Thomas Kullmann (Osnabrück)
Máire ní Fhlathúin (2015): British India and Victorian Literary Culture. Edinburgh Critical Studies in Victorian Culture. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.
While the importance of British India to the culture and identity of Victorian Britain is obvious, the impact of India on Victorian literary culture has received surprisingly little critical attention. Máire ní Fhlathúin's study constitutes an attempt to close this gap, by focusing on significant instances of interactions between "metropolitan texts and genres" and the specific "concerns, themes and formats" of texts written by British writers resident in India (1).
The author's scepticism with regard to "overarching theories of colonial relationships" (4) allows her to discuss a wide variety of colonial voices and discourses and to acknowledge their specificities. The first part of the book looks at "Experiences of India" from three different angles: Chapter one examines the development of a periodical press from the end of the eighteenth to the middle of the nineteenth century, by which time it had become a "powerhouse of literature" and provided "a forum in which the British community in India could write for (and often about) itself" (9). This chapter provides a survey of the impressive amount of periodicals published in various parts of India, discussing circulation, distribution, the economic basis and the contents of these periodicals. As ní Fhlathúin notes, many of the contributions were articles reprinted from London journals, but editors increasingly tried to incorporate material on Indian issues.
The second chapter is devoted to literary renderings of the experience of exile, in the forms of poems, tales, collections of letters and travel accounts. The author explores the recurrence of stereotypical motifs used in descriptions of India. The most striking result of her investigation, however, is that "home", i.e. England, is imagined in the same picturesque, romantic way: "Writers who produced picturesque visions of India wrote of their homeland in the same picturesque mode, developing an image of 'home', as shaped by the colonial encounter" (24).
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Ní Fhlathúin proceeds to discuss political controversies concerning colonial rule and practises in her third chapter: Her starting-point is the "imagery of predation and consumption" (60) used by critics as well as defenders of British colonial practises. As she demonstrates food imagery pervades texts as various as Edmund Burke's speeches impeaching Warren Hastings and satirical writings on "nabobs", i.e. Englishmen who amassed a fortune in India. Many other texts directly address food issues, such as poems and letters poking fun at the extravagant eating habits of colonial officers and their families, as well as accounts of various famines from 1770 to 1838. A considerable set of texts address the issue of Europeans who have eaten turtles from the Ganges river without being aware of the fact that these turtles may have fed on human bodies; other texts emphasise British fears of being eaten by tigers which may symbolize more general colonial anxieties.
The second part of the book, entitled "Representations of India", is concerned with attempts of British writers resident in India to give India a literary shape; to create an image of India and convey it to their compatriots 'at home'. As ní Fhlathúin notes, representations of India basically draw on three sets of sources (or 'pre-texts'): Romantic images based on notions of the (European) Middle Ages and 'romantic' places like the Scottish Highlands, indigenous traditions of India as collected and edited by British scholars, and the "writers' lived experience of India" (95). In a chapter on "Romantic Heroes and Colonial Bandits" ní Fhlathúin traces the influences of the 'noble outlaw' motif in Schiller's Die Räuber and the narrative poetry of Scott and Byron on representations of Indian "dacoits" (105-119) and goes on to examine the use of Romantic motif in the construction of the "colonial child" as intermediary figure between colonizer and colonized, as in Augustus Prinsep, The Baboo, and, of course, Kipling's Kim (119-123).
Another chapter focuses on the character and reception of one particular Anglo-Indian text, James Tod's Annals and Antiquities of Rajasthan (1829), a two-volume work which collects and presents a vast amount of material, "an encyclopaedic project of accumulation and interpretation" (128). As ní Fhlathúin argues, this work not only reflects "Tod's role as colonizer" (128) but also encourages British readers "to identify [...] with his Rajput subjects" (129). Her argument could have gained strength if she had noticed the topical allusion in Tod's comparison of Rajputs with Greeks (130): Tod's question if "the soul of the Greek or the Rajpoot [can] be reanimated with the spark divine which defended the kangras of Cheetore or the pass of Thermopylae" (130) obviously refers to Greek freedom fighters who in 1826 with the help of the British (in the battle of Lepanto) defeated the Turkish empire. Ní Fhlathúin goes on to discuss several Anglo-Indian poems and prose narratives based on Tod's Rajasthan, including poems by Emma Roberts and Laetitia Landon who in retelling an episode from history "develop a narrative of female agency" which can be seen as interacting with "British metropolitan models of femininity" (138).
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Poets such as Emma Roberts thus manage to use stories from Tod's Rajasthan to discuss general issues related to the female condition, "issues of women's agency in a public sphere, and ability to shape their own destiny in a private sphere" (141).
As a particular instance of the interaction between an exotic oriental tale and its closeness to western concepts ní Fhlathúin cites the story of Princess Kishen Kowar who in 1809 died by taking poison, in order to prevent a conflict between two neighbouring rajahs who had both sought her in marriage. In comparing Kishen to Helen of Troy, Iphigeneia, Roman Virginia and Jephtha's daughter from Judges, Tod's work "blurs the self / other divide" which informs other British representations of India, such as that of the sati rite (144). Tod's account, together with John Malcolm's version in his Memoir of Central India (1823), gave rise to a series of poetical and journalistic representations which, as ní Fhlathlúin points out, follow two distinct lines: that of an "idealised version of suffering feminity" (145) detached from its Indian context, and that of an exemplar of oriental barbarity which calls for, and justifies, British intervention (146-147).
The final chapter on "Transformations of India after the Indian Mutiny" also contains a wealth of observations on literary renderings of India in British-Indian writing; ní Fhlathúin's analysis of echoes from Tod's Rajasthan in poetry and prose published decades later certainly demonstrates the establishment of a distinct British-Indian literary culture: at the same time, Tod's work "served as a resource to be used in furthering a nationalist narrative" on the part of Indian intellectuals (171) its attraction to Indian readers is testified by a number of translations into the indigenous languages (172). On the whole, however, this chapter is perhaps less satisfactory than the previous ones, as it cannot do justice to the multiplicity of discourses which the experience of the Mutiny gave rise to. Ni Fhlathúin's conclusion that "the tenor of British responses to India" after the Mutiny "is generally one of disengagement" (180) should be set against the fact that by the 1880s and 90s native Indians had begun to play a significant role in the framework of colonial administration. Tod's Rajput warriors could be appropriated into the discourse of European romanticism all the more easily as they were rather distant from the daily lives of the British, whereas towards the end of the nineteenth century Bengali babus became a welcome topic of satire (cf. 167-171) as they had begun to live and work side by side with the British administrators.
Ní Fhlathlúin's study of literary renderings of the British colonial experience stands out from most previous approaches in that it goes beyond simplistic theoretical frameworks.
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Her conclusions that "the boundaries between lived experience and discursive representation [...] is in practice neither clear-cut nor sustainable" and that the British writers' expression of their perceptions of India is formulated "in negotiation with existing metropolitan, colonial and indigenous tropes and genres" (185) pose a significant challenge to the overarching concept of an "orientalism" which is informed by one single master discourse. As ní Fhlathúin shows time and again, various and contradictory discourses on Indian matters were flourishing side by side; instances of constructing things Indian as 'other' can often be set against instances of rendering Indian matters as indicative of a shared humanity. The present study not only renders a significant body of nineteenth-century writing accessible but also constitutes a significant step forward in the field of theorizing colonial practices and experiences.