Patrick Brantlinger, Rule of Darkness: British Literature and Imperialism, 1830-1914

By David, Deirdre | Nineteenth-Century Prose, Winter 1989 | Go to article overview

Patrick Brantlinger, Rule of Darkness: British Literature and Imperialism, 1830-1914


David, Deirdre, Nineteenth-Century Prose


Patrick Brantlinger, Rule of Darkness: British Literature and Imperialism, 1830-1914. Ithaca, NY: Cornell UP, 1988.

At a time when new historicism is sometimes ahistoricism, when cultural materialism is often unrelated to literary analysis, what a splendid book this is to have. Firmly grounded in ample readings in social history and everywhere informed by a matchless familiarity with Victorian literature, Brantlinger's study exemplifies cultural studies at its best and most productive. Setting out to map the development of imperialist ideology, primarily in adventure tales, travel narratives, novels, and histories, he shows that the discourse of imperialism is a vital enabling factor in the expansion of empire in the nineteenth century. From Marryat's maritime tales of the 1830s through Thackeray's India, the literature of Botany Bay, and Orientalist fantasies of the latter quarter of the century, we arrive at Brantlinger's stunning genealogical chart of the myth of the Dark Continent--Europe's idea of Africa, in all its darkness and its horror. Let me give some idea of the supple readings that culminate in a refreshing insistence that we "see" (to use Conrad's word from his Preface to The Nigger of the Narcissus) the dreadful ambiguities of Heart of Darkness, a text which resists uniform interpretation as exposure of atrocities in the Congo or as ephemeral impressionism.

Perhaps the most significant imperative of Rule of Darkness is that we put aside a narrow definition of imperialism as the late nineteenth-century acquisition of new territories by European nations. Brantlinger insists that early and mid-Victorians expressed imperialist ideology in their writings and that imperialism "understood as an evolving but pervasive set of attitudes and ideas toward the rest of the world, influenced all aspects of Victorian and Edwardian culture" (8). But this set of attitudes and ideas undergoes profound change throughout the century, as he demonstrates in his analysis of a shift from hopeful evangelical reform of the savage "other" to a sense of decay, decadence, and loss about the "improving" enterprise at the end of the century. In-between (among other things), Brantlinger shows that Frederick Marryat's tales set the pattern for "the imperialist adventure fiction that flourished from the seafaring writers who emulated him in the 1830s ... down to Haggard, Stevenson, Kipling, and Conrad" (49), and that the literature of Botany Bay expresses contradictions characterizing "the entire literature of emigration and colonization. Were emigrants themselves outcasts, social misfits, criminals? If so, how could they be viewed as the vanguard of an Empire whose goal was nothing less than semidivine, the redemption of the nonwestern world from darkness and barbarism" (113). The posing of this question exemplifies what is particularly good about Brantlinger's study, his identification and sustained elaboration of the deep contradictions embedded in all imperialist discourse.

What's also especially fine about Rule of Darkness is the level-headed use of Foucault's theories of power and surveillance. Unlike many critics who spin disciplinary designs at the drop of a narrative hat, Brantlinger, in his readings of Philip Meadows Taylor's Confession of a Thug (1839) and of Sir Richard Button's Personal Narrative of a Pilgrimage to Al-Madinah and Meccah (1855) produces persuasive evidence that knowledge is power, that the panoptic revelation of Indian Thuggee by the Anglo-Indian police and the anthropological surveillance of western science, produce and reproduce imperial domination.

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