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Peer Reviewed

Tamara S. Wagner, ed. Victorian Settler Narratives: Emigrants, Cosmopolitans and Returnees in Nineteenth-Century Literature

Melissa Free, Binghamton University, State University of New York

Tamara S. Wagner, ed. Victorian Settler Narratives: Emigrants, Cosmopolitans and Returnees in Nineteenth-Century Literature. London: Pickering & Chatto, 2011. Gender and Genre 5. x+288 pp. £60.00 / $99.00 (c).
A timely contribution to the growing field of settler studies, Victorian Settler Narratives reads across once-settled boundaries between metropole and colony, the imperial and the national, Britain and North America, the nineteenth and the twentieth centuries, the canonical and the non-canonical, fiction and non-fiction alike. Suggesting “cross-pollination” @ rather than hybridity as a model for thinking about imperial exchange, it examines not only metro-colonial but also inter-colonial relations; not only the local and the global but also the cosmopolitan; not only the settler memoir, the periodical essay and the novel but also the connections between them. The idea that the British Empire, like Orientalism, was “a system of circulation”@ is increasingly influencing postcolonial scholarship, as evinced by growing attention to the global and transnational.@ More than a decade ago, Tony Ballantyne suggested “the metaphor of the web”—one quite similar to that of cross-pollination—“for the conceptualization of the imperial past” (Orientalism 14), and though his work is not cited anywhere in Wagner’s collection, Victorian Settler Narratives reflects his critical position both that “networks and exchanges . . . shaped the empire” and that “colonial knowledge” is “fundamentally intertextual.” @ Collectively, the fourteen essays Wagner has chosen depict “Anglo-Saxon global modernity” (Joseph 214) as a shifting, uneven, never-to-be-realized formation, produced by discourse; comprised of networks of communication, identification, and portability; and contingent on both differentiation and association.
Undergirding these essays on emigrants, temporary settlers, adventurers, convicts, cosmopolitans, and returnees is the domestic: its meaning, its utility, and, not least, its flexibility. Because of its centrality and broad applicability, it would be helpful if the term were more precisely employed and critically situated. The claim, for instance, that “home [was] arguably the most central idea in Victorian culture” needs not only evidence but also explanation.@ And if “the establishment of lasting settlements and successfully transposed family homes—with all the ideological ballast and potential ingrained in them—really was what nineteenth-century mass migration was all about” (Wagner, “Introduction” 10), that ballast, and metropolitan domesticity more generally, needs further exploration. Wagner’s enticing first-page claim that “emigration offered metaphors for a larger sense of feeling unsettled at home” remains undeveloped (1). Though in her essay “Settling Back in at Home: Imposters and Imperial Panic in Victorian Narratives of Return,” Wagner provocatively suggests that “disruptive imports commonly feature as shorthand for the disruption of homes that may already be ruptured from within” (114), she does not probe this connection either. A more sustained engagement with the influence of colonial domesticity on the metropolitan would better illustrate the cross-pollination that the collection so compellingly avows.
Victorian Settler Narratives successfully “question[s] and extend[s]” the critical argument that the role of women in the colonies was limited primarily to moral suasion, example, and influence (Wagner, “Introduction” 9). Stressing the many “creative aspects of women’s”—and, in fact, girls’—“experiences of emigration and settler life,” the collection offers alternative ways of reading female settlers and the colonial women who wrote about them. Kristine Moffat’s and Terra Walston Joseph’s essays (more on which below) are particularly strong in this regard. Wagner pinpoints “colonial girlhood,” “the movement of families,” and “colonial motherhood” as areas of critical neglect (10).@ The first of these is the subject of three fine essays—covering female Crusoes, girls’ magazines, and girls’ adventure fiction—while the latter two remain largely unexamined. Though only passing attention is given to metropolitan women and the ways in which they were affected by the “wider sphere” their colonial sisters occupied,@ this is something that might productively be taken up.
In many ways, Victorian Settler Narratives is a corrective to work that overlooks the woman’s settler memoir, the girl’s adventure story, and female settlers’ experiences more broadly. Eight of the fourteen essays focus on the female emigrant, using gender as a primary category of analysis, while men and masculinity are largely ignored. This is in keeping with the collection’s interest in depicting alternatives to “masculine adventure” stories and the “deeply ingrained” (Wagner, “Introduction” 3) images they helped to circulate of colonial spaces as “wild” and “undomestic” (2), colonization as “a rough-and-ready frontier practice,”@ and colonial settlers as “bachelors in the bush awaiting willing wives.”@ While I disagree with Wagner’s assessment that “a number of [the essays] cast new light on changing ideas about masculinity” (17), the exclusion reflects the collection’s sound principle of selection.
