- White Female Colonial Authors and the Bildungsroman
IN THE PREFACE to the second edition of The Story of an African Farm (1883), Olive Schreiner warns the reader: “Dealing with a subject that is far removed from the round of English daily life, it of necessity lacks the charm that hangs about the ideal representation of familiar things”; the writer must “squeeze the colour from his brush, and dip it into the gray pigments around him” in order “to paint the scenes among which he has grown.” This assertion speaks to the difficulty of representing the mundane realities of lived South African colonial experience for an implied metropolitan audience who are presumed to entertain glamorous notions of far-flung imperial spaces. It also indirectly raises issues about the complexities of negotiating matters of gender in fictional representation in that the preface is ostensibly written by Ralph Iron, the male pseudonym under which Schreiner’s text was first published. Questions concerning these difficulties of representation with regard to both gender and the colonial experience are at the heart of Mandy Treagus’s Empire Girls, a timely examination of the writing of three white female authors from three different colonies of the British Empire. In addressing them Treagus restricts her focus to a well-selected instance of each author’s work—Schreiner’s The Story of an African Farm; Canadian Sara Jeannette Duncan’s A Daughter of To-day (1894); and Australian Henry Handel Richardson’s (Ethel Richardson) The Getting of Wisdom (1910). They were published in London between 1883 and 1910 and each depicts the experiences of a young white colonial, or non-English, girl attempting to make her way in the world.
The central, well-supported contention of Treagus’s study is that in each text the gender and essential coloniality of the protagonist produced a conflict with the form within which the author was working—that central nineteenth-century literary vehicle, the Bildungsroman, or “novel of development.” “If the Bildungsroman is an expression of a patriarchal and imperialistic system,” Treagus asks, “can it be used by a woman writer to give voice to a narrative of a woman’s development, or is it so implicated in this system that it undermines the very project that has been embarked on?” Over the course of three interlinked chapters, each dedicated to one of the selected texts, Treagus argues that though the heroine of each shares the aspirations of the typical protagonist of the Bildungsroman, her gender and her coloniality disqualify [End Page 115] her from fully experiencing the kind of development that male English protagonists achieve, to the extent that the two earlier texts conclude with the death of the heroine, while the 1910 text eschews closure altogether in order to evade the conventions of the form.
Treagus sets up the detailed analysis and close textual readings that comprise the bulk of her book’s three chapters by a very clear theorization of the Bildungsroman as a technology of empire in her introduction. In doing so, she usefully builds on and extends Edward Said’s more general explication in Culture and Imperialism (1993) of the reciprocity between the progress of the imperial project and the rise of the novel as the dominant literary form in the nineteenth century. In Treagus’s view, the meritocratic ideology that underpins the Bildungsroman, in which the worthy are rewarded and the unworthy punished, is “predicated on the existence of Empire and grounded in England’s sense of power and well-being due to its position in the world and the prosperity which flowed from that empire.” Hence the tale of individual development mirrored the sense of national development as an imperial power and the possibilities and concerns entailed in imperial expansion. Although the limitations imposed by the Bildungsroman on female protagonists in general are well known, as Treagus acknowledges, her innovation is to interrogate the form from an imperial perspective via the works of white female colonial authors. She investigates what happens when the Bildungsroman is given an...