Enacting Englishness in the Victorian Period
Colonialism and the Politics of Performance
Aldershot : Ashgate, 2009. ix, 174 p.
ISBN: 9780754658481. £55.00
Reviewed by Jean-Charles Perquin
Université Lyon II
Angelia Poon’s Enacting Englishness in the Victorian Period, Colonialism in the Victorian Period is a thorough book dealing with two difficult concepts: Victorianism and Englishness. If Victorianism is usually defined by the beginning and end of Queen Victoria’s reign, i.e. the last two-thirds of the nineteenth century, Englishness is a problematic notion, since it cannot only be defined with the simple reference to what England claimed it was, meant, or even owned, in terms of imperialistic encroachments over the rest of the world, especially the extra-European countries it militarily occupied.
The first triple attempt at defining Englishness is Angelia Poon’s use of canonical references to class, race, and gender as central elements characterising the fundamental structures of English culture and society in the Victorian age. Then the questions of enacting and performing arise as major elements of culture in general and Victorian civilisation in particular. Beyond what we (often wrongly) imagine about Victorian culture, there was what and who the Victorians themselves imagined or dreamt they were; how they exported, projected, and imposed the complex cultural codes of their own self-representations and classifications. As Angelia Poon indirectly and artfully shows, the art of defining and describing is also a way of excluding and prescribing, especially as far as its colonies were concerned. The author never falls into the trap of a simplistic denunciation of Victorian imperialism, since she constantly analyses the complex causes and modes of Victorian relations with otherness, both at home and abroad, and she persistently demonstrates how these multifaceted relations influenced, promoted or condemned new or traditional behaviour both at home and all over the empire.
In order to support her demonstrations, Angelia Poon aptly delves into some monuments of the Victorian canon such as Victorian Conduct Literature, Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, Mary Seacole’s Wonderful Adventures of Mrs Seacole in Many Lands, Emily Eden’s Up the Country, Harriet Martineau’s British Rule in India, Charles Dickens, and Henry Rider Haggard’s Allan Quatermain. Inside such a corpus, Angelia Poon adroitly manages to show how the characters and authors she refers to were in fact moulded by the patterns of a culture they apparently or superficially rejected. Jane Eyre, to start with, appears to be neither a rebel nor a feminist: at the end of her narrative, she eventually rejected Saint John’s marriage proposal and colonial offer only to become the traditional Victorian wife Rochester deserved after his terrible accident and mutilation. In the same vein, Mary Seacole’s dark skin was clearly condoned because she unremittingly supported English culture and power in all their forms, and Emily Eden’s Up the Country and Harriet Martineau’s British Rule in India obliquely extol English identity and imperial duty. As far as Charles Dickens is concerned, in the fourth chapter focusing on the “Policing of the English Body”, beyond the equation between the great Victorian novelist and England itself, Angelia Poon develops the author’s obsession with the relation between skin colour, civilisation, Englishness, and the body. In the final chapter of her book, Angelia Poon insists on the fantasy of the reproduction of Englishness, especially through Henry Rider Haggard’s Allan Quatermain, in all its imaginary exploration of imperial fantasies and projections.
The main problem with such a book derives from its very ambition, i.e. articulating Victorianism and Englishness in their difficult relations with both England and the rest of the world in only 156 pages of well-documented prose. At times, the reader will probably wonder if Angelia Poon herself fell victim to the necessary distance between the enactment of social or geographical colonialism and the problematic influence of the Victorian Zeitgeist, in the golden age of imperial, economic, and political power. For instance, had Angelia Poon included Bram Stoker’s Dracula in the corpus of her analysis—after all, was count Dracula not the ideal “other” Angelia Poon frequently alludes to without naming him?—the critical distance between narrative voice and Victorian certainties would have differed quite a lot, especially if we bear in mind the strong anxiety of reverse colonisation to be found in Dracula’s journey to London after he bought properties there. In other words, the author’s corpus ideally fits her project but just a few more books and/or authors of that period would have ruined it altogether.
That being said, everyone knows that the book legitimately depends on the choices it was built on, especially in terms of corpus. It is clearly coherent and relevant and it obeys a well-documented argument debunking Victorian myths and truths all over the empire at its apex, both culturally and physically.
Cercles © 2010