‘Print Culture and Gender in the British Empire’, University of Warwick, June 5th 2014.
Conference report by Sam Caddick
With my train leaving Liverpool at 6 am and several changes deep in the bowels on the Midlands, I planned my journey to Warwick University and the Gender and Print Culture in the British Empire conference in the manner of a military manoeuvre. My meticulous planning was undone at the eleventh hour, I alighted the shuttle bus too early and found myself dashing from the University’s science department over to the humanities department on the other side of the campus.
Arriving just before registration closed, the conference opened with a keynote from Priti Joshi, hailing from the University of Puget Sound. Professor Joshi’s paper focused on The Mofussilite, one of the 14,000 newspapers that came out of Anglo-India. The paper was founded by John Lang, considered to also be the first Australian born novelist. Lang founded the paper in 1845 and frequently used this platform to attack the corruption of the East India Company which Lang argued “created the very evils they were intended to remedy”. Although his attitude towards Indians themselves veered between seeing them as correspondents to his paper and seeing them through a paternalist lens, Lang did become known as “a friend of India” due to his articles attacking the East India Company and his defending of Indians as a barrister in the courts.
Priti detailed how Lang’s two professions served to offer an interesting reading of his attitude towards Empire. In 1851, Lang was in London to cover The Great Exhibition for his paper but was recalled to India to defend an Indian against the East India Company. Unlike other papers that continued to focus on the The Great Exhibition, The Mofussilite changed its focus to covering the trial. The trial then became representative of the The Great Exhibition which celebrated the colonial plunder of the British Empire.
While The Mofussilite was ardently opposed to the East India Company, it was strongly pro-government. Priti argued that the missing issues of The Mofussilite from the period 1857 Rebellion then would not be due to government censorship as is the common line of thought among archivists as the government backed the paper.
Priti’s talk made me consider how the pro/anti-imperialist dichotomy that I often find myself falling into with my own research was far more complicated, it was possible for a person to hold views on Empire that seems to be in some sense contradictory. While a person may oppose certain institutions of Empire, that does not mean that they are opposed to the idea of Empire itself.
Melissa Free from Arizona State University focused her paper on the Rhodesian writer Gertude Page, an extremely popular Edwardian author whose 20 novels sold more than 2.5 million copies. Do to her focus on Rhodesia, Page became known as the “Kipling of Rhodesia”. Melissa explained how Page was writing in a time when the ration of women to men in Rhodesia rose from 1:4 to 1:2, expanding the market for writing about women living in Rhodesia.
Page’s writing was extremely interesting as her novels are broadly emigrationist – or pushing for more women to emigrate to Rhodesia. Despite this push to getting women to emigrate to the country, Page does not display the country as a paradise but rather as a challenge for the women living there. Many of Page’s novels begin with a female character who dislikes Rhodesia but then grows to love it.
Page’s novels also focus on the boredom found in Rhodesian farm life and uses the prospect of illicit sexual opportunities to tantalise both the reader and the female characters themselves. Rather than damning those tempted to indulge themselves, Page offers extenuating circumstances for her characters. The isolation and monotony of Rhodesian life then permits characters to consider these sexual opportunities.
I found a lot a parallels in Melissa’s research to my own. Several of the Raj authors I am focusing on join Page in this reorientation of sexual morality. In her 1909 guidebook, The Englishwoman in India, Maud Diver channels Page:
Moreover, in a country where men and women are constantly thrown together under conditions which tend to minimise formalism and conventional restraint, where leave is plentiful and grass widows – willing and unwilling – abound, it is scarcely surprising that the complications and conflicting duties of married life should prove appreciable great than they are elsewhere. (27)
This idea of the colonies as being a space whereby rules that govern the imperial centre must be reorientated is a major theme that has arisen throughout my research. Seeing this attitude replicated in fiction from outside of India made me aware how common this issue was in the Empire, and how the Victorian and Edwardian social codes that we in the 21st century consider to be rigid were actually far more malleable.
The final paper of the conference was a keynote delivered by Tanya Agathocleous from Hunter College, New York. Tanya’s paper read trial of the Bengalvai newspaper alongside the trial of Oscar Wilde and then expanded to examine the figure of the Babu – educated Indian clerks in the British Raj – to that of the dandy.
The Bengalvai paper was brought to trial for criticising the British government in India, mainly the raising of the marital age from 10 years to 12 years. In this sense, the trial can be read alongside the Wilde trial as both being late-Victorian responses to a different forms of sexual deviancy. Both trials also focused on the textual evidence, the Bengalvai paper obviously focusing on the journalism found in the paper while the Wilde trial continually referred back to The Picture of Dorian Grey. Both trials effectively became a trial over authorial intent, with nebulous concepts of sexuality and disaffection on trial. Unlike Wilde however, the paper’s staff eventually apologised to the government but this only furthered the image of the insincere babu.
The babu was seen as an effeminate figure throughout India that fermented agitation against British rule throughout the subcontinent. Tanya then read the image of the babu (the newspaper staff) and the dandy (epitomised by Wilde) as being perceived as effeminate threats to the Empire and to imperial masculinity. Both groups served to mimic and undermine conventional (heterosexual, white) masculinity that the Empire valourised.
Attending the conference exposed me to many texts I was otherwise ignorant of, especially the newspapers discussed by the two keynote speakers. It served as a reminder to me that the Victorian and Edwardian views of Empire, gender, and sexuality rarely fell into a black and white mindset but was actually a far more complicated mindset whereby people could hold views that appear today to be cognitively dissident. The parallels that emerged between my own research and some of the papers presented also encouraged me to consider new approaches to my work and not to view the authors I am focusing on as holding consistent or logical attitudes to certain parts of imperial culture.
Sam is a doctoral student in his first year of a thesis on Anglo-Indian Domestic Space in Raj Fiction. 1876- 1947.