The Indian Mutiny and the British Imagination.
Since Hilda Greg undertook to review Mutiny fiction for Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine in 1897, a great deal has happened to limit the scope and authority of that essay. For instance, the British Empire and the ideologies which buoyed it have shriveled away; insurrection (which was so oddly unexpected in 1856-57) has become an increasingly routine part of conflict; ideas about what constitutes history have become the subject of heated contest; the relationship between fact, fiction, and historiography has been complicated in both literary criticism and historical practice; postcolonial theory has challenged the certitude of metropolitan master-narratives and given voice to subaltern resistance; and lastly, writers (historical and literary, Indian, Anglo-Indian, and British) have continued to write about the Mutiny, if only to take it as their nominal subject. In The Indian Mutiny and the British Imagination, Gautam Chakravarty provides the first modern comprehensive discussion of "Mutiny" history and fiction, with a careful and critical eye to the changes Greg could not have anticipated. While a great deal has been written on a very few Mutiny fictions over the last two decades--the works of Flora Annie Steel, James Grant, G. A. Henty, Philip Meadows Taylor, and C. E. Pearce are familiar to readers of Empire fiction and scholars working on the representation(s) of India in the British imagination--Chakravarty's monograph admirably demonstrates that these works are a small part of a larger canon of works produced since 1857 and deserve critical attention because of the ways in which they variously problematize received wisdom about imperial relations, racial and sexual representation, and the workings of fiction and historiography as genres of resistance.
Chakravarty sets as his goal the seemingly unwieldy task of establishing a framework for understanding the movement from contemporary Mutiny chronicles and histories to popular Mutiny fictions, what the author calls "the process of generic mutation" (20). Chakravarty analyzes the works of a generation of soldiers, civil servants, and colonial residents whose first-hand diaries, journals, and published accounts served as source material for later writers of history and fiction who make use of the incidents of "the red year" for political and artistic purposes. Making use in the West, until Rudyard Kipling, Joseph Conrad, and their contemporary imperial cynics, meant "relocat[ing] the rebellion in a Whig version of empire, so that the discontinuous events of 1857-59 are braided into a complete whole" (22). As Chakravarty argues, it also meant making do, as it was widely recognized even in 1857 that much of what was written and recorded by so-called authoritative witnesses was rumor, speculation, and fancy based not only on Whig theories of history, the desire to represent Britain in a sanctified and masterful role, but especially on racialized and gendered views of the East, necessary if the British were to subjugate the Subcontinent not merely by force (which was not practically possible), but rather in a way that is rhetorically consistent with an idealized representation of the goals, ideals, and principles of a liberal/liberating nation.
The monograph is divided into six chapters which unpack this conceit (or popular delusion) and reflect the movement from "Chronicle to history" (chapter 1) through "Reform and revision" of the East India Company and the aetiology of the "progress of Englishism" (chapter 2). The text then deals with matters literary: to establish the context provided by British orientalism, Chakravarty uses Sydney Owenson's The Missionary as a touchstone; noting its reissue in 1859 "in response to 'the recent melancholy events"' (88), the author makes a compelling link between romantic and contemporary imaginings of India (chapter 3). The final three chapters deal with the "Mutiny" novel proper: chapter 4 addresses its relation to its "historical archive," which is oddly repetitive given the extended preparatory analyses; chapter 5 deals with it as a vehicle for imagining "counter-insurgency," and chapter 6 as an opportunity for "resistance."
I was eager to read The Indian Mutiny and the British Imagination, since it promises to make accessible and systematize a body of work which has been lost or ignored. Insofar as the text can be used as a resource, it succeeds handily. The bibliography is invaluable. Clearly, Chakravarty has mined a lot of material which is very difficult to find (or which few have sought) and has reproduced the plots and themes in a way which links them to more familiar texts and themes.
