

Hm. I’m not so convinced this is part of a quiet resistance but maybe. Still, Meyer goes on to say ‘The novel seems to be facing the existing social organization as one might face the fact of mortality: it is an unchangeable but regrettable fact, and the mature thing to do is to accommodate it’ (156).

God I hate accommodation. Good thing the struggle has moved on.

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