- Reviewed by
This is a book to be welcomed: not just for its serious engagement with the operations of the literary and cultural fields of the Pacific British settler colonies in a connected world and its discerning yet synthesizing analysis but for its nuanced feminist and political project. Nadine Attewell’s Better Britons is not limited to New Zealand and Australia; much of her work brings twentieth-century instances, texts, discourses, and documents from the United Kingdom into nuanced relation with examples from those two of its former dominions. As an interdisciplinary examination of the anxieties surrounding reproduction after the withdrawal of imperial control in Australia and Aotearoa New Zealand, Attewell’s book is proper to look back to the UK, and not for sources, but for looping, dialogic interactions illuminating the early and mid-twentieth-century global project of racialized nation-making. It is yet relatively rare to see such extended attention from North America to these Anglophone countries of the paraperiphery whose dominance as settler-invader nations by English-speaking cultures usually renders them at once too minor for strategic interest from the US and UK and too similar to be considered revealingly other.
The author’s background as a British Canadian via Hong Kong provides some explanation, as does the University of Toronto Press’s commitment to world histories of the former British Empire. Better Britons represents a distinctive choice as a study in that mode, illuminating interrelations between parts of the postcolonial world often considered neither telling nor representative for world histories or literatures in order to demonstrate otherwise, and it does so with some aplomb. Voiced from inside critical race and postcolonial studies, its feminist project is to insist yet again on the centrality of gendered experiences of power to the biopolitical in the face of broader forgetting and in contexts in which the forces of population control worked to refigure global structures of empire that abide today. The book brings together literary and historical texts: notably, reports from government studies, inquiries, royal commissions, photographs, and other archived records of the managed past in these countries with a selection of modernist and speculative fiction mostly from the first half of the twentieth century. Her interest is primarily literary, but Attewell compellingly engages with the complexity of the discursive and social formations from which her texts spring and in which they participate. This is more than contextualizing; her historical and scholarly object is the past itself and its conceptions of the future, and this concern in the final chapter brings us up to contemporary Britain. The book is structured chronologically as well as thematically, [End Page 376] with each chapter providing a distinctive focus on topics such as eugenics, whiteness, reproductive control, maternal citizenship, and postindustrial, racialized pronatalism.
Attewell’s introduction places her project within the ambit of new modernist studies, and its interdisciplinarity confirms this. Yet she rightly registers some reservations about that dominating new direction. This is especially the case in rereading the fictional archive of eugenics. A blind spot to realism, especially social and socialist realism, remains an effect of the dominance of postmodernism’s genealogies in new modernist studies, and the kinds of progressive politics most closely committed to rethinking the demographics of populations, as well as advocating for women’s reproductive control, opted much more often for those more demotic aesthetic forms. Attewell cites Patricia Chu’s call for a definition of modernism that includes realist writing and popular film without losing their differentiated impacts, but she chooses instead to align with Kristen Bluemel in defining modernism as a restricted “kind of writing, discourse or orientation” rather than a period (qtd. in Attewell 20). Stephen Ross’s retroactive critique of modernist studies for its inclination toward overinclusiveness rather than leaving space for “something more general, like twentieth-century literature” (qtd. in Attewell 21), is usefully at play. Nevertheless, one could look somewhat in vain for the presence of socialism, for instance, as a determining discourse in the commitment to social planning and eugenics examined in the first half of...