Dickens and Empire: Discourses of Class, Race and Colonialism in the Works of Charles Dickens.
When Charles Dickens wrote Sketches by Boz during 1836 and 1837, the British empire was acquiring a new impetus that would allow it to continue for another century. In its three hundred years, it had acquired and lost the American colonies, consolidated its power in India, and created Caribbean economies entirely dependent on the slave trade. From the mid-eighteenth century, however, empire's violence, greed, and racial arrogance conjured up constituencies in Britain itself that often had the political clout to modify its worst excesses. Already by 1836, empire was being imagined as a necessary extension of the nation and as a force for moral good throughout the world. The abolition of slavery within the empire in 1833 indicated this capacity to reform and, in the same year, the irreconcilable conflict of interests between profit and benign government resulted in the East India Company losing its remaining rights to operate as a commercial company, retaining only the task of administering India. In 1837, rebellions in both Upper and Lower Canada forced Britain to consider granting settler-controlled colonies a degree of autonomy within the empire so that they would resist the temptation to follow the United States into republicanism. In 1836, settlers from the colonies of New South Wales and Van Dieman's Land formed the first permanent white settlements on the southern Australian coast that were to extend Britain's control over the entire continent. The emancipation of slaves had different consequences in Britain's single African colony south of the equator. In the mid-1830s many of the original Dutch settlers were trekking northwards from the Cape to remove themselves from the British control and establish white-ruled, Dutch-speaking republics in the interior.
When Dickens died in 1870 the empire had grown substantially. The Indian empire had been extended to include Burma; New Zealand had been annexed in 1840 and five colonies controlled most of Australia. In 1843, Britain had laid the foundations for its second South African colony in Natal, denying the Boer republics direct access to the sea, and within ten years of Dickens's death, the British would temporarily annex the republics themselves. One consequence of the Indian Mutiny (as it continues to be called for want of a better term) of 1857 was that the East India Company lost its right to govern the subcontinent, and from 1858 India was directly ruled from England. In 1867, four of the Canadian colonies, already effectively independent of Whitehall, came together in the confederation that formed the nucleus of a new nation within the empire. In 1870, there were still significant gaps in Britain's global spread. North of Natal, Britain controlled nothing in east Africa, and only a few strategically placed trading colonies gave Britain a presence on and off the coast of southeast Asia. Twenty years later, the nation was as much centered on the empire as it was on England itself.
Dickens could not ignore empire, as Grace Moore efficiently demonstrates, since it was as much a presence to a Victorian who died in 1870 as were the smokestacks of the new industrial cities. His early death allowed him, however, to remain sceptical to the claims of imperial glory and to view imperial expansion with cynicism and indifference. Moore quotes Jeremy Bentham's vision of a future earth "covered with British population, rich with British wealth, tranquil with British security, the fruit of British law" only to argue how far removed this was from Dickens's fictional vision of either England or its colonies (14). In Dickens's England, most of the population had little enough wealth, security, or law for its excess to be exported to the ends of the earth. Sending characters to the colonies provided closure to many Victorian novels that had addressed the social problems of England and failed to find in England solutions that the narratives could realistically incorporate. But only in David Copperfield (1850) did Dickens use emigration as a social and narrative solution. Most of his emigrants refuse colonial possibilities and return to England, most famously like Magwitch, to be caught up in the problems of England that persist empire or no empire.
In his nonfictional work, however, he was more ambiguous about emigration. He supported Angela Burdett Coutts's Urania Cottage which arranged for "fallen women" to begin new lives in Australia, and the first number of Household Words published letters from some of these emigrants that testified that the colonies had provided a space where sexual transgressions could be expiated in colonial marriages. Urania Cottage was exceptional, however, and Dickens's refusal to look to the colonies for a solution to England's problems is central to the arguments of the early chapters of Dickens and Empire. Dickens's impatience with a "telescopic philanthropy" that fixed its gaze on the sufferings of people in remote places while remaining blind to the condition of the British poor is most famously represented by Mrs. Jellyby in Bleak House (1852). But as early as The Pickwick Papers (1837) Tony Weller is "aggrawate[d]" at the missionary societies "making clothes for copper-coloured people as don't want 'em, and taking no notice of flesh-coloured Christians as do" (qtd. in Moore, 35). Moore is particularly good in her discussion of Dickens's use of the familiar Victorian trope of savage to describe England's poor and how he subtly alters the implications of the term. Jo in Bleak House holds no interest for the philanthropists because "he is not softened by distance and unfamiliarity; he is not a genuine foreign-grown savage; he is the ordinary home-made article" (qtd. in Moore, 31). Bleak House, which Esther Summerson makes a center of caring in a heartless society, is a closer representation of what Dickens hopes England might become than the Crystal Palace that celebrated England's wealth and power and exasperated Dickens in its arrogant complacency. His response to the Great Exhibition was to run articles in Household Words detailing the misrule of the East India Company.
