Antipodal England

Ayşe Çelikkol, Bilkent University (Turkey)

Janet C. Myers. Antipodal England: Emigration and Portable Domesticity in the Victorian Imagination. Albany: State U of New York P, 2009. 185 pp. $65.

Rev. by Ayşe Çelikkol
Personal accounts of the Australian gold rush, letters by English governesses in the bush, corporate guides to emigration, and court cases involving fraudulent emigrants: such is the wide range of texts that Janet C. Myers combines with canonical and non-canonical novels to discuss the maintenance and inflection of Englishness in nineteenth-century Australia in Antipodal England: Emigration and Portable Domesticity in the Victorian Imagination. By reading novels through the lens of little known historical documents, Myers’s methodology hardly takes risks; however, the thorough research, the articulate argument, and the compelling case studies makes for a delightful and informative read. With characteristic clarity, Myers states the argument in the introduction: “Just as ideals of home were of central importance to emigrants struggling to retain their national affiliation in the Australian colonies, this dynamic also applied in reverse—the Australian settler experience similarly helped shape British conceptions of home and national identity” (3). As the chapters unfold, in addition to excavating “the imbrication of domesticity and imperialism,” she shows that the portability of Englishness was richly captured by a medium that was itself decidedly portable—the Victorian novel (5).
Discussions of portable domesticity provide some of the most fascinating aspects of Antipodal England, sometimes to the point of overshadowing the treatment of colonial and national identity. Myers pins down why gender ideology was so central to empire building: since women “carry out the work of making home,” their own capacity for mobility in turn made domesticity portable. Englishness, as we know, rested squarely on a peculiar kind of private life, familiarly visualized as a middle-class nuclear family lounging by the fireside. Precisely because such common domestic practices could be transported overseas, emigrants to Australia did not have to forgo their national identity. Why Myers chooses to focus specifically on Australia rather than multiple settler colonies around the Empire is not entirely clear; however, she does justice to the specific historical context that her geographical choice entails. She discusses the ways in which the wilderness of the bush and the presence of aboriginal populations shaped the rhetoric and practice of white domesticity in Australia. As she announces, the analysis of portable domesticity is key to “reconceiving the processes of colonial and postcolonial identity formation” (16). While this claim is certainly convincing, her discussions of the colonial condition and postcolonial transformations do not employ as sophisticated a framework as gender anaysis in this book. For example, when Myers asserts that the colonial woman was a “figure who could combine gentility with a measure of practicality and independence,” she effectively addresses the ways in which imperial practices influenced the performance of gender (59). But how does this transformation in gender roles resonate with the logic of the border zone? Does women’s independence remobilize or challenge the imperial denial of self-governance? Antipodal England richly combines and interprets texts to provoke such questions, but it does not fully address them.
Once Myers sets up the basic premise that Australian colonists “maintain[ed] their [English] national identity and allegiance despite the inevitable changes brought on by emigration,” each chapter focuses on textual sites manifesting the tension between colonial imperialism and the nation-state (22). Chapter One examines personal accounts of emigration alongside Charles Dickens’s David Copperfield to argue that emigrants’ journey—a surprisingly domestic experience—initiates an important psychological transformation that eventually allows the emigrant to forge new national ties. Chapter Two focuses on predicaments experienced specifically by women during and after emigration. Analyzing emigrant governess’ letters and Anthony Trollope’s John Caldigate, Myers suggests that “class and gender inequalities . . . threaten[ed] to undermine the very foundations of the British imperial project” (69). The emphasis on instability persists in the next chapter, which shows that colonial contact seemed to threaten the family as a social unit, in turn casting doubt on the “structure of the empire” (109). Equally strong as the argument in this chapter is the alluring peculiarity of the documents she examines in conjuction with Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s Lady Audley’s Secret, which include drawings of various shapes of ears that were involved in a court case about an emigrant claiming a metropolitan identity. Chapter Four moves in a new direction by considering the emergence of a uniquely Australian national identity, which Myers argues was mediated by the collapse of the separate spheres model in the colony: “Representing a new model for structuring domesticity, the bush house allows for a more egalitarian and unified conception of family life” (133). If this interpretation is not skeptical enough about colonial life and its ideologies, the conclusion compensates for that optimism by reminding readers that seemingly progressive transformations in practices of domesticity did not prevent—in fact, perhaps even went hand in hand with—atrocities such as the removal of Aboriginal children from their families.
The careful and enjoyable execution of historicist methodology in Antipodal England is as much a strength of the book as it is the limit of its engagement with nationhood and coloniality. Myers is less interested in pursuing larger questions about the inherent friction between structures of nationhood and empire than in offering detailed, complex readings of novels and other texts shaped by nationalist and imperialist ideologies. Her treatment of home and family in literary representations of Australia is accompanied by an attentiveness to the portability of fiction itself, enabling a fuller consideration of the role of literature than merely thematic analysis would have allowed. Especially original is her attention to the practice of reading: “in the bush, reading and thinking about British literature will be coupled with the quotidian concerns and activities typical of life on a sheep station,” writes Myers, discussing colonial transformations in reading vis-à-vis those in domestic life (133). However brief, discussions of the experience of reading enrich Antipodal England. Triangulating literature, domesticity, and colonialism, Myers ably demonstrates the ways in which ideologies of gender and empire transformed one another, with domestic practices constituting the basis of both residual and emergent forms of national identity in colonial Australia.
Ayşe Çelikkol is assistant professor at Bilkent University, Turkey, where she teaches in the departments of English Literature and American Culture and Literature. She has published articles on British and American fiction and poetry. Her forthcoming book, Romances of Free Trade: British Literature, Laissez-Faire, and the Global Nineteenth Century, explores the imagination and narration of global exchange relations in nineteenth-century British literature.