Graven Images: The Woman Writer, the Indian Poetess, and Imperial Aesthetics in L.E.L.'S "Hindoo Temples and Palaces at Madura."

Article excerpt

CRITICAL SCHOLARSHIP ON LETITIA LANDON HAS LONG BEEN FASCINATED BY THE Improvisatrice figure that haunts much of her poetic writing. Glennis Stephenson, Linda H. Peterson, and Angela Leighton among many others have produced a considerable body of critical opinion on L.E.L's poetess subjects. In her essay entitled "Receiving the Legend, Rethinking the Writer: Letitia Landon and the Poetess Tradition," Tricia Lootens notes that L.E.L. has been perceived of as "a primary source of the poetess tradition" and as one who has "opened up new understandings of feminine poetry's relations to the aesthetic, philosophical, and political preoccupations of the time." (1) Lootens, however, proceeds to call for a reading of Landon "as English first rather than as feminine" in order that "we may establish new relationships between her work and other women poets" (p. 245). In this essay I propose to offer a reading of L.E.L. as both English and feminine, with reference to one of her poems on India, in order to demonstrate the complexity of L.E.L.'s aesthetic and to supplement existing critical analyses of the configurations of the poetess tradition as found in L.E.L.'s verse.

The sample chosen is an intriguing poem that first appeared under the title of "Hindoo Temples and Palace at Madura" in Fisher's Drawing Room Scrapbook, 1836 later republished in The Zenana and Minor Poems with a Memoir by Emma Roberts (1839) and the Poetical Works of 1873. In its original context the poem functioned as supplement to an engraving of the Madura-Meenakshi temple of Madura, or Madurai as it is now spelled, a city in Southern India. "Hindoo Temples" is listed under the somewhat dismissive category of "Minor Poems" in F. J. Sypher's 1990 edition of L.E.L.'s poems, where it may be found under its present title "On an Engraving of Hindoo Temples." In the negligible degree of critical interest it has attracted it shares a fate similar to that of most poems Landon wrote for the drawing-room scrapbooks. L.E.L. herself, however, regarded the Fisher poems differently. In a memoir that functions as preface to The Zenana and Minor Poems, Emma Roberts records L.E.L.'s own assessment of her Fisher Scrapbook poems in a footnote. Roberts writes: "In one of her letters to Fisher, urging their republication, [L.E.L.] says "Some of my best poems have appeared in the 'Drawing Room Scrap Book.'" (2)

A close reading of a poem like "Hindoo Temples" certainly reveals it to be one of L.E.L's most sophisticated formulations of feminism in the context of Imperial aesthetics, revolving as it does around its central allusion to the well-known Tamil poetess Avvaiyar. In my analysis of this poem, I shall demonstrate that L.E.L. discovered a model of women's writing in colonized India that neither Orientalist positions (such as William Jones's) nor Anglicist positions (such as Thomas Babbington Macaulay's) could fully comprehend or articulate. Indeed, I hold that this poem afforded L.E.L. the opportunity to contemplate the Imperial character of patriarchal aesthetics and to situate her resistance to it in the figure of the Indian woman. For the relationship that transpires between her poem as feminist verbal text and the engraving as Imperial visual text is one of dialogue and interrogation.

The Fisher Drawing Room Scrapbooks were illustrated annuals that, in the 1830s, routinely proffered the Indian Empire to readers as visual feast for consumption. Exquisitely produced and bound, the scrapbooks drew upon conventional Imperial iconic representations of the Indian. Temples, sacred rivers, palaces, tombs, and suttee rituals recur with predictable regularity, in a collusion between Imperialism and the picturesque that has been frequently noted, for by such means were Indian art and architecture, like the Indian landscape, made available for pleasure and possession. As products of the marketplace, the assumptions these annuals promulgated about art and Empire were inevitably conservative. …