SEL Studies in English Literature 1500-1900 41.4 (2001) 805-824
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Colonial Male Authority in George Meredith's Lord Ormont and His Aminta
Timothy L. Carens
We shall probably understand how to deal wisely with the negro race by and by. At present, what with contempt at one time and sentimentalism at another, we contrive to treat them first as animals, and next and immediately after as intellectual beings, as if the act of emancipation made them civilized and responsible creatures. It is very probable that the insurrection in Jamaica, while teaching us of the error we have fallen into, will warn the Americans of what may be theirs. Our peculiar error has been that when we had once accomplished the plain duty of granting the negroes freedom, we thought that we had done everything.
In Lord Ormont and His Aminta (1894), George Meredith depicts a heroine who rebels against her overbearing husband, eventually abandoning him to live with her lover, Matthew Weyburn. In this broad outline, the novel seems, like other New Woman novels of the period, to endorse a woman's bid for freedom within an oppressive patriarchal culture. 1 Yet Meredith specifically withholds self-governing sovereignty from Aminta, restricting her agency through a pattern of figures comparing her to India. He seeks to amend the oppressive treatment of the "dark brown-red" heroine not by granting her independence, but rather by reforming [End Page 805] the colonial authority to which she is subject. 2 Meredith structures the sequence of her romantic relationships as a progressive history of colonial relations, figuring her husband as the military force which first conquers and subjugates her, and Matthew as the liberal colonial government determined to cultivate her intellectual and moral progress. Thus conferring authority upon the administration committed to "civilizing" the woman-as-India, the novel strategically defers her own independence.
While Meredith professed support for the "Emancipation of Woman," the trope of colonial authority reflects a deep uncertainty about female sovereignty. 3 According to Homi Bhabha, colonial authority is by nature ambivalent. It credits itself, on the one hand, with ameliorative power, constructing colonial subjects who exhibit the transformations effected by its benevolent rule. To cite a well-known example, Thomas Macaulay advocates an educational system for India that would create a "class of persons, Indian in blood and colour, but English in taste, in opinions, in morals, and in intellect." 4 Yet colonial authority also indicates that such a "class of persons" can never adequately assimilate the lessons of civility, can never entirely escape the taint of "blood and colour." It produces, Bhabha explains, a colonial subject characterized by "mimicry," one suspended between identification with reforming authority and otherness, "almost the same, but not quite." 5 In Lord Ormont, Matthew, the civilizing authority, gradually reforms Aminta into a likeness of himself. Despite her remarkable advances, however, the narrative continues to disclose traces of primitive savagery, marks of essential difference and inferiority. Her unstable development reveals a strong conservative counterdrift within Meredith's vision of social progress for women and colonial subjects alike. A liberal opponent of oppressive power, Meredith nonetheless questions the reliability of those who have been subject to it. Their imperfect mimicry of civilizing authority reflects his reluctance to trust them with self-government.
The concept of mimicry provides an extremely useful tool for exposing such reluctance, but Bhabha's representation of its subversive power requires qualification. "The menace of mimicry," Bhabha claims, "is its double vision which in disclosing the ambivalence of colonial discourse also disrupts its authority." 6 While those who seek to expose the false promise of the civilizing mission can appreciate such disruptive effects, it is crucial to note that civilizing authority uses the figure to justify ongoing supervision. Narratives of imperial progress strengthen the position [End Page 806] of civilizing authority by strategically exhibiting partially assimilated subjects, gesturing at once to the work that has been accomplished and to that which evidently remains to be done. "The slippage between difference and...