- Forms of Empire: The Poetics of Victorian Sovereignty by Nathan K. Hensley, and: Settlers, War, and Empire in the Press: Unsettling News in Australia and Britain, 1863–1902 by Sam Hutchinson, and: Nineteenth-Century Settler Emigration in British Literature and Art by Fariha Shaikh
British rule in the nineteenth century was marked by forays into new lands and territories and inevitable questions about how new citizens should behave as settlers and colonists of these new territories. While Victorians may have viewed their civilization as one of order and progress, many of these interactions were marked instead by violence, confusion, and disorder. These three books each interrogate England's position as a global empire by focusing on the networks of settlers and citizens that wrote visions of civilization on the margins of empire. In different ways, each text explores how these fractured citizens, who viewed themselves as an integral part of the home country yet permanently separated from it, worked to recreate empire to include their own voices.
Hensley's Forms of Empire offers the broadest vision of the three, establishing itself as a theoretical framework for reading the contradictions of empire. It takes as its central question the paradox between Victorian ideas of progress and the seemingly inevitable violence inherent in the Victorian state. In order to answer this question, the book analyzes literary objects [End Page 741] that "[reconfigure] the structuring conceptual impasse of liberal modernity," focusing on their unique ability to "generate concepts in excess of the ideological inputs that produced them" (18, 19). The "poetics" in the book's title refers to the ability of such objects to make meaning rather than simply reflect the cultural or political interpretations asserted by literary critics in hindsight. In Hensley's construct, literary objects do not simply reflect history; they actively work to reconfigure it, drawing attention to the critic's role as discoverer, rather than creator, of meaning.
This theoretical tension between creating meaning and revealing the critical apparatus used to uncover the meaning already created by literary objects drives the book's primary readings. Forms of Empire reads traditional literary sources in relation to historical and philosophical texts that theorize the contradiction between progress and violence in Victorian culture. In the opening section, Hensley uses George Eliot's The Mill on the Floss to explore a theory of time predicated on catastrophic events. Read in the context of John Stuart Mill's and Henry Sumner Maine's theories of cultural progress and social freedom, Eliot's choice to end the text with a life-destroying flood is not, as Henry James would argue, an unpredictable break in an otherwise continuous text but instead an "uncountable zero-point of a new conceptual-political order, the catastrophic restarting of a world-historical clock" (69). As readers of the text, we conceptualize the event as historians who have survived the violent event, remaking it actively as part of our role as sympathetic viewers of the past and beneficiaries of the new historical time created by it.
The second section of the book revolves around Swinburne's poetry and the legal crisis of Morant Bay. The Morant Bay affair revealed a contradiction at the heart of Victorian ideas of law and order. In times of emergency, the state could invoke martial law, exempting the state from the usual legal rules through a system that had to be regulated by the law (in an external sense). Thus, the need for Victorian order allowed for law outside the law, a system that legitimized violence towards those citizens of the empire for whom legal status was always in flux. Hensley connects this contradiction with Swinburne's poetry, demonstrating how it created a world structured by destruction that...