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Forster's Imperial Romance: Chivalry, Motherhood, and Questing in A Passage to India

From: Journal of Modern Literature
Volume 23, Number 2, Winter 1999/2000
pp. 259-276 | 10.1353/jml.1999.0005

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Journal of Modern Literature 23.2 (1999) 259-276

When Adela Quested enters A Passage to India, it becomes immediately apparent that she has entered an Anglo-Indian world both Victorian and modern, imperialist and anti-imperialist. This Anglo-Indian society's spatial remove from the metropolis is simultaneously signified temporally: the narrator tells us that aspects of "feminist England" have not yet made their way to this part of the empire, and we see Anglo-Indians of the early 1920s perform or plan to perform plays such as Cousin Kate (1903), Quality Street (1901), and The Yeomen of the Guard (1888). Traditional chivalry guides the community, which holds onto its rule by appealing to the protection of women, a notion made popular after the 1857 Mutiny. At the same time, we see stirrings of modernity and nationalism in the book: the Indian characters protest the "Turtons and Burtons" and their racism, and Aziz and Fielding move towards an ostensibly liberating politics of race.

In this setting, Adela Quested is unique among the characters in that she maintains both Victorian and modern aspects in herself and therefore disrupts both elements of Anglo-Indian society rather than fitting in. For example, when Adela says that she wishes to "'see . . . the real India,'" she seems modern and progressive -- a type of New Woman -- in comparison to the Englishwomen already in India, who attempt to recreate England in their houses and the Club rather than adapt to their new country (pp. 24-25). At the same time, Adela's wish to see India seems curiously retrogressive; when Fielding suggests that she should "'[t]ry seeing Indians,'" he implies that meeting the indigenous people is more important (and progressive) than simply seeing the land (p. 25). Adela's desire for romance -- her wish to explore the landscape -- harkens back to male explorer figures of the past, who traditionally penetrate a fecund feminine landscape in order to bring forth its fruits for the British empire. At this point in imperial history, Adela is a reminder that the time of great imperial questing is over; the empire has been mapped and civilized enough so that even women can enter, transforming adventure into tourism. But it is also clear, perhaps contradictorily, that a woman who wants to explore is overly masculine and either sexually aggressive or undesirable; from a narrative perspective, she is an almost impossible figure, preferring imperial romance, as she does, over the usual desire of unmarried women, the heterosexual romance that results in marriage. Her yearning for imperial romance thus challenges both Victorian and modern sensibilities.

The traditional chivalric model followed by the Victorian segment of this imperial society, represented by most of the Anglo-Indian characters, stresses heterosexuality, the rules of public school, the powerlessness of women, and continued British rule in India; the more modern and ostensibly forward-thinking characters, Aziz and Fielding, follow a seemingly antithetical model, the "new chivalry." This new movement substitutes a homoerotic relationship for the heterosexual one in traditional chivalry and looks forward to the end of British rule over the colonies. The imperial romance desired by the novel is thus that between Indian and Anglo-Indian men, but the relationship is destined to fail, if only because of the power disparity inevitable in a still-existing Anglo-India.

Although the old chivalry and new chivalry may be opposed politically (heterosexual opposed to homoerotic, imperialist to anti-imperialist), they agree on one point at least: the men in both believe that the once or future perfect relationships between Indian and Anglo-Indian men have been damaged. Textual evidence might suggest bad government or the men's own racism as the likely causes of these problems, but at a time in which masculine adventure seems to be vanishing and male power is being challenged -- for example, by female travellers in the empire, and women agitating for suffrage and equal access to education and employment at home -- the men in the novel place the blame for deteriorating relationships with native Indians on the Anglo-Indian women in the sexual economy, that is, women who are married or "on the market." By extension, heterosexual romance becomes problematic, the implication being...


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