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Writing Under the Raj: Gender, Race, and Rape in the British Colonial Imagination, 1830-1947
Britain, Ireland, and Continental Europe
Nancy L. Paxton. Writing Under the Raj: Gender, Race, and Rape in the British Colonial Imagination, 1830-1947. New Brunswick: Rutgers UP, 1999. 338 pp.
Since Allen J. Greenberger's 1969 study of Anglo-Indian fiction, there has been a proliferation of such surveys. Nancy L. Paxton's new study joins [End Page 535] the works of Benita Parry, Nora Satin, Udayon Misra, and Rashna B. Singh, and more significantly, enlarges the analyses of Ronald Hyam, Sara Suleri, and Jenny Sharpe by her focus on issues of sex, gender, and rape in Raj fiction. Paxton's book is not just another in a series of postcolonial studies, however. Avoiding the kind of Manichean bifurcation that Gail Ching-Liang Low and Arun P. Mukherjee see as pervading postcolonial discourse (that is, colonizer-as-evil, colonized-as-good), Paxton refuses to appraise her material through simplified and prefabricated lenses. Instead, she offers a balanced, sophisticated, and accessible study of the multiple "rape scripts" in British, Anglo-Indian, and Indian novels between 1830 and 1947.
Writing Under the Raj is organized both chronologically and thematically. Distinguishing among more than thirty novels written before and after the 1857 Uprising, incorporating major cultural factors such as the suffragette movement in England and the rise of Indian nationalism, Paxton organizes her analysis around a series of recurring motifs: the colonial harem, the temple dancer, the "Mutiny," lost Anglo children, interracial marriage, and the New Woman of the early twentieth century.
The merits of Paxton's study are considerable. Noteworthy is her patient mining of the original texts--not just by icons like Lord Byron, Percy Shelley, Rudyard Kipling, E. M. Forster, and George Orwell--but of relatively neglected writers like Meadows Taylor, Flora Annie Steel, Fanny Farr Penny, Maud Diver, Rabindranath Tagore, and Swarnakumari Devi, to name a few. With her literary analysis grounded in an astute understanding of historical, cultural, social, and political events, Paxton offers a complex and cogent interpretation of how and why rape scripts were used in Raj fiction.
Paxton's purpose is to "illustrate the ideological and symbolic work" that rape scripts performed, work that is far from monolithic. To help her readers navigate the often contrary currents of these novels, she maps some basic patterns. Fiction before 1857, Paxton shows, depicted "white men saving brown women from brown men" (Gayatri Spivak's phrase) to justify the British presence in India, while fiction after 1857 focused on white women threatened by mutinous brown men (and saved by white men) to bolster the new imperialism. As Whitehall debated laws governing rape, divorce, inheritance, and the right to vote in the early twentieth century, new issues emerged: the importance of racial [End Page 536] purity rather than pre-marital chastity, and the unsuitability of women in the public domain rather than their ideal place in domestic space. In the face of the growing nationalist movement of the 1920s and 1930s and the advent of Freudian theory in popular literature, rape scripts register a growing conservatism in their depiction of male sexuality, so that rape is represented as an illusion brought on by hysteria, or worse, as the butt of satire.
These basic patterns, Paxton warns, are complicated by multiple variations, depending on whether they emerge in male adventure stories, female or male romances, imperialist feminism, liberal critiques of imperialism, Indian nationalism, or Hindu and Muslim treatments of the female. While the over-arching pattern of rape scripts places both white and brown women in the private sphere and limits their agency, the ideologies controlling each variant are much broader than simple (or pure) imperialism. Far from being trite, as Suleri claims, the rape trope adapts to a myriad of purposes involving not only imperial power but also the patriarchal social contract, male sexuality, racial superiority, the suffragette movement, Freudian theory, and the New Woman. Each...