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Tim Fulford and Peter J. Kitson, eds. Romanticism and Colonialism: Writing and Empire, 1780-1830. Cambridge University Press, 1998. ISBN: 0-521-59143-0. Price: £35.00 (US$64.95).

  • Julia M. Wright

…more information

  • Julia M. Wright
    University of Waterloo

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In Romanticism and Colonialism, Tim Fulford and Peter J. Kitson have brought together fifteen essays on a diverse array of authors. Arranged chronologically, the essays in the volume chart the shifts in imperialist discourse throughout the Romantic period, focussing primarily on representations of the "orient" and slavery. After the three introductory essays, the chronological series begins and ends with chapters on orientalism, but the first half of the series focusses on the representation of slavery, and the second half on orientalism. Synecdochally, the table of contents thus figures both the continuity of imperial exigencies and the stages by which the British empire transformed itself. After the American Revolution and uprisings in India and Ireland, the empire ensured that other colonies would not slip through its fingers; rather than focussing almost exclusively on trade (sea routes, ports, and commodities), it began to employ, beyond Ireland, various strategies for instituting and sustaining British hegemony in colonial settings.

The opening essays of the collection constitute a valuable resource. The first chapter, written by the editors, offers a concise historical, theoretical critical context for the volume, locating it within the fields of postcolonial studies, Romantic studies, and studies on race and the Middle Passage. The next two chapters, the first by Kitson and the second by Fulford, function as more detailed introductions. Kitson's essay, on the latter decades of the eighteenth century, reviews Romantic-era orientalism, race theory, abolition debates, and south-sea voyages before considering early Romantic writers and scholarship on them in those contexts. Fulford's essay, on the period 1800-1830, surveys the wider field of British imperial interest, covering regions in nearly every inhabited continent on the globe, and then turns to the later Romantic authors who wrote within an increasingly complex colonial discourse. Together, these three chapters provide a useful and wide-ranging index to scholarship and primary materials related to colonialism in the period.

The first essay on orientalism is Michael J. Franklin's "Accessing India: Orientalism, Anti-'Indianism' and the Rhetoric of Jones and Burke." Franklin contrasts Jones' orientalist scholarship and verse with Burke's political writings on India, opposing "the Burkean, aristocratical sublime" to the more populist position of "the Welshman," Jones (p. 49). The analysis of Burke falls a bit short, failing to take into account the fact that Burke was Irish, not "British" (p. 51), despite the attention to Jones' Welshness (pp. 49-51). Perhaps more significantly, while Franklin does attend to the different terms on which the politician Burke and the colonial administrator Jones were engaged with the subcontinent, he does not address the generic distinctions between political speeches and orientalist (pseudo)translations: both are "narrative representations of India" (p. 56). But the comparison of Jones' and Burke's writings on India is a fruitful one, and usefully situated in the context of the two authors' personal relationship.

In their essays, Nigel Leask and John Whale consider orientalist representations as departures from a high Romantic ideal. Leask addresses the framing particularism of orientalist verse in relation to the universalizing, and absorptive, pressures of traditional Romanticism. Noting the emphasis on annotation—from footnotes in oriental tales to guidebooks for orientalist panoramas—Leask suggests "that the absorptive pull of the exotic visual image or allusion . . . is constantly checked and qualified by a globalizing, descriptive discourse which draws the viewer/reader away from a dangerous proximity to the image, in order to inscribe him/her in a position of epistemological power; nothing other than the commanding vision of imperialist objectivity" (p. 168). Whale, in "Indian Jugglers: Hazlitt, Romantic Orientalism, and the Difference of View," suggests a similar polarization: on the one side, "the physical" (p. 215), "mechanical perfection" (p. 208), and the popular; on the other, "the metaphysical" (p. 215), "sublime transcendence" (p. 208), and Romantic genius. Hazlitt resists particularism and "argues passionately for the role of imagination in the face of contemporary demographic and social theorists such as Malthus and Bentham" (p. 216), testing "the limits of imaginative knowledge and liberal sympathy" (p. 220).

