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A New Reading of the Anglo-Indian Women's Novel, 1880-1894: Passages to India, Passages to Womanhood Sarah Bilston Clare Hall, University of Cambridge [M]ore than half the Anglo-Indian women in India today [1900] have spent their girlhood and early childhood in the country—which in most cases means that they have been sent Home at the age or seven or thereabouts, returning at seventeen to face the chief business of their lives. DURING THE 1880s and early 90s, a new genre of women's popular fiction began to emerge, which focused on the experiences and travails of young British women in India. The novels frequently open with a girl's voyage out: the heroine, sent to England as a child but now on the cusp of womanhood, rejoins her family and enters Anglo-Indian society. Most obviously, this plot device reflected the actual colonial practice of sending children away from the perceived dangers of climate and disease until near-adulthood. More figuratively, the girl's return to India mapped a topography onto the concept of "coming out": on leaving school, she embarked on a journey that initiated her role as a marriageable young adult. This rite of passage provided women's fictions with a metaphor for the process of maturation and a site for evaluating what it meant to become a Victorian woman. My article will examine the passage to India in a series of early Anglo-Indian women's novels, maintaining that the experience allowed writers to imagine the transitional phase as a time of action and agency. Indeed, it will reveal that these apparently conservative texts were in fact shaped by, and themselves contributed to, contemporary feminist debates about acceptable female ambitions and authentic girlhood experience. Critical readings of the genre have traditionally taken a different view, regarding such novels as unsophisticated stories of love and marriage . Margaret Stieg, for example, describing what she terms the "sub320 BILSTON : ANGLO-INDIAN WOMEN'S NOVEL literature" of the "Indian romance," claims that such fictions constitute "an uneasy amalgam of romance and propaganda," portraying "unselfconsciously the moral and social values of their period." They passively reflect both the racist attitudes of the British establishment, she contends , and its traditional sexist mind-set, appropriating "medieval concepts of chivalry and courtly love. A woman is to be protected, cherished and venerated."2 More recent critics appreciate that the texts may reveal women's active participation in the shaping of colonialist discourse. As historians and critics have uncovered the Englishwoman's role as a "civilizing" agent in the imperial project, so too they have recognized that late-Victorian British women used imperialism as a means of developing a "legitimate" political role. Women's abilities to impose order on the domestic sphere and their capacity for moral arbitration emerge as political acts, preserving British claims to moral as well as racial supremacy and thus strengthening imperialism's apparent raison d'être. Anglo-Indian women's novels have been seen, by Alison Sainsbury in particular, as contributing to a widespread feminization of imperial discourse in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.3 The heroine who finally becomes a memsahib takes on the rule of the domestic sphere and the servants therein: Sainsbury argues that this endeavor is the focus of the novels, positioning the memsahib's rule at the heart of the empire and inscribing in microcosm the racial order structuring the Raj. "Marriage takes centre stage," she claims, "not as the desired goal or inevitable future of a young girl, but as the warp onto which the weft of the fabric of empire should be woven."4 Sainsbury recognizes that the heroines' maturation forms an important feature of the plots: however, she believes that girls' development is hi-jacked for narrowly political purposes, channeling text and reader towards an acceptance of imperial beliefs. "The trope of a "journey to knowledge" enables a false inductivism," she argues: "difference is naturalised—empirically observed—and then invoked to explain and justify the imperialist position."5 My discussion, by contrast, will demonstrate that the journeys out and through India may in fact be dramatic and thought-provoking, figuring and facilitating an active, stimulating, and...


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pp. 320-341
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