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British India and Victorian Literary Culture$

Máire ní Fhlathúin

Print publication date: 2015

Print ISBN-13: 9780748640683

Published to Edinburgh Scholarship Online: May 2017

DOI: 10.3366/edinburgh/9780748640683.001.0001

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Introduction

Introduction

Chapter:
(p.1) Introduction
Source:
British India and Victorian Literary Culture
Author(s):

Máire ní Fhlathúin

Publisher:
Edinburgh University Press
DOI:10.3366/edinburgh/9780748640683.003.0001

Abstract and Keywords

This study explores the crystallising of a colonial literary culture in early nineteenth-century British India, and its development over the course of the Victorian period. It focuses on a wide range of texts, including works of historiography, travel writing, correspondence, fiction, and poetry, produced by amateur writers as well as writers who were better known and more professionalised. Its aim is to delineate the parameters and operations of a literary culture that is both local, in that it responds to the material conditions and experiences specific to colonial British India, and transnational, in that it evolves from and in reaction to the metropolitan culture of Britain. The writers I discuss were British, and lived and worked in British India (anglophone writing by Indians falls outside the parameters of this study). They often published their work for limited circulation within the colonial marketplace, but also with an eye to the more extensive readership of ‘home’. While individual authors’ works may be inconsequential or ephemeral, and sometimes apparently derivative of metropolitan texts and genres, the corpus in total constitutes a significant body of literature with its own concerns, themes and formats....

This study explores the crystallising of a colonial literary culture in early nineteenth-century British India, and its development over the course of the Victorian period. It focuses on a wide range of texts, including works of historiography, travel writing, correspondence, fiction, and poetry, produced by amateur writers as well as writers who were better known and more professionalised. Its aim is to delineate the parameters and operations of a literary culture that is both local, in that it responds to the material conditions and experiences specific to colonial British India, and transnational, in that it evolves from and in reaction to the metropolitan culture of Britain. The writers I discuss were British, and lived and worked in British India (anglophone writing by Indians falls outside the parameters of this study). They often published their work for limited circulation within the colonial marketplace, but also with an eye to the more extensive readership of ‘home’. While individual authors’ works may be inconsequential or ephemeral, and sometimes apparently derivative of metropolitan texts and genres, the corpus in total constitutes a significant body of literature with its own concerns, themes and formats.

My work in this area is informed by previous work in the field of colonial literature and history, and by more recent scholarship on the literature of British India in particular. A great deal of this scholarship is underpinned by the concepts and methods of colonial discourse theory, and its formulation of the connections between literary discourse and the colonial relationship between Britain and India at all levels, from policy-making and rule to the experiences of individual colonisers. Readers will recognise behind much of my analysis in this book the foundational ideas of Edward Said and Homi Bhabha, particularly concerning the polar opposites of colonial difference and racial and cultural hybridity, and the tension between them in the history and literature of colonialism, as well as the insights of Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak into (p.2) the ways in which race and gender hierarchies intersect to the detriment of those most excluded from power.1 In my own work, however, these theories underlie the analysis of specific texts and contexts.

Scholarship on this literature over the past thirty years has tended to focus on a narrow set of individual authors, primarily Rudyard Kipling, whose work has cast a long shadow backwards over earlier Victorian India. Critics including Edward Said and Bart Moore-Gilbert have explored the colonial relationship depicted in Kipling’s Indian fiction, making connections between this relationship and the larger topic of British perceptions of and responses to India more generally in the late nineteenth century; this work has been more recently continued by others such as Peter Havholm.2

More recent analysis, much of it carried out in the course of the last ten years, has also paid more attention to the authors of an earlier period: the essay collection edited by Bart Moore-Gilbert, for instance, sets Kipling’s work alongside other texts, including novels and poems produced by Philip Meadows Taylor in the mid-nineteenth century and women writers of the late Victorian period.3 Other scholarship in this area has focused on several different aspects of what Moore-Gilbert identifies as a local and colonial, as opposed to metropolitan, discursive constitution of India in literature.4 These include travel writing, where Nigel Leask, Indira Ghose and Pramod Nayar are among those retrieving and analysing the forms and themes of British travellers’ engagement with India.5 Significant work has been carried out on discrete issues or flashpoints within the colonial relationship between Britain and India, most notably the representation of sati and the Indian Mutiny of 1857. On the former, and on the wider issue of the representation of colonised women, my thinking has been guided by works produced by Lata Mani and Andrea Major, among others.6 On the latter, major works by Gautam Chakravarty and Christopher Herbert have explored the impact of the Mutiny on literature both in Britain and in India.7 In the last few years, scholarship in this area has also focused on describing and extending the body of literature produced in nineteenth-century British India.8 Daniel White and Mary Ellis Gibson both in different ways explore the connections and transitions between Britain and India, and take up in particular the theme previously identified by Rosinka Chaudhuri of the interaction of British writers and anglophone Indian writers in the cosmopolitan literary culture of Bengal.9