Caroline Franklin and Malcolm Kelsall focus specifically on Byronic Orientalism, particularly Byron's resistance to cultural imperialism. In "'Some Samples of the Finest Orientalism': Byronic Philhellenism and Proto-Zionism at the Time of the Congress of Vienna," Franklin considers Byron's attitudes towards the imperial project via the poet's representation of Hebrew culture, suggesting that "Presbyterianism had steeped [Byron] in the Dissenting tradition of identifying with the Jews as the Chosen People, resisting tyranny" (pp. 238-39). She carefully relates Byron's representation of the Jews in the Hebrew Melodies to the post-Napoleonic dispensation of dispossessed European peoples, concluding that Byron "idealized a new notion of nationalism, arising out of reaction to imperialism" (p. 241). In his essay, Kelsall begins by arguing that, to situate Byron's work, we must "jettison the kind of baggage with which terms like 'imperial' and 'colonial' are now loaded, and . . . remain aware how contested they were then" (p. 248). Venice emerges as a site of this contestation, part of the "fluid" boundary between east and west (p. 249) as well as a key figure in British imperial historiography and British orientalism. As a liminal space, Venice is the site of hybridity and inversion: architectures and bloodlines mix, while the feminine dominates and sexuality is liberated.

A more threatening form of hybridity is the focus of the final essay on orientalism in the volume. In his essay on Mary Shelley's The Last Man, Joseph W. Lew discusses the figuration of oriental threat as disease and thus as part of "contemporary debates about the corrupting effects of colonialism" (p. 272). He traces, primarily in the work of Gibbon, Montesquieu, and Brougham, the identification of southern (warmer) climates with effeminacy, promiscuity and tyranny—in other words, with physical, moral, and political "corruption"—and the consequent imperial anxiety over the domestic impact of returning colonial agents. Thus, in Shelley's novel, "The plague, endemic to the despotic Southern climes, erupts with unprecedented malignity into temperate, lawful Europe" (p. 277). It does so, Lew notes, via the raced subjects of colonialism: the unnamed black man who infects Lionel and the orientalized Evadne who "momentarily comes to embody the Plague itself" (p. 277).

Perhaps the most important aspect of this collection lies in its attention to abolitionist debates and, more crucially, in its engagement (albeit often limited) with the long history of scholarship, especially in African-American studies, on this body of literature and the theoretical issues it raises. As interest in colonial contexts and attention to the terms of cultural nationalism leads us to question the efficacy of focussing on national literatures, and as canon reform challenges period classifications, learning from our colleagues in once-distinct fields becomes increasingly crucial. This is especially true of the literature which emerges from the region that Paul Gilroy has termed "the Black Atlantic," a "transcultural, international formation" that embraces many of the regions discussed in this section of Fulford and Kitson's collection: Sierra Leone, the West Indies, the United States, and the British port cities of London and Bristol. [1]

In his contribution to the volume, "Darkness Visible? Race and Representation in Bristol abolitionist poetry, 1770-1810," Alan Richardson draws usefully on African-Americanist debates over the viability of the category of race and the relationship of the Romantic period to the consolidation of racist classifications in order to establish a context for his investigation of eighteenth-century and early nineteenth-century racial representations. After noting that Romanticism is coincident with the transition from Enlightenment universalism to modern nationalism, Richardson locates the writings of Chatterton, More, Yearsley, and Southey within that crucial ideological turn. Richardson concludes that these writers' varied articulations of racial difference "imply not so much different attitudes towards or perspectives on 'race' but divergent and internally unstable schemas from within and among which 'race' is only beginning to emerge in its modern (and currently contested) sense" (p. 146).

