Imperial Cacophony

Anna Neill
University of Kansas

Anyone who teaches courses on British literature of empire will welcome Suvir Kaul’s Eighteenth-Century British Literature and Post-Colonial Studies (Edinburgh, 2009) as a core critical survey of the field and a postcolonial rewriting of the period’s major cultural themes. Print culture, luxury and trade, regional tensions, and class and gender relations are just some of the long eighteenth-century preoccupations that Kaul brings to key writings on the subject of empire from William Davenant’s The Seige of Rhodes (1656–59) and Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko (1688) to the poems of Phillis Wheatley and other former slaves in the 1770s. Centrally, he shows how these texts negotiate national and civil identity within the contexts of British imperial ambition and commercial globalization, stressing how the literature navigates desires and anxieties that accompany commercial modernity. Also, he emphasizes how literary form itself engages the social uncertainties that shadow imperial ideology, including ambiguous class and race identities and unstable domestic and gender relations. Finally, he surveys most of the major critical work that has been done in the field over the past several decades, reminding us that eighteenth-century scholarship has taught us much in general about the histories of capital, race, and the global distribution of resources.

Even as Kaul introduces students to the study of literature and empire in the period, he also makes a case for the importance of eighteenth-century studies in postcolonial theory and criticism. The series editors point out that postcolonial study re-configures traditional literary periods and links their imaginative texts to “contemporary issues of neo-colonialism and global inequality” (vii). Kaul too stresses that postcolonial critique recognizes the forms of colonial governance that find a neo-colonial “afterlife” (2) among the national elites of newly independent states. The political ancestry of such concentrations of power in the hands of a privileged few can be found in the effects of trade and development under colonial rule. Yet the greater focus of the book is the process of nation-formation within Britain as a colonizing power in the long eighteenth century, and the fraught and fissured nature of that nationhood. In this respect, the book maps the prehistory of our own geopolitical moment, in which nations evolve and fracture in response to the movement of global capital. In the context of emerging modern systems of commerce and finance, Britain defines itself as an imperial center against the economic and cultural peripheries whose territories it dominates commercially or whose resources it is busy extracting; yet it also hosts provincial identities whose distinct cultures throw into relief the specifically English characteristics that become identified with civilization and commercial might.

Kaul’s postcolonial account of eighteenth-century Britain thus has three interwoven themes. The first is the intimacy of empire and nation: British identity emerges not just from shared commercial interests, the expansion of print culture, and political union within the territory of the British Isles, but also from the growth of international trade and the acquisition of colonial territories. The second has to do with the uneven impact of British imperialism and nationhood both on domestic and overseas populations. This theme recognizes voices that descried the dispossession, displacement, and impoverishment of those who had little or no access to the cultural improvements and comforts of empire. Closely related to such critiques of imperial injustice is the conservatism that saw English virtue being undermined by the rapid social change accompanying financial and commercial revolution. The third theme in a sense combines the first two, as it recognizes how the faraway events of empire, including slavery and colonial dispossession, affected domestic manners and British concepts of liberty and civility. Imaginative literature of the period traverses these issues as it (sometimes simultaneously) promotes the character of the well-mannered, cosmopolitan Englishman, voices the discontented or peripheral perspectives of the empire, and transforms remote and exotic scenes or oppressed colonial others into the stuff of domestic drama. Here notions of English civility are in turn produced for both national consumption and export to the outposts of the empire. Plays, novels, essays, and poems therefore participate, at multiple levels, in the projects of nation and empire building.

Imaginative accounts of place, self, and changing social order that alternately represent the ideological heart and the peripheral discontents of empire combine these promises and problems. Eighteenth-Century British Literature and Postcolonial Studies traces the themes above through a selection of texts that now form a large portion of the canon of British writings on literature and empire in the period. The first chapter examines Restoration dramatic texts by William Davenant, Behn, and John Dryden that stage questions of domestic virtue and patriarchal power in exotic and remote locations even as they announce the English colonist as the new romance hero. Chapter two moves from drama to prose, exploring how Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (1719) confirms planting, trading, and slavery as legitimate colonial enterprises by incorporating them into the narrative of Protestant self-making and an ethical conduct that contrasts with Spanish brutality. Yet it positions Defoe’s story next to Sir Richard Steele’s narrative of Yariko and Inkle which, like Behn’s earlier Oroonoko, links true colonial civility with resistance both to the cruelties of slavery and the domestic mistreatment of women. In chapter three, the consolidation of commercial empire and national character in The Spectator’s fusion of lettered politeness with mercantilist expansion comes under pressure in the “literature of national difference” represented by Tobias Smollett’s Roderick Random (1748). While Smollett portrays the Scoto-British subject as a civilized man of commerce, he also exposes the human costs of empire in a novel that foregrounds the brutality and suffering forced upon Britain’s most disenfranchised subjects—those who must defend its interests at sea. The final chapter, “Perspectives from Elsewhere,” brings together anti-imperialism at the core with seeming endorsements of British imperial might at the periphery. Lady Mary Wortley Montagu’s refusal to frame her representation of Turkish women through the clichés of early orientalism strikes a chord with Samuel Johnson’s realistic depiction of intellectual and commercial culture in Cairo and his overt anti-imperialism in Rasselas (1759). Phillis Wheatley’s poems and Ukawsaw Gronniosaw’s dictated narrative, on the other hand, bury the atrocities of slavery in, respectively, depictions of national glory and spiritual awakening, yet covertly they introduce the subjectivities of the enslaved and dispossessed into the literary archive—the body of imaginative writing that at once makes and unmakes imperial Britain.

