- Victorian Literature & Postcolonial Studies
Early on in this excellent study, Patrick Brantlinger emphasises the material impact that the Victorian empire had in Britain as well as the rest of the world: "Tea, sugar, spices, cotton, opium, wool, gold, rubber, and many other commodities arrived at British ports on a daily basis. The business of the empire seemed to be everyone's business." That being so, the business of postcolonial literary studies as it has developed over the past thirty years or so has been to explore in various ways and in various locations the cultural dimensions of empire's material impact, examining how European imperialism has influenced and been influenced by fiction, poetry, drama and other textual forms, and attending in particular to the extent to which cultural activity within both the metropole and the colonies can be understood to have promoted, critiqued or resisted imperial hegemony. The fact that Brantlinger's book succeeds so admirably in opening up Victorian literature to postcolonial scrutiny bears testament to his ability to place in dialogue literature, history and theory. The economical but rigorous, provocative yet accessible nature of this success renders Victorian Literature and Postcolonial Studies a standard work in the field; it will prove of considerable value to researchers as well as undergraduate and postgraduate students.
The book is organised into three chapters, the first of which, "Exploring the Terrain," surveys how wide-ranging and differently accented Victorian literature can be understood with regard to the way in which the British Empire developed throughout the period. Central to this section, Brantlinger contends, "Most Victorians believed that, because of industry, trade, and liberty, Britain and its Empire were in the vanguard of world progress." The colonies, he writes, served this imperialist imaginary as "the jewels in Victoria's crown." Given this focus, there is a concern to show how cultural forms and discourses energised imperial endeavour; here discussion of adventure novels, patriotic poetry, missionary publications and travel writing informs attention to racial ideologies, cultural chauvinism and heroic masculinities. But so too Brantlinger is at pains to emphasise that "much Victorian writing about the Empire was ambivalent"; he opens up nineteenth-century doubts and debates surrounding the economic value of colonialism, the moral justification of slavery, the legitimacy of imperial violence and the future progress of the English race. Set against recent historiography that has argued that the Victorians remained "absent-minded" about empire, then, Brantlinger insists that attention must be paid to the pervasive but variously inflected manner in which imperial culture [End Page 113] as well as imperial commodities structured and sustained Victorian life.
Since the affinities of postcolonial studies lie with anti-imperial independence movements of the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the fact that postcolonial scholars have insisted upon the value of such a cultural turn to the study of empire goes hand in hand, as Brantlinger notes, with a concern to get beyond and contest "past investments in metropolitan, Eurocentric archives and affirmations of imperialism." It is to this concern, which brings with it an attendant desire "to incorporate and interpret evidence from and about the colonized," that Brantlinger turns in his second chapter, entitled "Debates." Here he considers different postcolonial critical positions and the scholarly critiques and controversies they have raised. Warning that "when postcolonialism adopts poststructuralist approaches to the exclusion of both Marxism and empiricism, it merits criticism," Brantlinger shows how postcolonial theory can illuminate as well as distort our understanding of the way in which the Victorian Empire revolved around issues relating to economics, identity, gender, sexuality, race, Orientalism, colonial mimicry and subalternity. The chapter is enlivened as much by the trenchant manner in which Brantlinger takes on scholars who dismiss cultural theory and deny postcolonial history as by the way in which he uses his extensive knowledge of the Victorian literary archive to engage lucidly and compellingly with the strengths and limitations of seminal scholarship by Edward Said, Homi Bhabha and Gayatri Spivak.
The final chapter of the book, "Case Studies," allows Brantlinger to showcase his ability to bring to life the imperial dimensions...