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As I read through the nine essays that comprise “Victorian Internationalisms,” I found myself thinking back to the 2005 film Syriana and its attempts to untangle the matrix of idealism, ideology, and oil-addiction that has characterized the United States’ involvement in the Middle East. When asked about what he did for a living or to provide clear policy directives for his superiors at the CIA, agent Bob Barnes, played by George Clooney, could come up with nothing better than “it’s complicated.” As the film makes clear, however, he’s not being evasive but in fact expressing a well-considered political opinion: the failure to recognize that “it’s complicated”–the insistence that the world evolve neatly according to one’s own national self-interests –is not just unethical but bad politics. In so many ways, the essays included here repeat the warning “it’s complicated”: Victorian Britain’s international presence, we learn, was much more complicated than it has been made out to be in the past. The contributors to “Victorian Internationalisms” caution against over-attachment to conceptual frameworks—in most cases nationalism or imperialism—that could end up distorting our understanding of the Victorian engagement with the wider world. The far-ranging destinations of these essays alone, which include Egypt, Japan, the United States, France, Bulgaria, and Ireland, serve to remind us of just how varied that engagement was and of the many contexts that could be in play. In her analysis of Cavour’s Considerations on the Present State and Future Prospects of Ireland, for instance, Julia Wright reveals that Ireland’s struggle for independence played itself out on a European stage as much as an imperial one–and that, in turn, one could not understand British policy toward Italy without first turning toward Ireland. Wright’s essay is one of several here that feature Irish writers and travelers—those who epitomize what Marjorie Morgan has called the “flexible repertoire of national identities” that challenge any effort to craft a uniformly “Victorian” or “British” worldview (217).

Moving “Beyond Cosmopolitanism” to “The Limits of Orientalism” and arriving finally at “Politics and Geopolitics,” this special issue of RaVoN mirrors the path that critical commentary on Victorian internationalism has assumed in recent years, although one might need to reverse the first two of these sub-categories. Itself a discourse largely derived from post-colonial theory, the “new cosmopolitanism” helped to identify the limits of Orientalism even as it qualified its own ability—in a typically cosmopolitan way, perhaps—to serve as a broadly encompassing critical narrative for nineteenth-century history and culture.[1] As Goodlad and Wright propose in their introduction, geopolitics may provide the most salient means of dissecting Victorian internationalism in its multifaceted literary and political contexts: although the actual term is post-Victorian in origin, geopolitics emphasizes the often contradictory motives that characterize any move outside of one’s home environment. It acknowledges that such border-crossing, unlike the more laudatory movement that cosmopolitanism often denotes, is never without strategic motives, but neither can it be reduced inevitably to “realpolitik.” Geopolitics recognizes that each nation or region exists in complex relation to others, and that a sense of the world as a whole (the geo) and its survival is a shared responsibility. Geopolitics therefore need not preclude the capacity for more powerful and wealthy nations to balance their self-interests with the needs of the world as a whole, even if that balance can often be hard to detect in the nineteenth century, when notions of world progress could serve as a cloak for European economic and imperial expansion.

Each of the essays included here attempts to delink the geo from the politics, creating in the process a more focused portrait of what it meant to be international in the Victorian period. Several essays in particular reveal the fascinating ways in which Britain’s imperial interests could complicate more noble motives, as, for instance, in Stoyan Tchaprazov’s analysis of the humanitarian and political crisis posed by the “Eastern Question.” Other essays collected here suggest that literary texts may be especially well suited to dramatizing the complex and overlapping contexts of geopolitics. In addition to considering this possibility, my responses below seek to draw attention to how each article traverses the complications of Victorian internationalism and to point out other headings these investigations could take. I also seek to shed some additional light on the texts presented here by bringing them into dialogue with the works of other Victorian writers who sought to understand and shape Britain’s global identity.