This is a lot to do in a slim book of less than 200 pages. As the concluding chapter hints, there is plenty more to talk about than a necessarily rapid survey of the field can allow. The texts Kaul uses focus our attention on new-world colonialism, the Atlantic slave trade, and imperial rivalry in West Asia. Cultural responses to commerce and governance in India and exploration of the Pacific can receive only passing attention here, as he points out. Moreover, the grouping of quite disparate texts within individual chapters sometimes provokes more questions than it can fully address: Does the concept of “elsewhere” represent movement out from the core to the periphery in the spirit of anti-imperialist critique, and yet also the incorporation, domestication, and defusing of the voices of the colonized and the enslaved? Do such combinations highlight the flexibility and hegemony of imperial discourse, which can accommodate multiple expressions of resistance or “otherness”, or does it suggest fracture and incoherence at the very heart of empire and thus point ahead not only to decolonization and the formation of new national identities but also, more darkly, to the political uncertainties and economic cruelties of neocolonialism in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries? Does the social history of imperialism and early British nationhood overwhelm the voices of the colonized and disenfranchised by transforming them into domestic conflicts played out in the homes of English gentlemen? Or does this history disturb the national imaginary according to which Britain spreads the benefits of doux commerce and enlightened manners to even the remotest corners of the world?

These questions remind us of the foundational influence of Franz Fanon’s account of national culture on postcolonial theory. Fanon was arguably the figure that most influenced the twentieth-century literary-critical turn away from Matthew Arnold’s notion of “an instinct prompting [us] to try to know the best that is known and thought in the world, irrespectively of practice, politics, and everything of the kind; and to value knowledge and thought as they approach this best, without the intrusions of any other considerations whatsoever.”[1] In The Wretched of the Earth, Fanon describes the withering of national culture under colonial domination when dynamic imaginative forms are reduced to stagnant traditions in the psyche of the oppressed. Then, in struggles for national freedom, the resurgence and reanimation of native poetic expression creates a new public as it “brings an urgent breath of excitement, arouses forgotten muscular tensions, and develops the imagination.”[2] Following Fanon, Kaul identifies not only the colonial and anti-colonial origins, but also the perils of postcolonial nationhood. He stresses that postcolonial criticism has a duty to expose the “afterlife of colonialism” (2), not only in the governance of the elite in newly-independent nations, but also in the current global inequities that support such governments, handed down by the vicious policies and practices of former empires. By attending to nation-formation within these former imperial centers, he argues, we become more alert to lurking colonial practices in the economic and political consolidation of nations now.

Whether the imaginative writing that in so many ways underpinned these practices can also unbalance them, or whether its anti-colonial message is disarmed and domesticated by the forms it inhabits is the question at the heart of this book. And in turn this begs another question: namely, as Anne McClintock has asked, whether our attention to formal ambivalence in colonial texts doesn’t pale against the way colonial and neo-colonial governments settle matters of indecision through sheer force.[3] Be that as it may, this book uses the practice and politics of eighteenth-century literature to illuminate current regimes of global capital. It draws us into the period by showing us its legacies–tracing the histories of nation and “world-making” (164) and unmaking that pattern our present as well as our colonial past.


[1]  Matthew Arnold and Walter Pater, The Function of Criticism at the Present Time and An Essay on Style (New York, 1895), 35.

[2]  Franz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth, trans. Richard Philcox (New York, 2004), 174.

[3]  Anne McClintock, Imperial Leather: Race, Gender and Sexuality in the Colonial Contest (New York, 1995), 16. I thank Byron Caminero-Santangelo for directing me to McClintock’s question.