- Settler Colonialism in Victorian Literature: Economics and Political Identity in the Networks of Empire by Philip Steer
“There is a great difference,” wrote Edward Gibbon Wakefield in his 1829 Letter from Sydney, “between looking to a place and looking from it” (qtd. in Steer 202). Wakefield would have felt the accuracy of his words, writing his “letter” not from Sydney—a place he had never visited—but instead from London’s Newgate Prison. Settler Colonialism in Victorian Literature: Economics and Political Identity in the Networks of Empire, Philip Steer’s important analysis of Britain’s settler empire, likewise proves Wakefield true in shifting the predominant view of colonial literature, which generally has found scholars looking [End Page 700] out from the vantage of Britain, to account instead for the perspective from nineteenth-century Australia and New Zealand.
Steer’s work references a rich context with which scholars of Victorian literature and history will be familiar, including deft readings of works by Charles Dickens and Anthony Trollope. But at its heart, Settler Colonialism in Victorian Literature makes an argument for taking seriously the literature of Britain’s nineteenth-century colonial spaces. For Steer, “literature” generally means the novel, and what emerges across his chapters are provocations to engage with works that few in the field will recognize, along with compelling arguments for doing so. There is a certain comfort in all the familiar dishes at the corner bistro—a hearty serving of Great Expectations (1860–61), say—and also a particular delight in savoring the less conventional: for example, Thomas McCombie’s Arabin; or, The Adventures of a Settler in New South Wales (1845) and Catherine Helen Spence’s Clara Morison: A Tale of South Australia during the Gold Fever (1853), both of which emerge as significant novels in Steer’s able hands.
Steer charts an innovative methodological route, overlaying literary analysis, political economy, and the formal features of colonial systems (including Australian transportation and Indigenous dispossession, among others). The results are provocative. In Arabin, for example, Steer locates an important midcentury narrative about how a colonialist might be “convert[ed] . . . from a migratory to a settled state” (54). If land in Australia can be made into private property, and British citizens given the right to own that land, then “the emigrant need no longer be thought of as lost to the body politic” (60). This move toward property—a “stadial model” for Australia built on ideas from John Locke’s 1690 Second Treatise of Government and apparent throughout McCombie’s narrative—enabled the shift in perspective away from Australia as a dumping-ground for convicts (79). The rise of free settlement on the continent was a direct result of stadial thinking, as was the tragic disregarding of Indigenous Australians whose conception of land possession never aligned with English notions of private property.
The 1851 discovery of gold in Australia was to put pressure on the stadial model, as Steer shows in his second chapter. Here the economics of mineral extraction vied with the impulse toward land ownership and cultivation: “if character came from developing land with labor, as Locke had taught economists and novelists to assume, what happened to a society whose wealth came at random from holes in the ground?” (82). I will note here my suspicion that the stadial model was never truly overtaken by speculation, as Steer argues; both modes seem instead to have competed throughout the nineteenth century, offering different possibilities to readers in both Britain and the Antipodes. Steer nonetheless shows the discomfort of British emigrants in perceiving “nomadic diggers and indigenous populations” as equally removed from “settled society” (102). Spence’s Clara Morison in particular frames the gold rushes as “antisocial” (93), “speculative” (95), and ultimately aberrant behavior that must be rejected in favor of “pastoralism, culture, and [a more fixed system of] capital” (95). Alongside Spence’s novel, Steer situates William Howitt’s Land, Labor, and Gold; or, Two Years in Victoria (1855) and Trollope’s...