Of all the articles included in “Victorian Internationalisms,” the first, Sarah Rose Cole’s “National Histories, International Genre: Thackeray, Balzac, and the Franco-British Bildungsroman,” presents perhaps the most determined effort to understand where Victorian nationalism overlapped with Europeanism, where reactionary anti-Chartism flirted with republican ideals emerging from the Continent in 1848. Insisting on the international context of the British Bildungsroman, Cole proposes that “Thackeray constructed his concept of Britishness, as well as his concept of youthful education, in response to the ‘significant other’ of French literature and French revolutionary politics” (3). In the process, Thackeray “transform[ed] Balzac’s narrative of revolutionary dislocation into a self-consciously British narrative of peaceful change,” indicative, ultimately, of a “complex process of cross-Channel negotiation, rather than a simple negation of the French ‘other’” (4). At first glance, it may seem as if Cole wants to argue both sides of the same issue—making a fine distinction between two kinds of “othering” that ultimately achieve the same end. As she begins to juxtapose Pendennis with some of Thackeray’s journalism and letters, however, it becomes clear that British othering of France could be motivated by an unusual combination of fear, respect, and envy. Even as Thackeray the journalist sought to discredit English Chartists’ efforts to capitalize on political unrest in France, Thackeray the private correspondent was “a self-declared ‘republican’ anxious to determine what Britain might learn from revolutionary France” (17).

To understand the logic of Thackeray’s apparent self-contradictions, it helps to examine a similar response to the revolutions of 1848 from another Victorian liberal, Matthew Arnold. In May of that year, three months after the restoration of republican government in Paris, Arnold concluded that “England is in a certain sense far behind the Continent. In conversation, in the newspapers, one is so struck with the fact of the utter insensibility, one may say, of people to the number of ideas and schemes now ventilated on the Continent.” He further worries that “100 years hence the Continent will be a great united Federal Republic, and England, all her colonies gone, in a dull steady decay” (1.98). Like Thackeray, Arnold never questions Britain’s right to its colonies and to be a leader in the unfolding narrative of global progress and confederation, but he does fear that England cannot maintain these goals without simultaneously cooperating with progressive France. England need not fully embrace the radical ideas being “ventilated” there, but at the same time it could not ignore them. Both Arnold and Thackeray were deeply concerned that England not repeat the mistakes of its past and become an ethically and culturally indifferent commercial empire. Arnold, in particular, devoted his whole career to theorizing ways in which England might break out of a limited worldview, enriching its own culture and, in turn, assuming a more responsible presence globally.

We might expect Oscar Wilde to display a more enthusiastic assimilation of artistic ideals from France, long the site of envy for British authors seeking expanded cultural boundaries—where “Art walks forward, and knows where to walk” (6.103), as Elizabeth Barrett Browning had described France in Aurora Leigh. Julia Kent, however, recasts Wilde’s aestheticism not as an attempt to bring France to England but to place the two cultures in a kind of diplomatic artistic negotiation with each other. France is not simply the happy antidote to Englishness, but a site where Englishness itself, and English attitudes toward art, were to be forged and re-fashioned. In turn, Wilde’s aestheticism becomes an important critical method of negotiating cultural difference. Reassessing Dorian’s transformation at the hands of a decadent French novel, Kent notes that “the restrictions of the French literary form are marked even at the moment that they are embraced: even though this form promotes uninhibited self-fashioning, it also possesses a characteristic style” (10). Wilde turns a common criticism of aesthetic cosmopolitanism—that it is largely about anti-bourgeois posturing and mostly indifferent to the cultures it consumes—and instead reveals its ability to engage foreign cultures and its own motives critically. Wilde thus challenges the reified sense of national identity and race that defined the late nineteenth century.

Alison Booth’s “Author Country: Longfellow, the Brontës, and Anglophone Homes and Haunts” departs from other essays in “Victorian Internationalisms” by looking at how literature is consumed by means other than reading or buying books. The practice of literary pilgrimage, Booth reminds us, is one that almost all of us have undertaken in some form or another. If that makes us cultural custodians of literature—or fans—as much as critics, she nonetheless candidly encourages us not to disown the deeply felt emotional investment we make in certain authors or texts and which literary pilgrimage can help bring to the surface. (My own experiences as a tourist, Booth made me realize, inevitably include visits to any nearby authors’ homes or grave-sites). Literary pilgrimage, in addition, underscores the complex relationship between regionalism and internationalism in the Victorian period. Longfellow’s incredible success in Britain can be traced, she suggests, to how he “converted indigenous and colonial sources into polished comparative literature, as if sending down American roots for the sake of cosmopolitan branches” (6). The Brontës, in contrast, “were mainstream with the international public more as outsiders than insiders” (15), providing American reader-pilgrims with opportunities to experience more daring forms of Gothic and Romantic aesthetic identification.

As Booth begins to explore what motivated these pilgrims and the cottage industry of guides that emerged to capitalize on their efforts, she unearths one more fascinating site where a cosmopolitan reaching outward collided with a retrenched national and racial identity. Concerned with ethnic “degeneration” back home, Americans traveling to British author country “may have reinforced the English cultural hegemony as it claimed the hospitality owed to kin (urgently in a period of immigration from Eastern Europe, Asia, or elsewhere).” And even if there were no restrictions on what nationalities could visit these sites, they nonetheless fostered a “naturalized community that spans the Anglophone world” (25). British readers of Longfellow and other American authors may have had their own stake in affirming transnational Englishness as something that could hold together a far-flung, increasingly fractured empire. I am reminded, for instance, of Arthur Conan Doyle’s dedication of The White Company (1891) to the “hope of the future reunion of the English-speaking races,” which, like the novel, explicitly conjoins language, literacy, and racial identification. Indeed, the practice of literary pilgrimage might take on an entirely different color if we replace “Anglophone” or “transatlantic” with “Anglo-Saxon.”[2] While it should be noted that many of the authors’ haunts books Booth cites, such as Hubbard’s Little Journeys to the Homes of Famous Women, did not restrict themselves to British authors, like any touristic practice, literary pilgrimage (our own included) entangles one in a complex web of class, gender, and national identities.

The contributions that form the second section of “Victorian Internationalism,” “At the Limits of Orientalism,” enrich our understanding of the Victorian encounter with Asia and the Middle East while at the same time being careful not simply to disavow Edward Said’s Orientalism and its critical legacy as too “limited.” In addition to tracing some of the more cooperative encounters between East and West, they remind us that Western appropriation of Eastern texts and images could have often subtle political ramifications. Andrea Bobotis suggests that Augusta Gregory’s Arabi and His Household reveals an author who “could in fact imagine Egyptian voices in dialogue with, rather than dictated by, her own” (13). Gregory’s interviews with Ahmed Arabi, his mother, and his wife helped later to shape her response to Irish nationalism and “to experiment more boldly with the idea that transnational alliances could help authorize women’s political activism” (2). This alliance represents a significant departure for Victorian women’s travel writing on Egypt, one highlighted by juxtaposing it even with a remarkably tolerant account such as Harriet Martineau’s Eastern Life, Present and Past (1848). Consumed with the injustice of polygamy, Martineau despairs of Egypt as a place where women’s “humanity is wholly and hopelessly baulked,” where a “cosmopolitan philosophy” was simply inapplicable (2.156). Gregory’s text, however, “stresses the shared experiences of women. Not only does the Irish peasant-Egyptian mother produce shared female experience, it also constructs it in the form of an ideal nationalist subject” (10). Bobotis thus overall reminds us not to forget how different subject positions within British society could project radically different “Orientalisms.” For the Irish especially, “caught between the imperial metropolis and the colonized periphery ... part of the United Kingdom, but not an equal member” (3), the Orient could be a site of political co-identification, a place where Gregory could imagine the possibilities and limits of Irish independence.

