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Fair Exotics: Xenophobic Subjects in English Literature, 1720-1850.

Fair Exotics: Xenophobic Subjects in English Literature, 1720-1850. By RAJANI SUDAN. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press. 2002. 200 pp. 31.50 [pounds sterling]. ISBN 0-8122-3656-4.

The title of Rajani Sudan's monograph refers to a quotation from the 1831 edition of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein: like a gardener, Alphonse Frankenstein shelters the 'fair exotic'-his wife, Caroline Beaufort-from the outside world, maintaining her in a hothouse environment the better to 'excite pleasurable emotion in her soft and benevolent mind' (quoted in Sudan, p. 118). This allusion exemplifies neatly Sudan's thesis that

Eighteenth- and nineteenth-century British literature is preoccupied with maintaining a discrete sense of self as culturally English and imperially British. These formations of national and imperial identity within Britain often seem to depend on representations of the foreign and the feminine: [... ] such pairings, deployed by the language of xenophobia, may be engaged in a xenodochial system of othering that creates, invites, and then excoriates the foreign body to maintain a putatively 'native' national coherence. (p. 101)

Alphonse engages in this 'system of othering' by first labelling Caroline as a 'fair exotic', a phrase that encapsulates the xenophobia and gynophobiawhich consolidate his dominant position, and then nurturing her, demonstrating his xenodochia-his desire for the domestic incorporation of the foreign. Although Shelley explains how this patriarchalism benefits Caroline through the development of her internal potential-figured thus as a colony, this paradoxically also has implications for her role as a mother-Sudan is more interested in its contribution to the formation of Alphonse's subjectivity.

In the four chapters of this book, which explore respectively the works of Samuel Johnson, Thomas de Quincey Mary Wollstonecraft, and Mary Shelley and Charlotte Bronte, Sudan succeeds in establishing an association between romantic individualism and British imperial ideology, developed through the mediation between xenophobia and xenodochia. Her decision to pursue this anxiety about national and cultural identity through the works of figures who hover in the background of the Romantic landscape is therefore appropriate. However, it is disappointing that the organization of Fair Exotics participates in the territorialization of the domestic authorial subject that is the focus of Sudan's analysis. A sustained interrogation of thematic similarities between texts-particularly the persistence of the mother figure as essential to the formation of the author/colonist-would have enhanced her argument.

Yet Sudan's discussion of imperialism's annexation of the maternal-either the metaphoric relationship between mother country and colony or, as identified by Mary Wollstonecraft, the didactic influence of the patriot mother over her children-does unite the two sections of the book. Her chapter on Johnson's lexicographical project also explores his demonization of the Countess of Macclesfield in Life of Savage (1744); here, the unnatural behaviour of the monstrous mother in Richard Savage's family romance generates authorship. In contrast, the chapter on Wollstonecraft focuses on her inscription of 'the cultural metonymic association of the maternal with the national' (p. 107), as a result of which women are valued, and value themselves, for their ability to reproduce biologically and discursively the British imperial subject. Although Sudan's uneven reading of Wollstonecraft's unfinished novel, The Wrongs of Women; or, Maria (1798), detracts from the persuasiveness of her argument-she assigns a great deal of symbolic significance to the death of Maria's daughter, neglecting the possible conclusion in which Maria is reunited with her-this does not entirely lessen the force of her contention that Wollstonecraft unconsciously replicates hegemonic positions of dominance.

Sudan's account of Wollstonecraft's gender politics reveals, therefore, an emphasis on the coherence of the English male subject, which is also reflected in Shelley's image of the horticulturist tending his 'fair exotic'. This is a valuable insight, suggesting not only that the affiliations of Romanticism's preoccupation with the development of the individual self require further examination, but that postcolonial theory has a substantial contribution to make to this study.


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Author:Hiatt, Megan
Publication:The Modern Language Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Oct 1, 2004
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