Making England Western: Occidentalism, Race and Imperial Culture, by Saree Makdisi

Claire Chambers on how the national imaginings of the English changed during the Romantic period separating out notions of class and race

April 17, 2014

“I have begun with the assumption,” writes Edward Said in Orientalism, “that the Orient is not an inert fact of nature. It is not merely there, just as the Occident is not just there either.” Whereas this last point about the Occident is for Orientalism a side issue, it appears to be a touchstone for Saree Makdisi, who happens to be the late postcolonial scholar’s nephew.

Whereas scholars such as Ian Buruma and Avishai Margalit use the term Occidentalism to denote “the Rest’s” demonisation of “the West”, Makdisi defines Occidentalism as the West’s own domestic self-fashioning. By 1800, he persuasively argues, England was not yet Western in the sense we understand it today. Our modes of national imagining changed during the Romantic period, with intertwined categories of class and race separated out so “we” could be demarcated from “them”, in a process completed by the turn of the 20th century.

However, as Makdisi demonstrates in this highly accomplished study, it was not so easy to separate the colonised world from the metropolitan centre in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. At this time, areas such as St Giles, Grub Street and Spitalfields in London were viewed as foreign spaces. Their mean streets were populated by “City Arabs”: uneducated, diseased Britons, who were as in need of civilising as “heathens” overseas. Accordingly, artists and writers portrayed these working-class English slum dwellers in racialised terms. This is illustrated by James Gillray’s caricature of the London Corresponding Society (reproduced as Making England Western’s richly grotesque cover image), in which the society’s radical working-class members are caricatured as thick-lipped, swarthy troglodytes. England, with its extreme social divide between rich and poor in the Romantic period, is paradoxically too Orientalised to be Western. If “civilisational attainment” is the main criterion for judging others, then some English people must be regarded as black.

A fresh conceptualisation of English subjectivity and a severe form of self-regulation is therefore needed, and Makdisi traces its emergence during these decades. His reading of Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park - treading an enlightening middle path between Said’s exposure of the slave plantations on which the Mansfield estate’s wealth is grounded, and other critics’ attempts to present Austen as “sister and friend to the wretched of the earth” - argues that it pivots on this disciplinary ethos. When Sir Thomas Bertram incinerates his children’s copies of the racy play Lovers’ Vows, he is endorsing the rise of the bourgeois nuclear family and individual self-control. Makdisi suggests that Fanny Price is rewarded for her tiresome virtue by marriage to the chastened Edmund Bertram, indicating that women played an important role in individuals’ self-management. (One of the few faults I can find with this splendid monograph is that it offers insufficient discussion of how gender was bound up with race and class, and also required new forms of regulation.)

Among other matters, there are chapters on how the working classes’ ballad form (oral, bawdy, radical) was textualised for polite company, how Byron’s reclamation of “the Orient” as a space of desire fails to subvert binaries, and how Charles Dickens’ The Mystery of Edwin Drood provides a later comparison when the Western sense of self was more stable.

Always interesting, politically radical and yet scholarly, this book makes a worthy successor to Said’s Culture and Imperialism.

Making England Western: Occidentalism, Race and Imperial Culture

By Saree Makdisi
University of Chicago Press, 304pp, £63.00 and £21.00
ISBN 9780226923130, 3147 and 3154 (e-book)
Published 10 February 2014

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