Variety is a major strength of the collection. Its contributors, scholars of all ranks, hail from and/or teach in Canada, Australia, New Zealand, the United States, Singapore, England, and Scotland. Its analyses cover a range of genres, types of émigrés, and lesser-known writers, as well as the non-canonical work of canonical authors such as Anthony Trollope. Six essays deal significantly with periodicals, four with children’s literature, and three with settler memoirs. Australia, New Zealand, and Canada figure prominently as settings. In addition to the United Kingdom, authors examined hail from, or immigrated to, these same locations. Southern Africa, however, is almost entirely left out. Inclusion of this region, in whose history and historiography race has figured so prominently, would almost surely have generated more extensive engagement with the subject of race.
While the indigenous can be extremely peripheral in settler colonial literature, “race” is always there; its implied absence and marginality need to be addressed. In Wagner’s collection, this work is undertaken by Moffat, Walston, Joseph, and to some extent Michelle Smith. In “Agents of Empire and Feminist Rebels: Settlement and Gender in Isabella Aylmer’s Distant Homes and Ellen Ellis’s Everything is Possible to Will,” Moffat argues that Ellis’s novel, whose heroine “ventures into the public sphere to bring about changes in attitudes towards women and Maori,” “draws parallels between the oppression of women and colonial injustices to” the indigenous (45). In “‘A Curious Political and Social Experiment’: A Settler Utopia, Feminism and a Greater Britain in Catherine Helen Spence’s Handfasted,” Joseph discusses the implications of handfasting, an “ancient Scottish institution” (211) practiced by members of “a lost colony of Scottish settlers located somewhere in the southwest of the United States or northern Mexico” (207). A kind of non-binding pre-marriage that enables men and women alike to test the viability of their union, handfasting “allows women equal rights because they are not stigmatized by a sexual double standard, ends prostitution because relationships are more fulfilling, and allows for a respectable position for the children of unmarried parents” (207). At the same time, it “operates as a repressive technology for the management of indigenous populations—a means to facilitate their assimilation and ultimately to destroy a competing civilization under the auspices of cultural harmony” (217). As Joseph so persuasively contends, “Handfasted’s radicalism on gender and sexual matters is compromised by a more mainstream commitment to a racist politics of settler colonialism” (207). These exemplary essays demonstrate the ways in which race and gender so often intersect. Nonetheless, whether and how race and racism travel, ideologically and discursively, is, surprisingly, not a question the collection as a whole seeks to address.
Among its many merits is John McBratney’s standout article, “The Return and Rescue of the Émigré in A Tale of Two Cities,” in which the author maps out an “ethical course” (101) that he calls “‘rooted,’ or ‘partial,’ cosmopolitanism” (106). Neither a “fanatical dedication to a single nationstate” nor a “deracinated cosmopolitanism” (106), “‘partial cosmopolitanism’ [entails both] a devotion to the particular lives of those who are geographically near [and] a sensitive appreciation for worthy persons at a distance” (101). One wonders how his argument might extend beyond the Continental émigré, as one wonders how cross-pollination might help us better to understand literary and ideological exchanges between settler colonies and colonies of occupation. But of course the desire to see the collection’s methodologies more broadly applied is a testament to its strength. Victorian Settler Narratives succeeds in illustrating the interconnectedness of settler colonies, the centrality of domesticity to settler narratives, and the importance of women’s voices in this relatively neglected genre. It builds on the most influential recent criticism, demonstrates the value of reading lesser-known works, “consider[s] literary history beyond the confines of national boundaries” (Wagner, “Introduction” 16), and insistently reads across the various “narrative spaces” of Britain’s vast empire (2). According to a recent posting on the Victoria List, Wagner is currently editing a collection on “settler homes in nineteenth-century Australian and New Zealand writing.”@ If this collection looks more closely at domesticity and race, the only areas in which Victorian Settler Narratives disappoints, it will be an exemplary work of settler studies scholarship.