Timothy Morton's essay, "Blood Sugar," traces the figure of the title in literature of the 1790s, primarily in writings on the slave trade by Coleridge and Southey. As Morton shows, the abolitionist debate over sugar turned on the often-slippery figurative associations of blood; blood could signify either the violence of sugar production or the health benefits of sugar consumption. In a provocative reading of Southey's sonnets on the slave trade, Morton suggests that sugar functions as a "supplement": it is both a luxurious additive and the residue of a threat to imperial coherence and dominance, "the revolutionary potential of people existing between the categories of subject and object" (p. 98). In her essay on Mary Butt Sherwood, Moira Ferguson considers the complex configuration of evangelical abolitionism as a solution to the latter form of supplementation. Sherwood's fable of redemption and rescue, Dazee, The Re-captured Negro (1821), exposes the insidiousness of using the term "re-captured" to denominate Africans rescued from slave ships and deposited in Sierra Leone rather than returned to their homelands. Dazee is saved from slavery, but then taught English, Christianity, and European values—the internalization of which are almost as effective as slavery in alienating him from his mother and his indigenous culture. Sherwood's tale thus "re-enacts a white fantasy about post-abolition in Africa in which Africans themselves are configured as malleable" (p. 162).

The gothic inversion of this "white fantasy" is the subject of D. L. Macdonald's essay on M. G. Lewis. In Lewis's Journal of a West India Proprietor, "Jamaica was an island of death as well as an isle of devils" (p. 199). The Journal is presented as a complex and convoluted amalgalm of various gothically rendered positions on race and place; it includes representations of "The devil" as "black" as well as "a sort of slave-owner" (p. 198), of slavery as a form of damnation (pp. 198-99), of being becalmed while travelling to the West Indies as "a hell upon water" (p. 196), and of tropical diseases as demons (p. 202). Against the backdrop of high mortality among the enslaved population, the constant threat of a slave uprising and assassination, the omnipresent danger of disease, and the trials of travel on the colonial islands and between the islands of Britain and Jamaica, the Journal emerges as an extended and varied reworking of colonial anxiety as Lewis "tell[s] his compatriots more than they wanted to know about their bad consciences, and their bad dreams" (p. 205).

In "'Sunshine and Shady Groves': What Blake's 'Little Black Boy' Learned from African Writers," Lauren Henry begins by reminding us that many African and African-American writers lived in England during this period and were often part of local literary communities. She focusses on one of those writers, the African-American poet Phillis Wheatley. The bulk of the essay explores the possibility that Wheatley draws on African religious images, particularly of the sun, on terms tacitly resistant to the pressures of Christian proselytization; Blake, Henry suggests, was sympathetic to this doubleness in Wheatley's texts and reworked it in his own verse. Thus, "Blake suggests that confusion, contradictions, and irony are the necessary results of Christianity's involvement in Africa and the slave-trade" (p. 82). One might wish for some reference to W. E. B. DuBois's influential concept of "double-consciousness" to situate this ambivalence in Wheatley's writing, and its representation in Blake's, or Henry Louis Gates' elaboration of "signifying" to clarify the encoding of African cultural references in the poetry, but this essay does much to elucidate the complications of Wheatley's work and their significance for Blake.

In what is, in the geographical sense, the most wide-ranging essay of the collection, "'Wisely Forgetful': Coleridge and the Politics of Pantisocracy," James C. McKusick explores the fissures in Southey's and Coleridge's utopian scheme, compellingly arguing for a strong connection between those fissures and contemporary ethnographic and imperial discourse. McKusick concludes that Pantisocracy failed not only because of the notorious dispute over servants, but also because of three irreconcilable ideological positions: first, that women are capable of full political and intellectual participation in society; second, that women are like the colonial space in which the Pantisocracy would be located in being untamed and in need of "patriarchal" control; third, that the peoples in soon-to-be-colonized regions, from the South Seas to Africa, are innocent and have cultures which are positively organized along Pantisocratic lines.

Together, the essays in this collection offer a compelling picture of Romantic colonialism: ideologically fraught, morally conflicted, and physically panicked, it exhibits what Alan Sinfield has termed "faultlines." [2] That is, colonialism does not break apart on the rocks of a righteous moral outrage, but is scarred by the multitudinous stresses which fracture its facade as it tries to maintain its coherence against the pressures of competing belief systems and the disparities between its claims and its practices. As McKusick's essay suggests, colonial projects require ideological validation, but shoring up the ideological borders to conceal the damage done by political dispute, personal agendas and material reality can prove an unending, if not impossible, task.

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