Tag Archives: litcrit

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.

London in Literature

London in literature: a symposium organised by the English Syndicate of the Roehampton Institute, May 1979william blake lambeth

Academic and an intro for me to literary studies of London — or where they were in May of 1979 — and literary studies in general as I have not really thought about them since my undergraduate days long ago. I enjoyed it. I found the first essay by Simon Edwards particularly interesting in thinking through the dialectical relationship between literature and city building, he writes:

with the development of a specifically urban popular literature, arises the question of the literary work itself being seen as a distinctly metropolitan artifact and the writer as somehow deeply implicated in a complex process of making simultaneously a text, a city and an identity (1).

So simple, yet with so many ramifications. I also love that he is thinking of this globally as well, of London as the seat of empire, which articulates materially with the city and ideologically with literature:

It will be my contention that if English literature carries these ambiguous values within a consciously imperial history and culture then they may often be most fully examined in connection with the imperial capital, London. For if London, from the Elizabethan period onwards, is frequently seen wishfully as the capital of a new empire, it is also true that from roughly the end of the seventeenth century this vision is reinforced, to some extent realized, by the development of a literal global empire whose contribution to the growth of a world economy is central. London thus becomes a quite crucial topos in the whole history of Western civilization (2-3)

He is critical, to a certain extent, with a Marxist analysis that allows him to see capitalist relations, so this goes part of the way:

For this imperial city was, at one and the same time, a principal agent in the growth and spread of capitalism with (3) all its dehumanizing power and a repository or site for the formation of certain values thought of as classic and perhaps common to all phases of fully-developed civilization. This ambivalence is further complicated first from within, and later from outside, the dominant ideology of nationalism and emergent capitalism, by the growth of structured critiques, both reactionary and radical, of the system. … Thus there is a persistent conflict between London presented as the site of an extravagant display of conspicuous consumption, parasitic and productive largely of waste (as in the Augustan obsession with excrement), and London also acknowledged as a producer of real wealth through its vital contribution to national and international commerce as well as a producer of significant cultural and literary values (4).

There’s a whole lot further to go to fully critique imperialism, this concept of ‘civilisation’ and its imposition around the world, a questioning of this real wealth and literary values… What I like about it is that it begins to tie literature to the physical and ideological city, and situate these connections in a context of global exploitation.

the notion of a classical literary culture was both realized and threatened by the emergence of a modern Imperial city. Related to their sense of the crass materialism of London life, ls an anxiety about the status of imaginative literature, a principal source for the ratification of the Augustan metropolitan ideal. (21)

There is also a nice quote he gives from Defoe, describing that from a hill in Clapham, one might see,

… the whole city of London itself; the most
glorious Sight without exception, that the whole
World at present can show, or perhaps ever could
show since the Sacking of Rome in the European, and
the burning the Temple of Jerusalem…(16)

There’s a paper on Blake from David Punter, of course, who moved to the Hercules Buildings in Vauxhall in 1790. It has a great quote from Samuel Johnson’s ‘London’

Prepare for death, if here at night you roam,
And sign your will before you sup from home.
Some fiery fop, with new commission vain,
Who sleeps on brambles till he kills his man;
Some frolic drunkard, reeling from a feast,
Provokes a broil, and stabs you for a jest.
Yet e’en these heroes, mischievously gay,
Lords of the street, and terrors of the way;
Flush’d as they are with folly, youth, and wine,
Their prudent insults to the poor confine;
Afar they mark the flambeaux’s bright approach,
And shun the shining train, and golden coach.

It’s mostly looking at the poem ‘Jerusalem‘, and there’s this lovely quote about Lambeth:

HIGHGATE’S heights & Hampstead’s, to Poplar, Hackney & Bow;
To Islington & Paddington & the Brook of Albion’s River.
We builded Jerusalem as a City & a Temple; from Lambeth
We began our Foundations; lovely Lambeth, O lovely Hills
Of Camberwell, we shall behold you no more in glory & pride,
For Jerusalem lies in ruins & the Furnaces of Los are builded there:
You are now shrunk up to a narrow Rock in the midst of the Sea.
But here we build Babylon on Euphrates, compell’d to build
And to inhabit, our Little-ones to clothe in armour of the gold
Of Jerusalem’s Cherubims & to forge them swords of her Altars.
I see London blind & age bent begging thro’ the Streets
Of Babylon, led by a child, his tears run down his beard.
The voice of Wandering Reuben echoes from street to street

Punter writes: ‘Lambeth, of course, Blake takes here as elsewhere as the symbolic birthplace of God, merging the connotations of the Lamb and Bethlehem’ (67). I knew it.

There’s an interesting piece on the suburbs and suburbanisation of London by B.I. Coleman, looking at Ruskin, Dickens, Kinglsey’s Alton Locke, the satire of suburban life found in Punch, The Diary of a Nobody. They were also described as the perfect breeding grounds for healthy, strong, athletic men for Britain’s elite troops establishing Empire…this in Sidney Low’s article ‘The Rise of the Suburbs’ for example, in the Contemporary Review of 1891. He writes:

The centre of population is shifting from the heart to the limbs. The life-blood is pouring into the long arms of bricks and mortar and cheap stucco that are feeling their way out to the Surrey moors, and the Essex flats, and the Hertfordshire copses…

A finer people, physically, than the inhabitants of some of those middle-class suburbs of London, which are far enough afield to permit a plentiful cult of every branch of athletics it would be hard to find. The young men of Wimbledon and Putney – great at football, cricket, golf, and most other games in which strength and activity are required – could make up a regimen which would hold its own on a battlefield against a corps d’elite selected from any army in the World.

All provided by the free market. Hurrah. I hate this guy, but he definitely seems worth a closer look.

Gabriel Pearson looks at Dickens, and mentions the ‘topographical’ tradition of Dickens critiques, which has been popular since 1870 apparently, and bringing to us works like The London that Dickens Knew. The city is there in novels to be explored, and Pearson writes:

The novel round about 1800 began, as it were, to designate territories, whole areas, as its province, and I think the analogy which underlies it is the analogy of the disovery of the new world…And you moved across both in time and also in space because there was something you registered as alien or strange. It does seem to me that the whole history of the novel may be read as an attempt to occupy and domesticate alien or strange areas in this way. As an explanation we might speculate that (and this is a very crude generalization) around 1800 everybody began to feel they were outside somewhere else, that somewhere else there was a kind of reality in some way could, possibly by some tremendous imaginative endeavour, be captured, and taken home and civilised and possessed, though nobody could quite get there. Everybody was outside: it wasn’t necessarily their home, and they did not necessarily want to return to it, but they felt that somewhere there was some source or manifestation of human relaity to which they were perpetually outsiders. I do think that one of the characteristics of Dickens, along with other novelists of this time, is that he treated London in this kind of way (95).

He explores Dickens as outsider in his novels, but doesn’t really take the above idea further than that, though I feel this is a great start to something.

John Sutherland writes on publishing itself:

If we adopt the old classification of causes (i.e. material, efficient, formal) then London can be taken as in some sense the material cause of a bulk of our significant Victorian fiction. That is to say, it stands in the same relationship to literary activity as soil and climate do to plant growth (124).

There are a couple more, it’s a good collection, though possibly outdated and some of these ideas have been taken much further since, I don’t know!