- Representing Violence, Rewriting Empire
Viewed retrospectively, the history of the British Empire seems to be composed of equal parts self-confidence and hubris. As John Kucich points out in the introduction of Imperial Masochism, however, for those living before or even within imperial times, their outlook was potentially different: “from the perspective of those who could not have anticipated future successes and who either knew of or had themselves experienced harrowing encounters with disease, captivity, enslavement, military defeat, dependence on non-whites, or sadistic cruelties…narratives of British suffering may have seemed more honest” (7). Notwithstanding their significant methodological differences, all of the books under consideration in this review are concerned with the [End Page 344] conjoined British experiences of nation and empire and with literary attempts to make sense of those experiences as they were taking place. Far from taking the coherence of nation- and empire-building projects for granted, each of the authors astutely recognizes that such coherence was precisely what writers during the period of the rise and zenith of the British Empire–approximately 1776 to 1914–struggled to articulate.
According to Ian Haywood in Bloody Romanticism, most previous studies of British Romanticism share a failure to appreciate the pervasiveness of violence in the period’s culture. For Haywood, Romanticism as it was popularly experienced was not primarily about Wordsworth’s ruined cottages or Shelley’s skylarks; rather, it was about the apparently endless series of wars, uprisings, rebellions, and riots that punctuated the period. Between the American War of Independence, the French Revolution, slave rebellions in San Domingo (now Haiti) and Demerara (now part of Guyana), the Irish Rebellion of 1798, and a seemingly interminable succession of domestic riots, the British literary marketplace was consistently saturated with contemporary images of violence and death. Haywood admits in his introduction that he is “not trying to construct a coherent genealogy or metanarrative” (8) of violence in the Romantic era; rather, his primary aim is to demonstrate the omnipresence of violent images and motifs in Romanticism, a task that he admirably fulfills through copious examples, many of them archival and non-canonical and some of them visually striking. He includes, for example, William Blake’s disturbing images of slaves being beaten, which were commissioned to illustrate John Gabriel Stedman’s Narrative of a Five Years’ Expedition against the Revolted Negoes of Surinam (1796).
One noticeable drawback of Haywood’s approach is a certain amount of repetition: in his desire to convey just how thoroughly Romantic Britain was awash in bloody imagery, Haywood’s book occasionally reads like one of the catalogues of period violence that he discusses. The primary advantage of his method, however, is that it allows for a forceful rereading of the era’s poetry, prose, and visual culture that highlights the hitherto underregarded place of what Haywood calls “spectacular violence” in Romanticism’s representational repertoire. Throughout Bloody Romanticism, then, scenes of spectacular violence are carefully analyzed from a variety of ideological perspectives. Indeed, Heywood explicitly argues that such scenes cannot be identified in advance with any particular ideological motive; instead, different configurations of the three main elements of any scene of suffering–the victim, the perpetrator, and the spectator or reader–“made the relations of power…complex and challenging” (5). This productive refusal to prejudge the politics of a given scene of spectacular violence leads Haywood to propose interpretations that occasionally run counter to the currents of contemporary criticism. For example, whereas most recent critics have viewed accounts and images of slave executions as indexical of the British public’s voyeuristic [End Page 345] appetite for scenes of interracial violence and colonial domination, Haywood is more interested in the way such scenes were central to the antislavery campaign insofar as they “brought the body of the suffering slave into the...