Attention to non-Western contexts has the potential to reshape definitions of genre and form long taken for granted. Audrey Murfin’s essay, “Victorian Nights’ Entertainments: Elizabeth Gaskell and Wilkie Collins Develop the British Story Sequence,” reveals how accounts of the emergence of the short story form in British literature have mostly confined themselves to sorting out when and to what degree authors such as Kipling and Stevenson borrowed from Edgar Allan Poe. This trajectory, however, misses the significance of the 1001 Nights for mid-century practitioners of the form and, in Orientalist fashion, implies that the British short story could not come into its own until it abandoned the East and adapted itself to the conventions of Western realism. The demand, for instance, that a short story confine itself to a single “dominant impression” inevitably excludes Collins’s highly metatextual After Dark, with its interweaving patterns and motifs which “suggest the infinite” (17). Gaskell, in Around the Sofa, draws more on the issues of narrative authority and gender raised in the 1001 Nights. Like Collins gathering the stories together within a larger frame, Gaskell uses the character of Mrs. Dawson to orchestrate the story-telling and assert power through narrative in the same covert ways as Sharazad. This is a revealing insight that makes one wonder how unique Gaskell was in this identification: while other icons of female authorship, such as Sappho, have received a good deal of critical attention of late, Sharazad would also seem to provide an appealing model for storytellers seeking to assert authority within the confines of domesticity. For male authors as well, as Murfin reveals in her discussion of Collins, Sharazad’s position could translate easily into other forms artistic confinement and struggle.

Joseph McLaughlin’s “‘The Japanese Village’ and the Metropolitan Construction of Modernity” concludes “Beyond Orientalism” and takes as its subject Tannaker Buhicrosan’s highly successful 1885 display of day-to-day life in a Japanese Village, an event that will be familiar to many from a key scene in the Mike Leigh film Topsy-Turvy. Even if, as McLaughlin convincingly shows, the Japanese Village did not inspire Gilbert and Sullivan’s operetta The Mikado, as the film implies, it did serve as a uniquely revealing site of cultural border-crossing between Japan and London. Thanks to the promulgation of Japanese art at the hands of aesthetes such as Wilde, Japan in some sense already existed in a different, more ambiguous proximity to England than other foreign cultures. Japan was peculiarly medieval and modern, rural and urban—characteristics, of course, that entered into struggles to define British identity as well. McLaughlin asserts that the “invention of Old Japan and Modern London were part of a single process and can be seen in a single site, one of which contained, sheltered, and protected the other” (16-17). The Japanese Village put England itself on display: press coverage of the event, particularly the Punch illustration of how Japanese exhibition-goers might respond to a display of an authentic English village, reveals “both a fascination with Japan and a fascination with that fascination ... the beginnings of a critical engagement with Britain’s own orientalist practices” (12). In this way, the Village performed the kind of autoethnographic function James Buzard detects in some nineteenth-century fiction, which, he argues, “puts its own fictions of English or British culture on show, committing itself to the skeptical questioning and testing of its own nation-making and culture-making procedures” (44). Japan, McLaughlin demonstrates, emerged onto the Victorian consciousness through a similar nexus of scientific and cultural discourses that need to be understood in new relation to each other: “literature, theater, and all of the arts,” he claims, aren’t merely reflections of “dominant ideas about exotic people, places, and things,” but, along with science, form “mutually constitutive discourses which shape Victorian ideas about other peoples through situated acts of representation” (6).

McLaughlin’s claim on behalf of the arts is one that in implicit ways runs through many of the articles included in “Victorian Internationalisms,” and raises a question with broad implications that I want to consider more directly: do the arts have a particularly assertive, even essential role to play in conceiving cosmopolitanism? Kwame Anthony Appiah, for one, proposes as much in Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers (2006): “Conversations across boundaries of identity—whether national, religious, or something else—begin with the sort of imaginative engagement you get when you read a novel or watch a movie or attend to a work of art that speaks from some place other than your own” (85). David Damrosch adds to this claim by noting the special role of literary language in constructing complex patterns of empathy and identification across such boundaries. With a nod to reader-response theories of interpretation, Damrosch suggests that “literary narratives work less by communicating fixed information than by creating suggestive gaps that the reader must fill in” (292). Appiah and Damrosch, in some respects, bring us back to “it’s complicated,” which, as I have suggested, is itself a cosmopolitan gesture, and literary texts, by immersing readers in those complications, may finally get one to question long-held assumptions and allegiances. Some of the literary examples presented for discussion in “Victorian Internationalisms,” as we have seen, including works by Thackeray, Wilde, Gaskell, and Collins, appear to bear out this claim. At the same time, we need to recall that such cosmopolitanism was available only to those with access to print culture and the ability to attend exhibitions and theater. When representation of subaltern cosmopolitanism is left to those who hold such privileges, it risks taking the form, as it did for Thackeray, of a dangerously politicized, intellectually deficient mob (Cole 16). Internationalism for the poor posed a serious threat in the Victorian period; heavy doses of nationalist rhetoric, in turn, could serve to police and even re-align working-class political ambitions, as Conservative party politicians discovered to their great profit at the time. Working both sides of the political fence, in some sense, Victorian literature could dramatize and even advocate the need for a “cosmopolitanism from below,” while it simultaneously, like Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities, sought to discredit collective political action.

