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In Hanif Kureishi's 1987 film Sammy and Rosie Get Laid, which features postmodern England's struggle to negotiate a postimperial identity, when a poster of Virginia Woolf appears, on which is super-imposed the fires of London street riots, the image remains radically enigmatic. Woolf might stand for the feminism displayed by the character of Rosie (in whose study the Woolf poster hangs), but in this context, we also suspect that Woolf's pensive face represents an old British imperial order going up in flames. In Kurt Koenigsberger's The Novel and the Menagerie, Woolf's modernist work is presented as both registering and celebrating (if at times ambivalently) the dismantling of empire—and, Koenigsberger maintains, intimately related to Woolf's critiques of empire are her famous challenges to realist fiction of Victorian and Edwardian varieties. In his reading, it is not mere coincidence that Woolf's essay "Character in Fiction," with its attacks on the inadequacy of Edwardian realism, appears the same year as "Thunder at Wembley," her critical appraisal of the 1924 Empire Exhibition and the empire whose might and reach it sought to advertise, as both the forces she resists in these essays derive from the same wellspring. The major premise of Koenigsberger's study is that both this variety of narrative realism and the exhibitionary mode rely on an imperialist logic and a problematic investment in totality.
As his title implies, Koenigsberger addresses the British novel and British exhibitions that feature animals—menageries, zoos, and [End Page 383] circuses. He argues that during the period from 1840 to 1930, a time of transition for Britain as its empire rose and declined, the novel and the menagerie operated as homologous cultural formations, similarly invested in fictions of empire and analogously imbricated in imperial cultural logic. His claims about the menagerie convince more readily. Although contemporary commentary on animals from commentators such as Donna Haraway and the late Jacques Derrida offer philosophical meditations on interspecies communication and human identity, during the Victorian period in England, animals often signified empire: real animals—lions, tigers, elephants, camels, and the monkeys Woolf recalled one was to "tickle" at Wembley (158)—were mainstays in empire's imaginary gardens. As Koenigsberger explains, during the latter half of the nineteenth century, which was a "Golden Era" for menageries such as Wombwell's (82), collections of animals from all over the globe were designed to show the power of the British Empire, its ambit, and its capacity for wise and effective management. As chapter 1, "Picturing Britannia's Menagerie," persuasively demonstrates through the evidence of advertisements, handbooks, and newspaper accounts, circuses and menageries exhibited to British spectators the wonders of their empire, conjuring for them the exotic corners of the realm and thus shoring up a domestic English identity predicated on the idea of empire. Koenigsberger argues that novels of this period likewise served to convince readers of the reality, totality, and efficacy of the British empire through their thematics and/or by way of their formal investment in the nineteenth-century mode of realism that presumed the possibility of encompassing a whole world through representation—a presumption that, for Koenigsberger, reflects imperial logic. Like the Victorian menagerie, the nineteenth-century realist novel depended on a fiction of totality that, in Koenigsberger's historicized reading, emerged from and pointed to empire.
Accordingly, Koenigsberger traces the evolution of the novel and the menagerie during the shift from Victorianism to modernism, as they index changing "worldviews" about empire (185). In his reading, more than just acting as "mutually reinforcing" homologous cultural formations (40), the novel and menagerie engage in complexly mediated "imaginative transactions" with each other (7), and for purposes of his study, they illuminate each other: the menagerie reveals the exhibitionary work of the novel as it displays empire to its readers, and the novel exposes the narratives underwriting the project of the menagerie. At times, explanations of the relationship between novel and menagerie—the conjunction on which this book relies—labor too hard, and sometimes misrepresent the subtle...