Elleke Boehmer's wonderfully catholic and judiciously selected anthology includes fiction and non-fiction, poetry and prose from the "high noon" of the British empire. It not only illuminates a comparatively neglected corner of literature, but it is likely to prove useful to students of postcolonial writing. Reading it discourages the tendency to construct highly generalised, adversarial moulds into which creative writing must be squeezed.
The writers collected here oscillate between iron-clad certainty about the imperial enterprise and nagging doubt, which leads us to question whether the colonial idea was ever quite as monolithic or confident as we supposed. Even the familiar boast that the empire was one on which the sun never set denoted its geographical extent rather than its permanence, for as Kipling's ironically named "Recessional" reminds us:
Lo, all our pomp of yesterday Is one with Nineveh and Tyre!
It was, however, unnecessary to go back to the ancient world to discover intimations of imperial mortality. To some of the earlier writers included here, the loss of the American colonies was a recent event. Sir John Seeley, in an extract from The Expansion of England (1883), quotes Turgot:
"Colonies are like fruits which cling to the tree only till they ripen." For Seeley, it is far from self-evident that the empire will "hold together". There is even a warning note from arch-imperialist Lord Curzon:
"I do not say that, as long as they do good, empires necessarily continue to wax, but I do say, when they have ceased to do good to their citizens, they must inevitably tend to wane."
I suppose that I must belong to the last generation that, in early youth, read the adventure stories of empire in the spirit in that they were intended to be read. Returning to G. A. Henty's short story, A Pipe of Mystery , I found that I still enjoyed the fast-moving narrative, with its sense of danger and frisson of the occult, but on my first reading I failed to notice Henty's laconic judgement on the siege of Lucknow: "It was the old story, foolish confidence and black treachery." Perhaps the "noticing" this time was influenced by having read Abdul Halim Sharar's Lucknow and Premchand's The Chess Players , works of literature that convey something of what it was to be "on the other side". At least Tennyson's "The Defence of Lucknow" concedes that there were some "kindly dark faces" who "fought with us, faithful and few" and allows "Praise to our Indian brothers, and let the dark face have his due!" If such sentiments strike the modern reader as condescending, they are surely preferable to the genocidal thoughts entertained by Anthony Trollope: "Of the Australian black man we may certainly say that he has to go," but, the avuncular chronicler of Barchester adds: "that he should perish without unnecessary suffering should be the aim of all who are concerned in the matter."
This anthology also includes a few voices of resistance to the imperial system, including Edward Wilmot Blyden, Sri Aurobindo, Solomon Plaatje and Rabindranath Tagore. I think it is a pity that Tagore is only represented here by some poems he translated from Bengali. Some of his letters, which are full of acute observations about the Indian-British relationship, would surely have been more appropriate.
Having been led, by its title, to expect a sustained discussion on Anglophone writing in predominantly non-English-speaking societies, John Skinner's The Stepmother Tongue turns out to be, in the main, a select inventory of (mostly) Commonwealth writers and their novels. For most works mentioned, we are offered only the briefest of descriptions. Kamala Markandaya's A Silence of Desire is, for example, "on the rivalry between modern and traditional medicine", while The Coffer Dams is "on the theme of neo-colonisation". When Skinner occasionally offers a critical judgement, it is frequently unilluminating: "The ultimate impression of Narayan's fiction, however, is of a world so utterly and indefinably 'Indian', conceived in a language so idiosyncratically but incontrovertibly English."
Ronald Warwick was formerly literature officer, Commonwealth Institute.
Empire Writing: An Anthology of Colonial Literature: 1870-1918
Editor - Elleke Boehmer
ISBN - 0 19 283265 4
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Price - £7.99
Pages - 502