The final section of “Victorian Internationalisms,” headed by Wright’s “’ The Policy of Geography’: Cavour’s Considerations, European Geopolitics, and Ireland in the 1840s,” gets directly to the uncertain relationship between Victorian idealism and realpolitik. Internationalism was almost always linked with notions of progress in the minds of liberals such as Prince Albert who, in an 1849 speech intended to build support for the Great Exhibition, looked forward to “the realization of the unity of mankind,” which was already beginning to take shape: “The distances which separated the different nations and parts of the globe are gradually vanishing before the achievements of modern civilization” (110). While many of Albert’s European contemporaries would have challenged this vision, and England’s benign place in it, many also agreed that the British empire was supposed to be different: it was the “vanguard of Western liberalism,” as Wright notes, held to a higher standard than other European empires such as Russia or Austria (11). Writing for a broadly European audience in Considerations, the Italian nationalist Cavour not surprisingly appeals to universal history and its attendant progress, but, somewhat ironically, he does so in order to argue against the cause of Irish nationalism. For Cavour, “Britain is a liberalizing power that functions as a globally stabilizing force and, so, must be protected from Irish disturbances that are only local in importance” (3). Ireland’s claims to independence formed a kind of second-order nationalism, and although Cavour does not make the contrast explicit, Italian independence was seen by many almost as a pre-condition for world progress. Stressing the great economic gains to be had by constructing a railroad from St. George’s Channel to the Atlantic, Cavour, in Wright’s view, argues that “Britain offers Ireland what it offers the world—access to modernity” (18). Turning later to some defenses of Irish independence, Wright outlines the “policy of geography” that emerged as an alternative to global progress of the kind advocated by Cavour and which, in the words of The Nation in 1843, “would attach to the physiognomy of nations the mask of a slavish uniformity” (quoted in Wright 22). Instead of a universalism that “elides Ireland as a geographical entity” in order to create a “transport interface between Britain and its empire” (19-20), this more geopolitical conception “protects individuality and autonomy at the level of the national, setting aside the ideal of the free Enlightenment subject who roams at will over the globe and so can function as an imperial agent” (25).[3]

As Stoyan Tchaprazov demonstrates in “The British Empire Revisited Through the Lens of the Eastern Question,” perhaps no other political cause célèbre of the Victorian era highlights so well how the complications of geopolitics could inflect what would seem like the most disinterested of humanitarian concerns. Those who sided with the Bulgarian cause, such as Gladstone, did not shy away from portraying the Turks “as malevolent brutes, racially inferior to Christians” (5). Bordering East and West, Bulgaria became a crucial outpost at the outer edges of Europe in defense of universal progress against the kind of despotism symbolized by Gladstone’s demon Turk. Conservatives, on the other hand, viewed the situation entirely in terms of Britain’s geopolitical interests, which were best served by a strong Ottoman Empire to guard against Russian infringement in Eastern Europe. Caught in the middle, so to speak, were the Bulgarians themselves, whose position Tchaprazov helps to clarify by examining opinions expressed in Bulgarian newspapers such as Den and Nova Bulgaria, where anger at Britain’s equivocal response was palpable. In the end, Tchaprazov suggests, British involvement in Bulgaria amounted to a kind of compassionate colonialism, “sincere only in humanitarian terms” and averse to any “open and direct political solidarity with the Bulgarians” (14). Even for the Bulgarians’ strongest advocates in Britain, Bulgarian independence was a side issue of secondary importance to re-fashioning Britain’s national self-image as a force for progress and humanitarian good: “At best, a quotation from a Bulgarian was used to emphasize or give credibility to the cruelty of the atrocities that had taken place in Bulgaria. Ironically, the so-called Bulgarian Agitation did not actually include Bulgarians” (13-14).

