Printer Friendly

Missionary Writing and Empire, 1800-1860.

Missionary Writing and Empire, 1800-1860. By ANNA JOHNSTON. (Cambridge Studies in Nineteenth-Century Literature and Culture)Cambridge, New York, and Melbourne: Cambridge University Press. 2003. xii+262pp. 45[pounds sterling]; $65. ISBN0-521-82699-3.

St John Rivers tells Jane Eyre that she is 'formed for labour, not for love. A missionary's wife you must--shall be'. Jane wisely refuses his uncompromising proposal. The subject of Anna Johnston's book is the missionaries and their wives who took up the evangelical challenge at the same period that Jane declined it. Johnston uses the published texts of the London Missionary Society, acknowledging that they are propagandist but arguing that close analytical attention to them demonstrates what she calls, using a phrase from Simon Gikandi, 'mutual imbrication'. Johnston states that missionary texts, focusing as they generally did on domestic social relations rather than on annexation and commerce, produced a colonial discourse that inflected the ways in which imperialism was understood in the metropolitan centre. David Livingstone's radical initiative, 'commerce and Christianity', is not included in the book, which covers the texts of the London Missionary Society in India, Polynesia, and Australia.

The London Missionary Society, as a Nonconformist institution, employed missionaries who were often of working- or lower middle-class backgrounds; their roles improved their social status but could create tensions with other higher-class members of the colonial service. Johnston suggests that their sensitivity to class relations sometimes gave them particular insight into the humiliations experienced by the colonized, and their active engagement with the domestic life of colonial subjects enabled them to interrogate such constructions of the indigene as the noble savage or the childlike heathen. Johnston's argument is that literary analysis of their texts reveals fissures, as discursive stereotypes are both replicated and repudiated. Issues of gender are addressed through the role of the missionaries' wives, who were in a liminal position, not generally employed by the LMS but expected to support their husbands' work. This could be empowering, giving them status that they might not have in British Victorian society, but it could also be strenuous and demoralizing to sustain the position of domestic role model in an alien environment .

In India there was a particular need for female missionaries as they, unlike their male counterparts, could enter the zenana; their descriptions of it counter the desiring Orientalist gaze at the harem. In Polynesia missionaries configured their task differently; the presence of an ancient culture in India was acknowledged though deplored, whereas Polynesians were seen as at once heathen and sophisticated. Their languages were recognized to be complex, and their appearances conformed to the image of the noble savage, and yet they were perceived as licentious. The focus in the chapter on missionary writing in Australia is on Lancelot Threlkeld, another liminal figure, who attacked the degeneracy of the white settler community, specifically in its sexual exploitation of Aboriginal people, and championed the rights of the indigenous people to survive.

The writer approaches the missionaries almost as an ethnographer might, so unfamiliar do their practices seem. Readers, without access to their archival texts, have to decode the writer's attitudes in order to position themselves in relation to missionary activities, as when she critiques the missionary antipathy to Polynesian infanticide: 'As some missionaries almost suggest, Polynesian infanticide really acted to control population growth and to maintain social stability--but such conclusions are literally unspeakable in missionary texts' (p. 162). There is no indication of the doctrinal and theological perspective of the missionaries, only of their social preoccupations; did they not, for instance, publish hymns and tracts? Repeated references to the Victorian 'nuclear family' are puzzling, given the size of the average Victorian family, and the Anglican Church is categorized as not being Protestant. None the less, the argument about mutual imbrication is persuasively sustained in this well-researched and informative book.


COPYRIGHT 2006 Modern Humanities Research Association
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2006 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Smith, Angela
Publication:The Modern Language Review
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jan 1, 2006
Previous Article:Black Victorians/Black Victoriana.
Next Article:Paternalism Incorporated: Fables of American Fatherhood, 1865-1940.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2018 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters