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Reviewed by:
  • Colonialism, Race, and the French Romantic Imagination
  • Michael Syrotinski
Colonialism, Race, and the French Romantic Imagination. By Pratima Prasad. (Routledge Studies in Romanticism, 14). London: Routledge, 2009. xii + 192 pp. Hb £70.00.

As the author rightly notes, francophone postcolonial studies, which on the one hand is attentive to the shifting formations of the colonial imagination, and on the other aims to uncover the hidden voices of the colonized, all too often overlooks the Romantic age and its literature, lodged as it is between the two French colonial empires. Pratima Prasad's historically informed study of the literature of this period takes in the best-known novels dealing explicitly with colonial themes — Bernardin de Saint-Pierre's Paul et Virginie, George Sand's Indiana, Chateaubriand's Atala, Claire de Duras's Ourika, Hugo's Bug-Jargal, and Mérimée's Tamango — and reads them in the light of perhaps lesser-known (often non-literary) texts by these same authors or their close contemporaries. Her supple and penetrating readings draw out the complexities of the questions these texts raise, and convincingly challenge canonical readings, the status the texts have assumed in French literary history, and the nature of a number of critical commonplaces (such as the various tropes of incest and miscegenation we find in the stories of encounters of Europeans with colonial 'natives'). The underlying political ideologies of authors we take to be Romantic conservatives, such as Chateaubriand, are shown to be far more ambiguous when historical context and literary intertext are mined more thoroughly, and we can often find fairly developed antislavery or anti-colonial sentiments, which are a direct legacy of Enlightenment thinking, even if they are ultimately less politically radical. On closer inspection, indeed, they turn out to be modelled on familiar European counterparts: for example, the eponymous 'hero' of Hugo's Bug-Jargalis based on the figure of the melancholy Romantic male, and Ourikapresents us with the 'noble negro', whose 'impossible position of a black European aristocrat' (p. 108) allows Duras to engage in a subtly ironic commentary on the politics of race in post-Revolutionary France. The ambiguities and tensions of these texts often come down to the same key question, one that keeps resurfacing: how do these writers square universalist principles with their deep-seated belief in the superiority of European civilization, and the civilizing mission, to which they ultimately subscribe, unwittingly or not? By circumscribing the object of this study so neatly in historical and generic terms, and by making this account an [End Page 491] essentially linear and dialectical unfolding from one novelist to the next, the author risks begin caught within a certain closed hermeneutic circle in trying to define the French Romantic colonial imagination; by the end this does little to displace our enduring sense that Enlightenment and post-Romantic writers have a more far-reaching imagination when it comes to the possibilities of literature, and a far more developed political philosophy. In this regard, it might have been truly groundbreaking if the doors left tantalizingly ajar in the conclusion — the suggestive links back to Toussaint Louverture, and the glance forward to Gauguin and beyond — had been opened a little wider.

Michael Syrotinski
University of Aberdeen


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pp. 491-492
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