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Romanticism, the Empire and the Other

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Fiction Samuel Johnson’s Rasselas (1759) John Hawkesworth’s Almoran and Hamet (1761) The Orientalist: A Volume of Tales after the Eastern Taste (1764) Charles Johnstone The History of Arsaces (1774) Maria Bennett’s Anna; or Memoirs of a Welch Heiress (1785) William Beckford’s Vathek (1786) Helenus Scott’s The Adventures of a Rupee: Wherein are Interspersed Various Anecdotes Asiatic and European (1782) Phebe Gibbs, Hartly House, Calcutta (1789) Elizabeth Hamilton’s Translation of the Letters of a Hindoo Rajah (1796) Narrative Poems Robert Southey’s Thalaba the Destroyer (1801) and The Curse of Kehama (1810) Thomas Moore, Lalla Rookh (1817) We have a whole bunch of texts in this period, fiction, nonfiction, narrative poems, drama produced around the theme of Empire. We can start with Samuel Johnson’s Rasselas, John Hawkesworth’s Almoran and Hamet, which are the lesser known texts, of course. The more famous ones are William Beckford’s Vathek, Phebe Gibbs’ Hartly House, Calcutta which is traditionally taken to be the first Anglo-Indian novel. In this list are narrative poems such as Robert Southey’s Thalaba the Destroyer and The Curse of Kehama, Thomas Moore’s Lalla Rookh. We will now trace how the Empire occurs in the social and literary imagination of England. The vocabulary of foreign things we see in English writing shows us the extent of England’s trade. Connections, but also of the cultural consumption of the Other. This could be in the form of artefacts and tokens in the Victorian parlour, everyday Other-objects including tea, coffee, sugar and tobacco. The era was marked by what James Watt terms: ‘the growth of an ethnocentric confidence in Britain’s essential superiority over its Eastern others’. If you want to know how this was put together you can see an instance in John Keats’ poem The Eve of St. Agnes. A heap Of candied apples, quince, and plum, and gourd; With jellies soother than the creamy curd, And lucent syrops, tinct with cinnamon; Manna and dates, in argosy transferred From Fez; and spiced dainties, every one, From silken Samarcand to cedar’d Lebanon. You will see parallels with Alexander Pope’s The Rape of the Lock where also there is a categorization and an inventory of things which have come from different parts of the world. John Keats’ The Eve of St. Agnes is doing pretty much the same thing. William Cowper treats tea, which did not originate in England, and the ritual of tea-drinking as a marker of quiet English domesticity. In The Task (1785) Cowper would paint a picture of such warm English domesticity (in contrast with Pope’s depiction of the public ritual of coffee-drinking): Now stir the fire, and close the shutters fast, Let fall the curtains, wheel the sofa round, And while the bubbling and loud-hissing urn Throws up a steamy column, and the cups, That cheer but not inebriate, wait on each, So let us welcome peaceful evening in. What is Cooper doing here? Cooper is suggesting that Englishness or true English identity depends on tea drinking. Now surely one must note the irony here. True English identity depends upon the consumption of a thing which originates outside of England. One could recall here Edward Said’s argument in Orientalism that Europe could only construct itself when there was a racial and cultural Other. Cooper seems to argue that English domesticity is defined by tea drinking. He is making the argument that tea, a foreign product, is central to the English domestic scene. Coleridge also evidently sees tea as the centrepiece of quiet English domesticity, and tea as a beverage that is calming. Let us turn to an extract from his poem “Monody on a Tea-kettle”: Delightful Tea! With thee compar’d what yields the madd’ning Vine? Sweet power! who know’st to spread the calm delight, And the pure joy prolong to midmost night! The teapot is used again as a sign of English identity, but in a different sense. On the walls of the painted teapot, says Joanna Baillie, another poet, ‘a distant nation’s manners we behold’. That is, the tea vessel becomes synecdochic of a culture and the means of English culture’s acquisition of knowledge. The teapot has journeyed from its place of origin and ‘now thou ‘rt seen in Britain’s polished land’. The teapot becomes the star attraction at tea-time, notes Baillie. It becomes a much-coveted and admired object of aristocratic, upper-class women. Here is an excerpt from her “Lines to a Teapot” (1840): But O! when beauty’s hand thy weight sustained, The climax of thy glory was attained! Back from her elevated elbow fell Its three-tired