Empires of Gender

Constructions of Gender in the Age of Imperialism

Gender/ Mutiny in Edwardian Fiction: Charles Pearce’s Fiction of 1857

by Ralph Crane, University of Tasmania, Australia and Radhika Mohanram, Cardiff University, UK.

1Analysis of fin-de-siècle or early 20th century gender representations in Britain is often done with reference to first-wave feminism and the suffrage movement that culminated in the achievement of the vote for women in 1928. This history shows the fraught and prolonged struggle to transform gender relations and gain personal and group rights and universal suffrage, which was marked not just by gender prejudices but also those of class. But what if we explore this topic of the representation of Edwardian women and their gender relations through an alternative lens? What if we explore it through the theme of Empire to see the connections between the representation of women in Britain and political events that took place in distant climes and far-off places? What sort of new meanings would emerge in this alternative view? Such an analysis would be valid because Britain’s empire had caused a skew in gender demographics since the Victorian period as its men left in large numbers to govern the ever-expanding British Empire. Indeed, in the decades leading to the Edwardian period, a shift in gender relations had become imminent. Joanna Trollope points out that by the mid-1800s over 35% of women of reproductive age—those between 20 and 44 years of age—were single (23). The 1871 census showed that there was a surplus of 718,566 women in Britain. This surplus of women was matched by the large numbers of British men stationed all over the colonies, in the army, civil service and civilian life. Furthermore, Britain needed more and more young men to fuel its armies in its dizzying acquisition of empire, especially in the period of high imperialism. Imperial rule internationally had profound influence on domestic matters, especially within the context of gender.

2In this paper, we will focus on one such iconic moment that shook Britian’s imperial rule in mid-nineteenth century—the Sepoy mutiny of 1857—that changed the course of imperialism, redefined masculinity and affected Anglo-Indian women’s lives and that reverberates to the present. Indeed, no fewer than five academic books were written about this event between 2002 and 2007, the 150th anniversary of the mutiny. We will specifically discuss the relationship between the Sepoy mutiny and gender relations in Britain by examining three novels written by Charles Pearce in the Edwardian period. We want to focus on Pearce’s mutiny triptych published between 1909 and 1912 because his status as a British writer (who had never been to India) rather than an Anglo-Indian one, raises interesting issues about the metaphoric function played by the Indian Mutiny in the British imaginary [1] We use the term in a psychoanalytic sense, referring to an internalized, idealized image of oneself at the end of the period of high imperialism. Pearce’s triptych also provides an opportunity to comment on the significance of aspects of memory and nostalgia in the construction of gender, as each of his novels deals differently with the recuperation of the past. The origin for this paper lay in the question: Why would a powerful and dominant Britain, seemingly in firm control of a vast Empire, continue to look back to the Mutiny which was perhaps the single-most destabilising moment in its imperial history especially during a period of relative political stability in the Edwardian period? In addition to empire reshaping gender relations, it also reshaped fiction. Sir Alfred Comyn Lyall in Studies in Literature and History, published in 1915, points out that the presence of empire had a deep influence in the shaping of fiction from the 1880s through the first decade of the twentieth century in that there was a convergence of the novel of manners with the adventure novel to produce a new form of action novel that did not dwell on the fantastic but rather “on genuine materials … and a stricter canon of probabilities” (7). Thus the Mutiny, Edwardian gender relations and Edwardian fiction are in a relationship with each other, which we wish to unpack and reveal through our analysis of Charles Pearce’s triptych.

3The Mutiny began on 10 May 1857 in the garrison town of Meerut. It was a violent, and in some ways, inevitable response to divisions between the colonizing British and colonized Indians that dated back years, and included the effects of evangelical Protestantism, and Dalhousie’s Doctrine of Lapse, which in 1856 led to the annexation of Oudh (Awadh). When the uprising was finally put down in 1858, three sites had been permanently engraved on the British imagination: Lucknow, Cawnpore (Kanpur), and Delhi.