This book examines a wide range of material, looking especially to the relatively neglected and ephemeral texts published in small print runs and/or in newspapers and periodicals, starting from the early nineteenth century and then spanning the length of the Victorian period. This (p.3) enables me to offer a broadly-based analysis of this literature, and pay attention to a range of colonising voices, not confined to canonical or elite actors on the literary stage.

The time frame of this study also allows me to situate the discussion of topics such as the literature of the Indian Mutiny within the larger context of the literary culture of British India more generally. In this way, the characteristic tropes of the early nineteenth-century bandit narrative, for example, can be seen to have an impact on literary and political representations of India throughout the Victorian period. At the other end of the nineteenth century, post-Mutiny literary representations of British relationships with India are shaped not just by the events of 1857, but also by rhetorical tropes and narratives developed through engagement with Indian mythology and history. The view that emerges is of a long, complex literary tradition, marked by traumatising events and controversial practices, but not determined solely by them.

This literary tradition is also formed in negotiation with the metropolitan culture of the Victorian period, and several aspects of that culture have a strong impact on the literature of British India. One of these is the strongly gendered nature of Victorian thought and social organisation, with its particular emphasis on female identities founded on principles of self-fulfilment through sacrifice and service to others–a theme which finds an echo in some of the indigenous traditions of India, and is apparent throughout the development of a colonial literature during this period. Other shaping aspects of metropolitan literary culture include the look to history for explanatory and justificatory accounts of British interventions in the colonial world, as well as a complementary concern with ideas of imperial decay and degeneration. These find expression across the breadth of the literature of British India.

I further argue that this literary tradition, in both its metropolitan and colonial aspects, plays a key role in creating the ‘imagined community’ of British India. In doing this I draw on Benedict Anderson’s now much-critiqued concept, arguing that it has literary and cultural (if not political) resonance in this area. The specificity of the language and cultural tropes of British India (concerning, for example, issues of the material experience of the émigré community such as distance from ‘home’) contributed to the formation of a shared communal identity. Through deploying the language and knowledge associated with the colonial project, the writers were also able to challenge or subvert the relationship of dominance and derivation normally present between the metropolitan centre of ‘home’ and the colonial periphery of British India. The study draws in this respect on current analyses of local negotiations and interactions between coloniser and colonised, as distinct (p.4) from earlier theoretical preoccupations with overarching theories of colonial relationships.

The book is arranged in two parts: Experiences of India, and Representations of India (the brief introduction you are currently reading is supplemented by introductory chapters beginning each section). The introductory chapter for Part I, ‘The Literary Marketplace of British India, 1780–1844’, discusses the material conditions for the emergence of a publishing and print culture in early British India and throughout the first half of the nineteenth century; it also considers the salient demographic and economic factors which affected the development of the publishing industry. The two chapters following each include a consideration of some prose and poetry appearing in the periodical press, while also broadening the focus to take into account other forms and genres (travel writing and memoirs).

Chapter 2, ‘Exile’, examines the ways in which the émigré community conceived of their absence from ‘home’ as a kind of exile, an experience that often evoked powerful emotions of fear, alienation, homesickness, and (post-Mutiny) disaffection and anger. (Although I recognise Said’s uneasiness about the term ‘exile’ being used for those expatriates who have not undergone banishment or forced relocation, my analysis reflects the self-ascription of the word by the writers in question, and also takes account of the social or familial pressure to travel to India they often felt.10) While apparently artless, the trope of ‘home’ was not simple. The nostalgic or picturesque representation (privileging aesthetics over experience or memory) of the homeland served to reinforce affective connections between the exile and those left behind; in addition, sentimentalised images of the homeland were projected onto the Indian landscape, again effacing or limiting the value of the authentic experience of exile. Ambivalence was also at the heart of how ‘home’ was understood: it was seen, for instance, as a place of loss, death and alienation–a place to which the exile could never return–as well as a place of innocence and lost childhood. The experience of India expressed in these varied ways of understanding ‘home’ is often a suppressed or negated experience, recuperated only in the later century, in the works of Kipling, for example, as disaffection with Britain post-Mutiny led to the establishment of a sense of community, and indeed a kind of ‘home’, in British India itself.