Matthew Potolsky’s “The Decadent Counterpublic” forms a fitting conclusion not just to “Politics and Geopolitics” but to “Victorian Internationalisms,” helping to yield new insight into several issues raised by pieces from earlier sections that focus on aesthetic, decadent, and other late Victorian internationalisms. Focusing on Aubrey Beardsley’s The Story of Venus and Tannhäuser, Potolsky reveals a text deeply concerned with ideas of community and publicness, concluding overall that “the imagined relationship between the writer and his or her public is far more important to decadence than has been previously acknowledged, and that this relationship underlies a cosmopolitan notion of community that is crucial to the complex political legacy of fin-de-siècle culture” (2). For Potolsky, decadent artists formed a “counter-public” that was decidedly anti-national, “found[ing] their communities on artistic taste, not a shared language, race, geography, set of institutions, or codified political program” (6). This idea recalls Kent’s claim that The Picture of Dorian Gray offers a critically acute aesthetic cosmopolitanism that questions affiliations of taste even as it seems to embrace them. Potolsky also helps to clarify the political ramifications of this stance, noting that through “discussions of art or critical practice ... decadent writers stake out political positions and define their notions of community. Judgments of taste are, for decadent writers, politics by other means” (6). This fusion of art with politics mirrors McLaughlin’s insistence in “‘The Japanese Village’” on the primacy of art in shaping public responses to larger cultural and political concerns. Potolsky challenges the understanding that “decadence was merely a marketing category, which allowed writers to profit from the symbolic capital of their apparently elitist rejection of the mass public” (4).

With this claim for a more politically engaged, internationalist decadence, Potolsky invites once again an assessment ofVictorian literature as a “cosmopolitanism from above.” As he notes, beyond anti-nationalism, “the political positions underlying decadent cosmopolitanism were wildly unpredictable, and ranged from anarchism to monarchism, classical republicanism to reactionary conservatism” (5). What’s clear, however, is that decadence lacked the sense of urgency of more overtly politicized internationalisms, such as, most obviously, communism, or the need to address forms of economic injustice that often help to motivate nationalist agitation. Potolsky, it should be stressed, is careful not to overstate the ultimate political impact that decadence may have had, noting more cautiously that “bound by print culture rather than national or class solidarity, the decadent counterpublic is nevertheless a fundamentally political entity” (5). Although open only to those with the means to acquire literacy and develop an in-depth knowledge of the arts, decadence, like other literary cosmopolitanisms, could nonetheless be a more indirect force for social and political change.

Looking back at “Victorian Internationalisms” as a whole, what finally impresses me about the these essays is that, while they insist on complicating and revising our understanding of Victorian internationalism, they refuse to stop at this complexity itself as the ultimate aim of critical inquiry or to valorize Victorian literature as the site of a richly indeterminate internationalism. To do so in some sense would be to re-subscribe to the nineteenth-century model of universal progress Wright sees behind Cavour’s essay on Ireland: to assert one’s own political identity—to be ideological and take action—was to be naïve and disturb the natural progress of modernity. By extension, to advocate from a particular political or social position in literary criticism would be to miss the complications of larger forces which we can point to but are powerless to intervene in. In moving “beyond” Orientalism, then, it’s important that we do not lose the critical purchase and insight that this field of inquiry brought to bear on the ideological function of literary texts. Even if “it’s complicated” is an insight students of Victorian literature—not to mention diplomats and foreign policy advisers—could benefit from, it’s important, as these essays show, to dissect that complexity and to understand the role of these texts in commenting on, and, in some cases, shaping the course of history and culture, for better and for worse.