- Oceania and the Victorian Imagination: Where All Things Are Possible ed. by Susan David Bernstein
Britain’s presence in the South Pacific has been the subject of many publications. Early studies typically focused on the imperial voyages of the eighteenth century. In recent years, these accounts of Enlightenment exploration and science have been complemented by valuable and fascinating studies of how the Victorians engaged with the South Pacific. By their very nature, investigations into the Victorian period tend to be much more amorphous in scope—involving the travels of individuals and independent groups, including missionaries, more than government-sponsored expeditions and navigating a much expanded field of visual and literary media. The [End Page 256] subtitle of Richard Fulton and Peter Hoffenberg’s edited volume highlights the huge range of possibilities this vast geographical area offered to nineteenth-century travellers, writers, artists, and their audiences. Indeed, the editors claim that “it would be difficult to fully understand the Victorians as they understood themselves without considering their individual and collective engagement with Oceania” (1). In this essay collection, Oceania not only stirs the Victorian imagination but also—as the subtitle suggests—becomes a metaphor for it, with both being characterized as realms “where all things are possible.”
Fulton and Hoffenberg’s introduction outlines just how multifarious and fluid the Victorians’ interests in the Pacific were, and, accordingly, the twelve essays that follow cover quite a bit of ground. However, the volume’s rationale and structure are convincing and logical. The editors are quick to point out that “the authors take specific literary and cultural moments and texts … exploring each one to help us better understand the meanings of the Victorian engagement with places such as Samoa, the Kingdom of Hawai’i and Australasia, as well as their engagement with the [visual and literary] forms from which they gained knowledge of those places”—thus considering not only why Oceania was significant as a subject but “also how and why those forms of representation also mattered” (2). Paradoxically, though, photography, travel writing, and international exhibitions, which brought Oceania to Victorian audiences, “struggled to normalize the exotic, or at least make it comprehensible and less dangerous” (2), and also to capture adequately the ephemeral nature of many Pacific encounters and the instability of identities and ideologies when exposed to the simpler lifestyles on the “uncivilized” periphery. Missionaries’ accounts played an enormously influential role in shaping Britons’ perceptions of the Pacific from the 1790s onward. Many contemporary and subsequent representations of Oceania simply reiterated or embellished their views of an Arcadia whose inhabitants were childlike in their innocence but could be ferocious and cruel as well. Consequently, even toward the end of the Victorian era, Oceania remained an alluring though risky destination and an imagined escape from the day-to-day existence of industrial England.
To delve into this legacy and trace the circulation of associated ideas, Oceania and the Victorian Imagination is arranged in three sections: “Travel, Exhibitions and Photography”; “Fiction and the Pacific”; and “Childhood and Children.” In traversing both the visual culture and the literature of the period, this format presents a perfect opportunity to examine systematically some of the many Victorian publications that combined different media, as well as the practices of individuals who were active in both fields. Yet, most of the volume’s authors confine their focus to a single medium. Sylvie Largeaud-Ortega and Carla Manfredi consider Robert Louis Stevenson’s experiences in the Pacific, tackling the subject in separate sections and in quite different ways. Largeaud-Ortega uses Stevenson’s short story “The Isle of Voices” (1893) [End Page 257] to address his views on Pacific Islanders’ perceptions of Victorians and of themselves; interestingly, this theme has been touched on elsewhere, by art historian Leonard Bell in relation to a number of photographic portraits of Stevenson and his “family” in Samoa (Bell 309–26). Notably, Manfredi pays considerable attention to Stevenson’s visual interests—including his attraction to phantasmagorias—and makes some intriguing links between...