- The French Colonial Imagination: Writing the Indian Uprisings, 1857–1858, from Second Empire to Third Republic by Nicola Frith
The title of Nicola Frith’s introductory chapter, ‘Beyond the Binary — Triangulating the Colonial Discourse’, sums up her book’s main claim: that to understand the French colonial imagination, one must read the discourse it generated not in terms of ‘a binary between the colonizer and colonized “other”’ (p. 5), but as a product of France’s triangulated relation with both its colonies and its colonial rival, Britain. Occupying the role of ‘“subaltern” colonizer’ (p. 7), the French in India were as concerned with the Other (hegemonic) colonizers as they were with the Others they colonized, pursuing much the same exploitative practices in their Indian enclaves as did the British in their vast territories, while insisting (in self-legitimizing words) upon their supposed differences. After 1815, the relation between France and Britain, when it came to the colonies, was evidently no longer a matter of ‘territorial’ but, rather, ‘discursive’ rivalry (p. 10); in the decades [End Page 404] following Napoleon’s first defeat, the French thus developed a compensatory ‘counterdiscourse’ (p. 34), one structured by ‘figures of loss and desire’ (p. 3), in which the melancholic ‘memory of India’s “loss”’ in the eighteenth century (and, more recently, that of Saint-Domingue) was inseparable from, and generative of, a ‘desire for revival’ (p. 2) eventually to be realized in the ‘Third Republic’s mission civilisatrice’ (p. 3). This forwardlooking mission took root in the ‘nostalgic imperialism’ (p. 147) of a Second Empire still haunted by a pervasive sense of loss but desirous of forging a ‘new “brand”’ through which it might distinguish itself from its ‘foremost colonial rival’ (p. 119). Drawing attention to the unexpected vulnerability of the British in India, the uprisings of 1857–58 provided the French with an ideal occasion to pursue this counter-discursive project, stimulating memories of l’Inde perdue that would serve as the fertile ground for new imaginings of France’s colonial future. Each of the four subsequent chapters expands upon this triangulating logic. Much of the research is based on an exhaustive perusal of French newspapers from the late 1850s and early 1860s, and readers of Frith’s book will gain a strong overview of the journalistic field during the Second Empire. Also central to her analysis of counter-discursive representations of the uprisings are a handful of literary texts, Jules Verne’s La Maison à vapeur (1880) being the jewel in the crown of this admittedly slim corpus, with attention paid as well to Jean Richepin’s artless verse drama Nana-Sahib (1883), the fin-de-siècle erotic fiction of Gautier de Saint-Amand, and the adventure tales of Louis Rousselet and Alfred Assolant. Much more than a comprehensive survey of French responses to the events of 1857–58, Frith’s book helps uncover the ‘nostalgic and imperialist origins’ of the ‘grand narrative of the mission civilisatrice’ (p. 194), a noxious myth that remains ‘pervasive […] in French society today’ (p. 148), and which is just one of the many ‘Gallo-centric views and fantasies’ (p. 191) that is ably historicized and deconstructed in this sturdy contribution to francophone postcolonial studies.