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Biography 24.3 (2001) 639-644



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Gillian Whitlock. The Intimate Empire: Reading Women's Autobiography. London: Cassell, 2000. 256 pp. ISBN 0-304-70600-0, $26.95.

In this commendable, broad canvas of colonial and postcolonial women's autobiography, Gillian Whitlock invites the reader to participate in a "process of connected reading" (203), which consists of "a search for contiguities" and "rogue connections" (204). Consequently, texts are brought together in ways which transgress the boundaries of national canons, gender, and periodization. Such an approach could easily lead to a hodgepodge of coincidental encounters, leaving one with a mass of disparate details. But there is much more method in Whitlock's madness than mere assemblage. The texts are shrewdly brought together in constellations which undermine the traditional binaries of male-female, colonizer-colonized, center-periphery, and writer-reader by complicating them in their relations to each other, and in deconstructing the internal dichotomies which apparently set the two terms in each of the binaries apart.

To a certain extent, this approach is already prescribed by the material, as some of these constellations are in fact extant, and simply awaiting careful excavation. This is the case with the strategically chosen first constellation, [End Page 639] which also sets the tone of the book: the relations of production and dissemination around The History of Mary Prince: A West Indian Slave as Related by Herself (1831). This constellation includes the former Bermudan slave and oral narrator, Mary Prince; her amanuensis, Susanna Strickland (later Moodie); the authorizing editor, Thomas Pringle; and Moira Ferguson, who was responsible for the meticulous republication of the text in the 1980s. Rather than strip away the influences of Strickland and Pringle in order to get closer to a purer Mary Prince (as Ferguson does in her introduction to The History), Whitlock asserts that truth and identity are intersubjectively generated (2, 22). Although Whitlock does not spell out what exactly the intersubjective generation of truth and identity means, she concludes that it necessitates an approach which takes as much notice of the amanuensis's, the subsequent editors' (Pringle and Ferguson), and the readers' relation to the text, as it takes of the autobiographical subject's narrative. (Here reference to J¨urgen Habermas's universal pragmatics and his discussion of autobiography in the chapter on Rousseau and Mead in Postmetaphysical Thinking may have been useful sources for a theory of intersubjectivity pertinent to autobiography.) To the extent that narrative self-representations are mediated, we can only do justice to them, says Whitlock, if our account of them includes, rather than bypasses, these intricate relations. And collaborative autobiography is of course an ideal genre to start a study which makes this general point.

A personal link--the amanuensis of The History, Susanna Strickland--leads us to the second constellation. Whitlock suggests a reading of Strickland-Moodie's Roughing It in the Bush which is illuminated by the author's correspondence with her husband John Dunbar Moodie (Letters of Love and Duty: The Correspondence of Susanna and John Moodie), and which also acknowledges his contribution to this Canadian classic. In her rather irreverent focus on the relationship to John Moodie and his role in the production of Roughing It, Whitlock once again finds herself contesting feminist approaches of the eighties and nineties which sought to distill an autonomous female subject who was not compromised by her relationship to men. While questioning the soundness of an approach which aims at bringing the female voice closer to the reader by screening out male presence, Whitlock's motive is by no means anti-feminist--though some might argue that the effect is. Rather, her point is that gendered and racialized subjects--like Strickland and Prince--are produced though encounters and adjacencies, so that an adequate understanding of women's autobiography in Empire of necessity requires such inclusive relational readings. Whitlock further complicates this constellation by adding another "relational" reading, namely of The Backwoods of Canada, by Strickland-Moodie's sister, Catherine Parr Traill. [End Page 640]

Not all constellations are as fortuitous as that between the collaborators Prince, Pringle, and...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1529-1456
Print ISSN
0162-4962
Pages
pp. 639-644
Launched on MUSE
2001-06-01
Open Access
No
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