The exiles’ fears, traumas and losses in British India also found expression in the discourse of consumption and predation given impetus by the high-profile trial of Warren Hastings towards the end of the eighteenth century and evolving further throughout the Victorian period. The East India Company’s transformation from a commercial concern into (p.5) a government was accompanied by intense public debate over its role in India, focusing on economic relationships of exploitation, and moral relationships of corruption. The ‘nabobs’ of the Company were represented as exploiting India and its residents for their own material gain, and simultaneously as being themselves corrupted by contact with India. Their return to Britain gave rise to a sense that their moral and financial corruption was being imported into the British body politic. While this political moment quickly passed, the debate established the terms and metaphors–greed, excess, predation and contamination–in which British people imagined their role in India, and India’s effect on them, throughout the Victorian period. This is the topic of the next chapter, ‘Consuming and Being Consumed’.

The second part of the book is concerned with representations of India itself–as opposed to the representations of the experience of being in and relating to India that form the subject of the first half. A brief introductory chapter, ‘European Nationalism and British India’, sketches the moment of preoccupation with emerging nationalism in India as well as in Europe at the beginning of the nineteenth century, when an incipient discourse of Indian nationalism appears in British writing, albeit in limited and evanescent form. The three chapters following examine some of the reverberations of this British sense of a potential Indian agency and self-determination expressed in opposition to the British colonial project, as they are manifested in several different forms of literature throughout the Victorian period.

Chapter 5, ‘Romantic Heroes and Colonial Bandits’, explores how British literary representations of Indian practices (such as banditry) criminalised by the colonial state had the effect of transforming the eighteenth-century stereotype of the ‘mild Hindoo’ into a predatory Indian masculinity formed in opposition to a weak and victimised femininity. In a series of representations of India developed through the appropriation of British metropolitan forms and texts (notably the writings of Scott and Byron), the potential for threat to the British colonial state implicit in depictions of Indian agency is disabled or negated by the distancing or alienation of Indian figures from British readers. The following chapter, ‘Imagining India through Annals and Antiquities of Rajast’han’, focuses to a greater degree on representations of Indian agency derived from British scholarship on Indian history and mythology. It also discusses the story of the sacrificial death of the Rajput princess Kishen Kower, which becomes an exemplary vehicle for tracing the changing representation of female agency in the literature of British India, and exploring its interactions with British ideas of gender norms and femininity.

(p.6) The final chapter, ‘Transformations of India after the Indian Mutiny’, explores British responses to the events of the Indian Mutiny and the rise of Bengal nationalism towards the end of the Victorian period. This period is characterised in some ways by a British turning away from both ‘home’ and indigenous India and towards an insular colonial mindset. An examination of some representative texts from this period shows that at the same time, the literature of the colony engages in a set of transformative narratives of India and the British role in India, forming a literary tradition more complex than is first apparent. The tropes and themes of depictions of India in the earlier pre-Mutiny period are now co-opted and turned to the depiction of British heroism and British sacrifice, in a process which also involves the incorporation of aspects of a stereotypically Indian character into an evolving ideal figure of British colonial rule, whose femininity makes it paradoxically impossible for her to be accorded a place in the male-dominated society of the colony.

A brief afterword, ‘Reading India’, returns to the issues of perception and expression arising throughout this book, and places them in the context of British descriptions of sati, one of the most complex and emotive tropes developed throughout this literature. A further analysis of three accounts of the sati rite explores the multifaceted interaction of lived experience and narrativisation in British responses to India, suggesting that representations of the colony are also, inescapably, discoveries of the colonial self.

Notes

(1.) Said, Orientalism; Bhabha, Location; Spivak, Critique.

(2.) Said, Culture and Imperialism; Moore-Gilbert, Kipling and ‘Orientalism’; Havholm, Politics and Awe.

(3.) Moore-Gilbert, Writing India.

(4.) Moore-Gilbert, ‘Introduction’, Writing India, pp. 21–5.

(5.) Leask, Curiosity; Ghose, Women Travellers and Travels, Explorations; Nayar, English Writing.

(6.) Mani, Contentious Traditions; Major, Pious Flames.

(7.) Chakravarty, Indian Mutiny; Herbert, War of No Pity.

(8.) Gibson, Anglophone Poetry and my collection Poetry of British India take different approaches to this task, mine concentrating on colonial authors; see also Gibson, Indian Angles.

(9.) White, From Little London; Gibson, Indian Angles; Chaudhuri, Gentlemen Poets.

(10.) Said, ‘Reflections’, p. 181.