Moore takes issue with recent commentators who have co-opted Dickens into the ranks of conventional Victorian racists. In fact Dickens refused to homogenize people of color into victims of white prejudice indistinguishable from one another in their vulnerability and subjugation. He responds very differently to black slaves, subjects of missionary endeavors remote from one another as the Niger or the South Pacific, mutinous sepoys, and African Americans futilely aspiring to equality with whites. Often in his letters, he writes about people of African origin with casual contempt and this becomes more marked as he grows older. In 1868, for example, he protests to John Forster that "The mechanical absurdity of giving these people [emancipated slaves] votes, at any rate at present, would glare out of every roll of their eyes, chuckle in their mouths, and bump in their heads" (qtd. in Moore, 53). But the emphasis of that unpleasant sentence can be placed on "at present" rather than on a phrenological examination that proclaims a people biologically different and inferior.
Moore's discussion of Dickens's racism includes American Notes, the 1853 essay "The Noble Savage," his changing responses to the Indian Mutiny, and his identification with people rallying to support Edward Eyre who as governor of Jamaica had viciously suppressed the 1865 uprising in Morant Bay. Moore quotes John Bowen's description of the afterword of American Notes (1842) as "surpassingly strange and powerful" in which "an author who could hardly set his pen on paper without inflecting every paragraph, every sentence almost, with the mark of his characteristics, styles and voice" chooses instead to allow the mutilated bodies of slaves to speak for themselves and refuses to intervene in their dumb testimony (53). Written over ten years later, "The Noble Savage" is often read together with Thomas Carlyle's "The Nigger Question" which appeared in the same year, a practice that serves to misrepresent both articles. Carlyle's is a teleological racism: people of African origin have no other destiny than to serve a white master. This is nasty stuff but in justice to Carlyle, he believed that happiness for most of us involves our submission to someone singled out by divine dispensation to enlighten and lead us. "The Noble Savage" belongs to an altogether different discourse. Dickens, like Friedrich Engels, believed that savagery was a stage through which humanity passed. When he writes of wiping savages off the face of the earth, he is arguing that human history is progressive and that the societies where savagery is possible will be unable to resist the forces of historical change. This is as true for an England that has reduced its underclass to savages as it is for Borrioboola-Gha, although the transformation of the latter lies in a distant future. Dickens often mocked nostalgia for pre-Conquest or medieval England because it ignored the ignorance and superstition, dirt and disease of the past, and he saw the regressive gaze of both Young England and the Oxford Movement as a sentimental evasion of what was wrong in both past and present. "The Noble Savage" is primarily an attack on an exoticism that is as little engaged with the realities of Zulu life as it is with the slums of London. But if Dickens believed that savagery should and would give way to progress, he never confronted the fact that for the remote people he thought of as savages, progress was most likely to manifest itself through the commercial activities of colonialism.