4In Lucknow the besieged Residency held out for five months before it was liberated by troops under the command of Sir Colin Campbell on 17 November 1857. This epic tale of survival amidst crumbling buildings, of men, women, and children suffering the ravages of starvation and disease as well as regular onslaughts from the sepoys who vastly outnumbered them, was considered a high-point of British heroism during the Mutiny. Lucknow also re-encoded masculinity within a militaristic framework—to be physical, athletic, enduring, reliant and homosocial was now important to running an empire. The terrible events that unfolded in Cawnpore are the most extreme example of Indian violence during the course of the Mutiny (extremes of British violence within (British) Mutiny history are frequently elided) and, alongside the heroism of Lucknow, stand out above all others in the British imagination of the Mutiny. After surrendering to Nana Sahib in return for safe passage to Allahabad, the remnants of the European garrison were attacked and over 210 women and children were imprisoned and later hacked to death, their bodies being thrown down a nearby well. In both iconic sites, the cultural and racial memory is that of the white woman under threat of rape and murder. This image of Cawnpore became the enduring symbol of the fragility and vulnerability of the British woman in the empire, an image that was in continuum with the 19th century British image of the woman as the Angel in the House [2]Coventry Patmore’s long poem <i>The Angel in the House</i> (1854-1862) made this figure popular. Here Patmore referred to the woman of the house who was self-sacrificing and angelic—the perfect woman.. The third iconic site of the Mutiny in the British imagination is Delhi, where its storming and recapture in September 1857, after a long siege, was a major victory for the British, and the turning point of the Mutiny, although its memory has not been engraved as deeply on the British imagination as have Lucknow and Cawnpore: Lucknow was the symbol of British fortitude and a re-imagination of its masculinity that stood against the horror of Cawnpore that soon began to emblematize vulnerable Anglo-Indian

We distinguish between British and Anglo-Indian identities as the latter were a hybridized group. Though of British origin, many Anglo-Indians had lived and worked in India for several generations. In <i>Sahibs, Nabobs and Boxwallahs: A Dictionary of the Words of Anglo-India</i>

A. adj. Of, pertaining to, or characteristic of India under British rule, or the English in India. B. n. a. A person of British birth resident, or once resident, in India. b. A Eurasian of India.

femininity. The Mutiny—and Mutiny fiction, too—is implicated in the reconfiguring of the masculine militaristic hero and the concomitant reconfiguring of white femininity. Within the gender relations of mid-Victorian Britain and its empire, particularly India, the white woman functioned to give the masculine hero his identity. If he was the militaristic hero, she was the domestic goddess who had to be protected. The white woman came to represent not only womanhood, but the family and home, the white, domestic, threatened spaces that had to be protected at all costs from contamination by, in the case of Mutiny fiction, India. Consequently, the construction of the racial other (Indian mutineers in the case of Mutiny fiction) is inextricably linked to the construction of the white male hero and white womanhood.

5The 1857 Mutiny can usefully be described as a “critical event” in British imperial history, to borrow Veena Das’s term, that transformed definitions of space and people’s lives in completely new and unexpected ways; it instituted “a new modality of historical action” and new forms of categorization of race, of markets, and of imperial advances which were not “inscribed in the inventory of that situation” (5). For instance, the Mutiny transferred the governance of India from the hands of the East India Company to the Crown, consequently re-inscribing Indians who had been citizens of specific regions of the subcontinent as British subjects; the Anglo-Indians in their turn were transformed from being members of the East India Company army, the civil service, and the like, to becoming part of the machinery of the British Empire, their white bodies markers of their physical might and power over native lives. The Mutiny in Cawnpore, in particular, also resituated British women and children as being completely vulnerable to and threatened by Indian men. As Jenny Sharpe states in her classic work, Allegories of Empire, “A representation of [Anglo-Indian] women as the innocent victims of colonial rebellion was instrumental in reestablishing existing structures of colonial authority and in preparing the grounds for new ones” (65). In this critical event, these women were transformed from being wives and mothers to becoming the object of the particular concern of the Empire and the Army. Their sexuality and their vulnerability were articulated not within the private sphere but were rather legislated from within public discourse. For instance, this resituation of Anglo-Indian women is evidenced in the Ilbert Bill controversy of 1883, which gave native officials in the colonial administrative service the authority to try Anglo-Indian subjects living in country towns. The agitation against the Bill reinforced two opposing representations of Indian men: as effeminate and as cruel and therefore inappropriate to try Anglo-Indian women in Court. This Bill was later amended in 1884 so that the separate status and nature of the Anglo-Indians was preserved. Further, and more importantly, the rationality of the judicial system and that of the family, within which the woman was traditionally located, intersected to reveal how the Anglo-Indian woman was reconfigured: she had became the responsibility of the judiciary which defined her legal status and protected her modesty from the reaches of native men.

<< First











Last >>