I have three concerns about the monograph, however. The first involves methodology. The author promises an innovative and original approach to the intersection of history and literature; he suggests he will bring together the disciplines anew. He writes,
the intellectual history of empire rarely ever troubles with literary writing.... Conversely, recent scholarship on Anglo-Indian letters, while carrying over contemporary emphases on metropolitan literary studies on discourse, rhetoric, race and gender have usually shied away from the detailing that intellectual histories of the British empire in India routinely attempt. If this separation of spheres has left intellectual history without the resources of the literary archive, it leaves colonial discourse studies often with a rather attenuated history, embellished at times by a baroque skein of speculation. (15)
While this may seem like overreaching to scholars outside the field, it is a germane diagnosis of a problem that is slowly being redressed in postcolonial/empire studies. The generation(s) of scholars trained in cultural studies regard the barrier between literary and historical sources as permeable, if not imaginary, and so there is a shift in emphasis to more interdisciplinary approaches. The rigor that is characteristic of intellectual history and the history of ideas is now being demanded more routinely as the white heat which accompanied the rise of cultural studies is wearing off. However, as is reflected in the blurb on the interleaf, Chakravarty settles for showing "how narratives of the rebellion were inflected by the concerns of colonial policy and by the demands of imperial self-image" (i). That is not new. In fact, it is easily as old as Marxist criticism itself. So while it seemed Chakravarty would blaze a trail for a "novel" approach to interdisciplinary inquiry, he ends up pointing descriptively rather than analytically to historical sources for literary events and to the workings of ideology in both discourses.
The second issue relates to the author's engagement with postcolonial theory. Chakravarty is clearly influenced by Edward Said's Orientalism (1978), and he admirably and aptly balances "classic" orientalist arguments with feminist psychoanalytic theory. He deconstructs a familiar battery of subjects: "the [generic] schizophrenia [which] yield[ed] the phenomenon of empire" (76), "the fantasy of mastery" which marked the production of a certain heroic type (155), and the poetics/politics of sexualized violence. Chakravarty's rhetorical style and definitional prowess are beautifully exemplified in the following two sentences:
the mutiny of the Bengal army was not military insubordination alone but a libidinal mutiny against alien repression; and the obsessive repetition of the figures of rape and mutilation are enactments of a nightmare underlying the megalomania of empire.... If British advance in India in the late eighteenth century was predicated on the growing assumption of a language of agency and command that required the submission and expropriation of a subject population, then at such moments of rebel violence the colonial project, incarnate in a violated or dismembered femininity, surrenders to the 'humiliation by an inferior race.' (39)
However, the problem is one of balance: Chakravarty spends a lot of time clarifying what seems obvious and rushing over what needs development. For instance, the author asserts,
Recent studies of Mutiny narratives by Jenny Sharpe, Nancy Paxton and Indira Ghosh have attended to the idiom of chivalry, which constructs British women as signifiers of national and imperial honour deployed at moments of national and imperial crisis. But these studies have not quite addressed the subtle but persistent homology between the white female who resists an obedient incorporation into the romantic-domestic repertory of roles, and the brown indigene who resists incorporation into the imperial formation, its hierarchies, expropriations and its 'language of command.' (143)
Comments like these are very frustrating. First, it is not quite accurate (Chakravarty has a habit of glossing other critics' work in a way that is unnecessarily dismissive). Sharpe, Paxton, and Ghosh deal with the doubling of white and "brown" female protagonists and the possible scripts each is allowed to fulfill. Second, the "brown indigene" usually "resists incorporation" ONLY by dying either by water, fire, her own hand, mutineers, accident, and so forth. So, while Chakravarty fails to address this detail, I am left wanting more, more analysis and clarification: is death a satisfactory subvention of the "romantic-domestic repertory of roles"? Third, the work which would most help Chakravarty with his feminist, psychoanalytic, orientalist argument is not mentioned. By failing to engage Anne McClintock's Imperial Leather (1995) which, though it does not address the Mutiny per se, does establish the theoretical high water mark for the kind of project Chakravarty is attempting, this work suffers.
My last concern is one of audience. If this monograph is intended as an intensive study for scholars in the fields of Anglo-Indian history, postcolonial theory, or nineteenth-century literatures, then the work is too much of a survey with the author rushing headlong through more than seventy novels and historical sources. If, however, the work is intended for a general audience, then the diction is too sophisticated, the prose too florid, and the delay in reaching the Mutiny problematic. As I mentioned earlier in this review, I do not think this work is intended as an intensive study, but rather as a bibliographical survey and resource. In which case, it succeeds with one caveat: that problem of balance. Chakravarty accompanies the fleetness of his survey with an oddly plodding recantation of elements of his own argument, plots, and themes of touchstone texts like The Missionary and On the Face of the Waters, and various theoretical claims which he does not trouble or complicate despite a treasure trove of otherwise unstudied literature and Chakravarty's obvious rhetorical gifts.
Admittedly, my concerns are a product of my disappointment, as I had such high hopes for what promised to be so influential and provocative a contribution to postcolonial, literary, and historical study. Happily, the bibliography is certainly a significant contribution to scholarship in these intercalated fields, and I trust that scholars will be mining the bibliography for sources and new lines of inquiry for the next decade.
North Bay, Ontario, Canada
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|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Jun 22, 2006|
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