If Dickens grew more impatient as he got older with initiatives on behalf of Africans, his responses to India were less predictable. He joined in the public hysteria when news of the massacre at Cawnpore reached England, and Moore quotes his claims that cruelty and treachery are part of "the Oriental character." In a private letter, he wrote of his wish to "exterminate the Race from the face of the earth, which disfigured the earth with the late abominable atrocities" (qtd. in Moore, 194). When The Times of London published William Howard Russell's reports on British reprisals against mutineers and attacks on Indians who had had nothing to do with the fighting, Dickens quickly realized that cruelty was not an Indian prerogative and recognized how much blame should be attributed to the misgovernment of the East Indian Company and the brutality of its army. Moore has made a valuable contribution to this discussion by showing how throughout the 1850s, Household Words had alerted its readers to the incompetence and injustices of the Company's rule. Dickens never wrote a fictional account of the mutiny, and instead displaced the events in India of 1857 onto his 1857 Christmas story "The Perils of Certain English Prisoners" and, more ambitiously, A Tale of Two Cities (1859). The connection between the mutiny and these works has been made before, but Moore shows that neither narrative simply opposes a rational European order to the savagery of people who have slipped from Europe's control. The pirates from "The Perils" are of many races and many nationalities, and Gill Davis the narrator is an illiterate marine deprived of education by the indifference of England's ruling class from whom he is as alienated as are the more obviously colonized figures in the story. Moore reads A Tale of Two Cities as Dickens's more considered fictional response to what had gone wrong in India, and she argues that if the French revolutionary mob is equated with the sepoys, "we must also regard the corrupt Monsignor and his class as analogous to the governors of India" (130). In 1861, All the Year Round published an article by "one of the Hindoo race" that showed the Indian cotton industry could be developed to benefit both "British capitalists" and confer "lasting benefits" on the people of India (149). Indians have been reimagined from Orientals to include "educated natives ... faithful to their employers and the ryots" (qtd. in Moore, 149).
Colonial rebellions and indeed the French Revolution were interesting to Dickens less for themselves than because they allowed him to glimpse the possibility of similar catastrophes overtaking contemporary England. Dickens feared the mob as much as any middle-class Victorian, and throughout his 1850 novels he detailed the systematic abuses that would turn the English working classes into a mob. Moore quotes from an article in All the Year Round, "Slavery in England" published in June 1867, that notes how readily English women rebuked American women for condoning slavery while ignoring children "handed over bodily to brutal and irresponsible tyrants, who corrupt and maltreat them with as much efficiency as any Southern overseer" (170). An article with such a title at such a time, Moore observes, seeks "to raise the visibility of child labour by defamiliarizing it and couching it in the discourse of a popular--and more exotic--cause like Abolition" (170).
We cannot know, of course, how Dickens would have responded to the growing enthusiasm for empire in the 1870s. In a brief afterword that I should like to see expanded, Moore briefly discusses the unfinished Mystery of Edwin Drood that, she speculates, "might have become his first novel dealing overtly with Empire" (181). Moore finds in the novel, "belief in the fragility of a national identity that can be eroded through contact with other, lesser, races" (184). The question this comment raises is whether Dickens had come to believe that other sorts of contact with such races would prove less debilitating to the national constitution. Dickens called Exeter Hall and missionaries "perfect nuisances" although he excepted Livingstone from this condemnation (qtd. in Moore, 164). His support for Governor Eyre perfunctory though it was suggests that he might have accepted a contact with Africa that was benevolent only until firmness was required. Moore remarks that if Dickens had lived to write a novel on Cecil Rhodes's accumulation of African territories, "it is safe to say that any he might have written would have been satirical in the extreme" (182). I think it is much safer to say that Dickens would have responded to Rhodes's schemes as most of Rhodes's British contemporaries did and seen him giving form to what they saw as Africa's incoherence. Rhodesia was not another Niger Expedition or a Crimean lesson in how not to do it, and people who thought savages could never be noble welcomed whatever allowed people to escape from savagery. Dickens may have shared the growing anxiety of the 1860s that sexual or even social encounters with inferior races might cause racial degeneration for Britons, but this does not mean that he opposed colonization. Segregation was increasingly institutionalized in British colonies in the second half of the century in order to lessen the chances of such debilitating contacts. Colonies provided a saving order of racial hierarchies that imposed on administrators, settlers, and the colonized different obligations in order to accommodate their different expectations and aspirations.
Moore could be criticized for failing to show how empire, class, race, and colonialism inform and form the novels that she discusses and for allowing Dickens's fiction to have the same authority as his journalism and correspondence. Such a criticism, I believe, would miss the point of her book. Dickens was a novelist and a journalist and a man energetically interacting with a large group of friends. His novels continue to matter, and any discussion of his journalism and correspondence that points us to more open and complex readings of the novels is valuable. No other book has brought together such a wide range of texts showing the extent of Dickens's response to empire. Dickens and Empire is a valuable book.
Arrupe College, Jesuit School of Philosophy and Humanities
|Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Jun 22, 2006|
|Previous Article:||Informal Empire: Mexico and Central America in Victorian Culture.|
|Next Article:||The Indian Mutiny and the British Imagination.|