Colonial Strangers: Women Writing the End of the British Empire

Colonial Strangers: Women Writing the End of the British Empire

Colonial Strangers: Women Writing the End of the British Empire

Colonial Strangers: Women Writing the End of the British Empire

Synopsis

Colonial Strangers revolutionizes modern British literary studies by showing how our interpretations of the postcolonial must confront World War II and the Holocaust. Lassner's analysis reveals how writers such as Muriel Spark, Olivia Manning, Rumer Godden, Phyllis Bottome, Elspeth Huxley, and Zadie Smith insist that World War II is critical to understanding how and why the British Empire had to end. These authors revised modern fictional form by linking the end of the empire to the end of fascism. Drawing on memoirs, fiction, reportage, and film adaptations, Colonial Strangers explores the critical perspectives of women who are passionately engaged with Britain's struggle to yield the last vestiges of imperial power. Lassner also examines how these writers correct prevailing stereotypes of British women as agents of imperialism by questioning their own participation in British claims of moral righteousness and British politics of cultural exploitation. The authors discussed take center stage in debates about connections between the racist ideologies of the Third Reich and the British Empire. Colonial Strangers reveals how the literary responses of key artists represent not only compelling reading, but also a necessary intervention in colonial and postcolonial debates and the canons of modern British fiction.

Excerpt

There was the Empire, and there were we at the heart and center of the world. No one questioned our position. Everyone else was a barbarian, more or less.

—Elspeth Huxley, Love among the Daughters

Among all the women writers I study in this book, Elspeth Huxley has not been neglected or ignored. in fact, she has won the unequivocal, if not visceral, attention of critics. Huxley, who died in 1997, retains the power, even today, to ignite a raging bonfire of criticism of her African identity and writing. Her African critics, most notably Chinua Achebe, find her guilty for “consider [ing] herself an African, like so many other white settlers in the fertile, comfortable highlands the British had taken away from the Gikuyu in Kenya” (Achebe 2001, 57). Achebe's totalizing indictment reflects back on his own identity experience and creates more of an affinity with Huxley than he would seem to desire. For like the white woman settler writer, he, too, received a British-based education and left the Africa he loved to become a writer who complicated what an African identity means. and so Huxley, too, over fifty years, wrote about Africa as she imagined it before colonization, as she experienced it as a child settler, and as she tried to understand it after independence. After she left, she never lived in Africa again but, like Achebe, sustained a passionate love and concern for the land and peoples who shaped her multivalent identity. If this passion underwrites a form of nostalgia, it is not, as Michael Gorra argues about Paul Scott, “for imperial rule, ” but is “a persistent search for what he just as persistently does not find, for an idea, a belief, that will give a purpose … he knows cannot be found and which he would have to discount even if it could” (1997, 24—25). Whatever knowledge Huxley acquired, however, is seen as ill-gotten gains, as when she is accused of using her “sound grasp of the Gikuyu language” and customs to justify colonization (Githae-Mugo 1978, 122). the identity politics with which this lifelong journey becomes entwined earns her . . .

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