ruffle, and displayed the swell And gentle rounding of her lily arm, The eyes of wistful sage or beau to charm – A sight at other times but dimly seen Through veiling folds of point or colberteen. With pleasing toil, red glowed her dimpled cheek, Bright glanced her eyes beneath her forehead sleek, And as she poured the beverage, through the room Was spread its fleeting, delicate perfume. The point to be noted here is: tea is incorporated into the English thinking about themselves. Commodities like tea, cocoa, coffee and sugar cane are re-assimilated into England as part of its identity but there are some other products as well… In Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park (1814), Lady Bertram wants her nephew, William, at the start of his naval career, to go to the ‘East Indies’. Her reason is very simple: ‘that I may have a shawl. I think I will have two shawls’. So, the purpose of the nephew going abroad is to bring her things from various parts of the world. China, tapestries, cotton clothing, Kashmiri shawls constitute as we can see from the above texts, signs of privilege, class and modernity, and are instruments of self- fashioning. In Charles Lamb’s essay ‘Old China’, the china vessels signifies social mobility. Displaying the Other-object in some form or the other was a prominent mode of appropriating the Other, as we shall see. It must be noted that such displays were not always only private. We have been speaking of the role of commodities in Romantic Orientalism. Let us now move on to other things. The genre of the Oriental tale, inaugurated by Samuel Johnson in Rasselas, often has the following themes: In the Oriental tale, it was commonplace to - Represent the Asians as plunderers, superstitious, unreliable people - Kill off the Asian - Suggest but not carry through the possibility of cross-cultural encounter or liaison - Imply that British rule was good for the colony (especially India) - Depict the condition of women, especially in Islamic societies, as a terrible one It often offered a generalized statement and description of the ‘East’ with little specific detail. The implication of these texts was that the British rule was good for India. That is something that works through as a trope in most of the texts. The Curse of Kehama, Robert Southey’s longish narrative poem is an extravagant Gothic epic about a wicked Hindu Rajah, a wicked Hindu Raja or would-be emperor of the world and an Eastern alter ego of Napoleon Bonaparte. It symbolizes Hinduism as Grant describes it, a religion cruel in its ideas and relentlessly despotic in social practice. Now one of the things you will realize about Romantic Orientalism is many of the evils of the subcontinent were traced to the “bad” religions and religious practices, as in this case, Hinduism. From the early 1900s, the previous era’s sympathy for the Easterner was eroded. At this juncture, we see the emergence of an imperial Gothic in texts like Charles Maturin’s Melmoth the Wanderer (1820), Charlotte Dacre’s Zofloya (1806), Walter Scott’s The Surgeon’s Daughter (1827). The imperial Gothic draws upon the Gothic tradition. We have spoken previously about the Gothic and its interest in the darker emotions, madness, but also in questions of class and power. The imperial Gothic mapped the imperial onto the Gothic. The themes in the imperial Gothic included: illicit desire, demonic temptation, evil Asians and the possible ruin of the English by the natives. You will see some of these themes occurring as late as the 20th century, for example, in the work of Arthur Conan Doyle where the evil Asians feature as threatening presences. The fear of the possible ruin of the English by the natives is quite exquisitely portrayed in Wilkie Collins’ The Moonstone (1868) where it is arrival of the Indian stone in England that produces unhappiness and tensions. In other words, the foreign being ‘out there’ is alright but when it starts to enter the domestic realm, it becomes a problem. While Romantic Orientalism was fascinated by the Other, it did not want to incorporate the Other. Thus, we find a tension between the desire for the Other or the Other object, but also a fear of what will happen when they come in. Everything that goes wrong in The Moonstone is attributed finally to the presence of this Indian stone, stolen from the siege of Tipu Sultan at and brought to England. Once it enters the English household, everything begins to go wrong, so even a stone from India has a certain agency, shall we say? So Romantic Orientalism is this huge swathe of texts interested in gender, class, commodities, but ultimately they come together to demonstrate that the East be seen in certain ways.