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  • British Imperial Literature 1870–1940: Writing and the Administration of Empire
  • Anne E. Fernald
Daniel Bivona. British Imperial Literature 1870–1940: Writing and the Administration of Empire. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1998. 237 pp.

The transition in power from aristocracy to bureaucracy informs Daniel Bivona’s study of the literature of empire. He argues that, as the British Empire became more bureaucratic, some writers dramatized the psychic difficulties of this loss of individualism while others sought new ways to write heroism into a system where each official is, of necessity, replaceable. (Notably, Rudyard Kipling did both.) British Imperial Literature 1870–1940 begins with Franz Kafka and ends with George Orwell, the two fiction writers who have taught us most about the threats of bureaucracy. For them, as for Bivona, bureaucracy’s hold on our lives and our imaginations bears scrutiny precisely because its control is pervasive. Bivona shows that individualism—be it journalistic bravado or high-modernist self-consciousness—was “the only available [End Page 533] stance from which to critique imperial bureaucracy as a system.” Individualism has come in for a lot of criticism of late, which Bivona ably sidesteps by maintaining his historical focus. Even so, the candidly political conclusion tips his hand: “If [. . .] totalitarian nightmares [. . .] seem dated now, the issues they raised are of continuing relevance in a world still ruled by well organized power.” The implication here is that we have not moved much beyond the modernists in our understanding of the relationship between the individual and power, and furthermore, that aspects of bourgeois individualism may be worth retaining.

Bivona begins with “In the Penal Colony” because his book is also “about how the bureaucrat justifies writing on bodies by submitting his own body to be written upon.” Where this theme dominates, as in the chapter on T. E. Lawrence, Bivona is at his best, exploring the erotics of self-abnegation and discipline. However, this play with writing and bodies remains secondary to the book’s focus on the bureaucrat. Through discussions of Lawrence, Livingston, Stanley, and Lord Cromer (chief promoter of the doctrine of Indirect Rule), Bivona traces evolving British notions that power’s exercise should be disguised, that charismatic bureaucrats both hide the vastness of state machinery and provide the popular press with stories through which to continue recruitment. Bivona’s readings of novels (including The Jungle Books, Heart of Darkness, A Passage to India, Mister Johnson, and Burmese Days) in this context valorize ambiguities. Thus, for example, Kipling re-emerges as a writer who, while still jingoistic, depicts the horror of the colonial administrator’s position in ways that Orwell would develop with still greater bitterness decades later. More importantly, Bivona offers a fresh way to read Joyce Cary’s neglected Mister Johnson through a discussion of the black title character’s complicity with the British colonizers in Nigeria. For Bivona, Cary’s novel presents the title character not only as a “colonized consciousness” but also as possessing a dangerously perfect understanding of colonial capitalism.

Cary’s novel represents Bivona’s only extensive engagement with a character who is not a white male administrator. His is a masculinist construction of imperial literature with surprisingly little engagement with the colonized or even with white women. It is not a polemical book: Bivona’s harshest judgments are reserved for the safely dead proponents of the worst excesses of colonialism rather than fellow critics, whom he treats with generosity and respect. Nonetheless, there is [End Page 534] something suspicious about a new way to avoid writing about those who were most harmed by imperialism. Of course, the book’s theme justifies such neglect. But Bivona’s focus on the narrow world of the colonial bureaucrats, in which native lovers are unfeelingly discarded, marriage to white women indefinitely postponed, and friendship with nonwhite men is the sentimental dream of E. M. Forster alone, may itself be too narrow. British Imperial Literature 1870–1940 creates a new context in which to study these important writers whose ideas still trouble us. Few books achieve so much. In doing so, it reminds us of the use of historical readings that are not overwhelmed by ideology. The next step will...

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pp. 533-535
Launched on MUSE
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