- Representing Colonial Life, 1850–1910
ÉADAOIN AGNEW’S Imperial Women Writers in Victorian India: Representing Colonial Life, 1850–1910 is a fascinating monograph that deals with nonfictional works produced by imperial women writers of Victorian India in the second half of the nineteenth century in which they represented their colonial lives and through it participated meaningfully in the formation of British imperial discourse and in the growing Western feminist movement of the time.
Agnew notes that during these turbulent times for the British Empire, “wives of colonial employees were recruited as evidence of Britain’s imperial superiority” that made every aspect of their private lives public, thus disrupting “for them, actually and ideologically, a clear demarcation between the public and private spheres.” Agnew argues that this ambivalence gave women an opportunity to utilize “the material conditions of life in India and imperial discourses” to claim an authoritative identity for themselves. On the one hand, this “shaped a growing feminist movement in Britain in the latter decades of the [End Page 435] nineteenth century.” On the other hand, this unconventional empowerment of imperial women outside the domestic sphere also triggered metropolitan anxieties as it resonated with the contemporary threat of women’s movements within Britain. This was associated with the larger fear that the “changes to British gender roles could potentially lead to the downfall of the Empire.” Thus, while claiming their empowering public roles, the imperial women writers also “attempted to sustain a semblance of Victorian femininity,” contributing significantly to the imperial process and to the production of turn-of-the-century imperial and feminist discourses.
Following the Introduction, Chapter Two studies works by imperial women writers that discuss the ways in which these women reorganized and redecorated their Victorian Indian homes—fundamentally different in structure from British homes—in order to “exemplify Victorian culture and assert a national identity.” Chapter Three examines women’s representation of “household management” and “particular modes of domestic behaviour”—such as the emphasis on the removal of dirt with its connotations of colonial contamination, or the management of servants who always intruded too much in the routines of colonial domestic life as compared with the metropole—and the role that this played in subverting gender and colonial ideologies. Chapter Four describes how imperial women’s narratives portrayed a nuclear family unit and a lonely life free of purpose from within which these women tried to attain a sense of accomplishment by applying the stereotypical ‘feminine’ and ‘maternal’ instincts to indigenous women, a strategic course that allowed them to continue to write about their “feminine subjectivities while securing for themselves a position of power.” Chapter Five focuses on a few key campaigns out of the whole range of British women’s philanthropic work in India by writing about which imperial women could engage in productive activity, claim a semblance of authority, and achieve freedom from conventional Victorian gender roles albeit temporarily, “without negating their imperial femininity.”
Agnew notes in Chapter Six that as the colonies blurred the public-private binary, and because the maintenance of racial segregation became more important than that of gender segregation, sexual/gender interactions tended to be freer and women were able to much more openly acknowledge female sexual desire through their writings which [End Page 436] “paved the way for women to take ownership of the female body and assume a more active role in relation to the state’s regulation of their behaviour.” This took place against a context of metropolitan controversies on sexuality that threatened the patriarchal status quo in Britain—the fears surrounding which were deflected onto the subcontinent that came to be characterized as immoral and dangerous. This chapter studies works that reflect these changing currents. Chapter Seven examines the works of imperial women that describe the exaggerated replication of social events and public domesticity which took place in the hill stations of Victorian India. These writings also reflect the anxiety of the metropolitan centre that, threatened by women’s movements, became critical of “women’s participation in these public and imperial...