The Island Race: Englishness, Empire and Gender in the Eighteenth Century.
This book is about many things, some obvious, others less so. First and foremost it is about England's evolving (or to quote the author, "unstable") national identity and what happened during the eighteenth century to change it. Wilson suggests numerous elements--empire, gender, class, politics, and race--for inclusion in a new composite. Of these empire and gender prevail. To use her words: "the overarching theme is the heterogeneous and unstable nature of national identity in eighteenth-century Britain and its first empire; its subtopics explore the impact of empire and gender on productions of national identity and its failures"(Preface, p ix). It is not inconsequential that Wilson embeds "production" in this definition, for "performance", which occupied a very special place in the behavior of the citizenry of a "polite and commercial society", was reflected in the nation's identity as well.
Island Race is, moreover, an essay in historical periodization. Because Wilson's "Englishness" is a modern phenomenon, labels like Renaissance, Reformation, and even Enlightenment (although the term is used) do not apply. Although the author discerns the roots of 'modernity' in that same eighteenth century which featured Enlightenment and Industrial Revolution, British exploration and colonization more than either were prime movers in shaping British behavior, consumption, and taste. Each and all of these stamped the "island people" with a new "Englishness". While this identity energized those static Anglo-Saxon virtues once hailed by Stubbs and other constitutional historians as embodying national character, Wilson suggests the muscular and heroic Captain James Cook an apt metaphor for the new 'Englishness'. His exploits were, indeed, a production. Not only did his exploits spawn a new national identity, his encounters with peoples on remote Pacific isles had equally daunting consequences for the contemporary English psyche. Calling him a "mirror of an England past and present," Wilson sees in Cook a personification of an old England transforming itself into a Pax Britannica. Indeed, Wilson's belief that British interest in its Anglo-Saxon origins "was prodded by the accumulating and ineffable evidence that 'England' was the product of its own potent and irreducible ties to a larger world" (p. 203) captures the essence of this small volume, how "Englishness" became identified with empire.
Calling her work a "monograph masquerading as a book of essays", or a "new kind of history" one that is "both archivally based and attempts to engage with historical issues and theoretical debates emanating from a more cross-disciplinary arena than history alone"(Preface, p. ix), the author makes no attempt to be inclusive. Although she nominates Cook and his cohorts as exemplars of colonial power, she could as well have, depending on availability, settled on hero colonizers of South or East Asia, the Middle East, or Africa. The same "concepts, problems and questions" apply. The convergence of these aspects of colonialism with the "cultural sites of 'nation-ness' within England" proved crucial in shaping Britain's eighteenth-century identity.
Island Race, as the author states, is a book of essays. After modernity (ch. 1) and Cook the hero (ch. 2), Wilson treats (ch. 3)another dimension of gender, affecting national identity, the transforming role on Georgian women in public life. She suggests that "women's bodies and minds functioned symbolically and literally as the bearers of national values and ideals" (p. 93), the figure of Britannia exemplifying the former and "women's involvement with the romance of war and empire" (p. 128) the latter. Wilson contends that gender and empire marvelously converged in the person of one Teresia Constantia Philips (1709-65), called, for good reason, "the Black Widow" (ch. 4). An English woman who lived in Jamaica during a time of war and slave rebellion, she was in Wilson's words at once a "courtesan turned colonial official, [and] the trickster black widow, who demonstrates the performativity of nation, gender, race, and class, turning the establishment on its head" (p. 168). Like Cook she was a consummate "performer". In her case the setting for the drama was Jamaica, where planters and merchants acquired unimagined riches in a society buttressed by slavery.
A final chapter bearing the improbable title of "Breasts, sodomy, and the lash: masculinity and enlightenment aboard" examines the linkage between masculinity, national identity, and race in the context of Cook's voyagers and voyages. Here the discipline of the lash, which evidenced masculinity aboard ship, was juxtaposed with the practices of sodomy among crew members and the voyagers' encounters with indigenous peoples, most notably, their obsession with women's breasts. Wilson argues cogently that the psychic impact of these experiences was a transforming force in creating the new national character for the "Island race".
This is an important book, thoughtful regarding both methodology and the ideas underlying the "performance of Englishness". The author's methodology offers other possibilities for pursing its essential theme. The book is well written although uncommon verbiage and structure occasionally impede comprehension.
Albert J. Schmidt
The George Washington University
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|Author:||Schmidt, Albert J.|
|Publication:||Journal of Social History|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Jun 22, 2006|
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