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Melodramatic Imperial Writing

From the Sepoy Rebellion to Cecil Rhodes

Neil Emory Hultgren

Publication Year: 2014

Melodrama is often seen as a blunt aesthetic tool tainted by its reliance on improbable situations, moral binaries, and overwhelming emotion, features that made it a likely ingredient of British imperial propaganda during the late nineteenth century. Yet, through its impact on many late-Victorian genres outside of the theater, melodrama developed a complicated relationship with British imperial discourse.

Melodramatic Imperial Writing positions melodrama as a vital aspect of works that underscored the contradictions and injustices of British imperialism. Beyond proving useful for authors constructing imperialist fantasies or supporting unjust policies, the melodramatic mode enabled writers to upset narratives of British imperial destiny and racial superiority.

Neil Hultgren explores a range of texts, from Dickens’s writing about the 1857 Sepoy Rebellion to W. E. Henley’s imperialist poetry and Olive Schreiner’s experimental fiction, in order to trace a new and complex history of British imperialism and the melodramatic mode in late-Victorian writing.

Published by: Ohio University Press


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Title Page, Copyright, Dedication

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pp. vii-viii


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pp. ix-xii

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pp. 1-26

At Last! Too Late! These designations of temporality appeared in two successive issues of Punch as captions for cartoons in February 1885. By serving as both opposing utterances and successive labels in a series, they tell two stories. First, they bear witness to the British army’s failed attempt to rescue famed imperial hero Major General...

Part One: Melodrama as Plot

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One: Imperial Melodrama After the Sepoy Rebellion

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pp. 29-62

Melodrama has long been considered an important mode for representations of the Sepoy Rebellion that took place from 1857 to 1859. Patrick Brantlinger, Jenny Sharpe, and Don Randall gesture toward melodrama to generalize about plays, novels, and articles related to the British Empire in India and more specifically to the events of the 1857 Rebellion. These writers highlight the moral polarization...

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Two: Romance; or, Melodrama and the Adventure of History

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pp. 63-90

Despite Dickens’s and Collins’s experimentation with melodrama’s providential plotting in their reactions to the 1857 Sepoy Rebellion, as well as Collins’s designation of The Moonstone as a romance,1 discussions of melodrama have been less prevalent in relation to the imperial romance, a genre that came to prominence in the...

Part Two: Melodrama as Aestheticized Feeling

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Three: Imperialist Poetry, Aestheticism, and Melodrama’s Man of Action

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pp. 93-125

While melodrama’s plotting shaped historical representations of the British Empire, its reliance on excessive forms of emotion buttressed new articulations of active imperialist masculinity in the work of writers W. E. Henley and Rudyard Kipling. Melodrama’s overwhelming pathos also structured Robert Louis...

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Four: Stevenson’s Melodramatic Anthropology

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pp. 126-152

Henley and Kipling relied on the emotionality of the melodramatic mode to craft a vision of violent, confrontational, and masculine British imperialism. For these writers, melodrama’s excesses were compatible with the promulgation of late-Victorian militarism and...

Part Three: Melodrama as Distant Homeland

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Five: Olive Schreiner and the Melodrama of the Karoo

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pp. 155-187

While Stevenson saw melodrama as a mode that enabled provocative forms of cross-cultural communication with audiences from Europe and Oceania, Olive Schreiner was less certain how the form of community imagined by the melodramatic mode might transfer to the imperial frontier. Her writings suggest that melodrama...

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Conclusion: Pirates and Spies

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pp. 188-194

There is a significant temptation to conclude a study of melodramatic aesthetics with fulfillment, such as the culmination of imperial melodrama in a certain moment—Schreiner’s depiction of Cecil Rhodes entering heaven—or with melodrama’s decline in the face of modernist irony. It would also seem fitting to mark melodrama’s loss...


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pp. 195-232


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pp. 233-246


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pp. 247-260

E-ISBN-13: 9780821444832
E-ISBN-10: 0821444832
Print-ISBN-13: 9780821420850
Print-ISBN-10: 0821420852

Page Count: 272
Publication Year: 2014

Edition: 1

OCLC Number: 870646808
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Melodramatic Imperial Writing