Imperial Characters: Home and Periphery in Eighteenth-Century Literature

Imperial Characters: Home and Periphery in Eighteenth-Century Literature

Imperial Characters: Home and Periphery in Eighteenth-Century Literature

Imperial Characters: Home and Periphery in Eighteenth-Century Literature


During the long eighteenth century, Britain won and lost an empire in North America while consolidating its hegemony on the Indian subcontinent. The idea of imperial Britain became an essential piece of national self-definition, so that to be British was to be a citizen of an imperial power. The British literary imagination inevitably participated in the formulation and interrogation of this new national character, examining in fiction empire's effects on the world at home. Imperial Characters traces a range of literary articulations of how British national character is formed, changed, and distorted by the imperial project. Tara Wallace argues that each text she considers, from Aphra Behn's early description of seventeenth-century colonists in Surinam to Robert Louis Stevenson's historical narrative about eighteenth-century Scotsmen roaming the globe, enacts the opportunities, disruptions, and dangers of imperial adventurism. Through close readings of works by Behn, Pope, Thomson, Defoe, Smollett, Bage, Hamilton, Scott, and Stevenson, contextualized within historical moments, Wallace persuasively shows how literary texts rehearse the risks incurred in the course of imperial expansion, not only to British lives but also to cherished national values.

Tara Ghoshal Wallace was born in India and grew up in Calcutta and Washington, D.C. She is Professor of English at The George Washington University, where she also serves as Associate Dean for Graduate Studies in Arts and Sciences. The editor of Frances Burney's A Busy Day (1984) and co-editor of Women Critics 1660-1820: An Anthology (1995), Professor Wallace is the author of Jane Austen and Narrative Authority (1995), and of numerous articles on Austen, Walter Scott, Dr. Johnson, Frances Burney, Tobias Smollett, and Elizabeth Hamilton.


Sometime around 1960, a brand-new public library opened in the Alipore district of Calcutta. Its cleanliness, brightness, and silence provided a welcome respite from the noise and dirt that surrounded even those of us who lived in the “good” parts of town, and it became a favorite destination for my family. Having gone through the Enid Blyton books housed in the children’s section of that library, I wandered over to the adult shelves, where I came upon the novels of Jane Austen. It is not too much of an exaggeration to say that my early exposure to those illustrated Victorian editions of Austen decided the course of my professional life. When, more than three decades later, I wrote my book on Austen, it was a labor of love as well as the fulfillment of a childhood ambition. and it was decidedly the product of a postcolonial education.

This book too arises from those early years of reading Austen in Calcutta. Although professional training and practice have produced the particular version of eighteenth-century studies worked out here, the project also represents the culmination of a personal narrative that could be described as postcolonial hybridity, one that has taken me from Calcutta to Washington D.C., with a formative stopover in Toronto—all former possessions of imperial Britain, occupying very different but significantly overlapping positions in a postcolonial world. I think it would be fair to say that this book, more than my earlier work, articulates a global vision that has always been part of my life. It is a vision that prevents me from inhabiting resentful or victimized postcoloniality while it accommodates and assimilates postcolonial critiques of imperial practices. As the daughter of an Oxford-educated ics officer who served the British Raj before joining the government of independent India, I am inevitably the (privileged) product of a colonial culture; as the granddaughter of the historian U. N. Ghoshal, author of many books on ancient Indian culture and government, I am equally aware of the value of the world that colonial culture superseded.

Thomas Babington Macaulay’s 1835 “Minute” on Indian education has frequently been a target for postcolonial scorn. the idea of educating the colonized to admire and assimilate the language and values of . . .

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