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Reviewed by:
  • Colonial Strangers: Women Writing the End of the British Empire
  • Jason Mezey
Phyllis Lassner. Colonial Strangers: Women Writing the End of the British Empire. New Brunswick: Rutgers UP, 2004. vii + 241 pp.

It is perhaps an indication of the timeliness and necessity of Phyllis Lassner's Colonial Strangers that among the authors she discusses, only two—Muriel Spark and Zadie Smith—have been substantially recognized by the academy. Of the six remaining authors, the MLA Bibliography offers little in the way of scholarly listings: Olivia Manning (9 entries), Ethel Mannin (4 entries), Rumer Godden (14 entries), Elspeth Huxley (19 entries), Phyllis Shand Allfrey (11 entries), and Phyllis Bottome (2 entries, both contributed by Lassner), as compared to Muriel Spark's 174 entries. Continuing with slight overlap from her previous monograph, British Women Writers of World War II (1998), Lassner's project maps out a terrain of writing by women in response to the massive geopolitical shifts of the 1940s and asserts the need for further analysis of this compelling field of study—from the perspectives of British literary/cultural history and, new to this book, postcolonial studies.

Lassner's book is best understood in terms of the two distinct levels on which it operates: on its first and more effective level, it sets forth an argument for the inclusion of a body of women authors whose works articulate powerful critiques of empire informed by both World War II and the Holocaust. The second, intriguing but ultimately more problematic level, argues for placing the racial dynamics of the Holocaust in conversation with those identified in postcolonial studies. One of the premises of Lassner's study is that Hitler's racialist [End Page 738] policies are the product of a colonialist or imperialist paradigm; at a particularly passionate moment in her introduction, she asserts:

What we learn from the inclusion of the Jew and anti-Semitism in the writing of British women is that to exclude the Second World War from postcolonial analysis erases categories of race and racism that illuminate colonialism's savagery on any designated Other. Moreover, to exclude the Third Reich from colonial and postcolonial discourses is to forget and ignore that Hitler's racialist policies and practices represent the quintessential endgame of colonial oppression.


In its dependence on an overly simplified link between the violence inherent in colonialism and the Nazis' planned genocide of European Jewry, this claim elides the specific power dynamics of different iterations of imperialism.

While it may be possible to depict empire in broad strokes, there is a point at which comparing the Nazis, who represented a specific political entity with a specific strategy of conquest and genocide, to the multi-faceted and pan-European ideologies of colonialism loses its critical vitality. In fact, Lassner is very aware of this problem in relation to the authors she analyzes, stating:

Although their arguments are about the racist underpinnings of both the Holocaust and colonialism, these writers are not creating an equivalence. In fact, as they demonstrate in so many different facets and forms, colonialism is about brutal and murderous exploitation, but it is not about exterminating an entire people for the purpose of purifying the world of their poisonous presence, in short, through a purposefully conceived policy of lethal social engineering.


However, the caution and care with which Lassner delineates the boundaries of her subjects' work is less visible in her own theoretical model. First, the assertion of the Holocaust's import in postcolonial studies as represented in Colonial Strangers works to enshrine a Eurocentric notion of historical trauma. While the destabilization of Empire that occurred as a result of World War II—including the shifting balance of world powers, the beginning of the end of traditional imperial enterprise, the decline of European imperial power, and the corresponding rise of the American imperium—was certainly a watershed moment, it is less clear whether the Holocaust would be as significant to those in postcolonial studies who wish to remove such Eurocentric paradigms from their historical and literary inquiries. (By way of an aside, I do not mean to say that such connections cannot and should not be made. For example, Adam Hochschild...


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