Academic journal article Wordsworth Circle

"Eternally Disunited": Gender, Empire, and Epistemology in Sydney Owenson's the Missionary

Academic journal article Wordsworth Circle

"Eternally Disunited": Gender, Empire, and Epistemology in Sydney Owenson's the Missionary

Article excerpt

Among nineteenth-century British literary works with Eastern themes--such as Southey's Thalaba the Destroyer (1801) and The Curse of Kehama (1810), Byron's "Eastern Tales" (1813-14), and Thomas Moore's Lalla Rookh (1817)--Sydney Owenson's The Missionary (1811) stands apart in its blending sensibility with "radical political aims" (Wright 30). The sentimental plot of a seventeenth-century Portuguese missionary who goes to India and falls in love with the Hindu priestess he is attempting to convert is vexed by a radical element in the novel: the inter-subjectivity between the missionary, Hilarion, and the priestess, Luxima. (1) By subverting the "archetypal victims" of sentimental fiction, the "chaste and suffering woman ... elevated into redemptive death, and the sensitive, benevolent man whose feelings are too exquisite for the acquisitiveness, vulgarity and selfishness of his world," Owenson exposes the melange of late Enlightenment repressions and injustices (Todd 4).

Luxima's perspective of Hilarion underscores the composite of ambivalences that characterize nineteenth-century imperialism and masculinity. (2) Central to Owenson's critique is her complication of the traditional gendered duality of reason and sensibility. Rather than merely inverting the hierarchy of male rationality and female sensibility, Owenson, challenges their assumed duality across gender lines, and conceives two distinct types of sensibility, one embodied by the European Hilarion and the other by the Hindu Luxima. Casting The Missionary in the mode of sensibility as it exposes the conflicts between East and West and between female and male, Owenson subverts the "inert model" of Enlightenment reason so that sensibility becomes "a way of thinking through [her] relationship to knowledge." (3)

Though the setting of Hilarion's seventeenth-century Portuguese mission distances him from Owenson's own historical context, he is conflicted in peculiarly late Enlightenment British ways: the Romantic sensibility underlying his careful self-fashioning of deistic rationalism produces what Owenson refers to as his "hypochondriasm" (202). Eighteenth-century novelists had "found it increasingly difficult to distinguish between the figure of the virtuous hero ... and that of the sadly distracted and isolated hysteric"; Owenson, however, reveals that these are not exclusive characteristics; "creeping 'unreason' ... haunts [Hilarion's] supposedly triumphant 'reason'" (Mullan 16, 202). Though Hilarion presents himself as the paternalistic rescuer of Luxima specifically and the Hindus in general, his anxiety over the radical, epistemological shift that India has wrought reaches such a pitch in the course of the novel that his self-proclaimed reason gives way to passion that takes "the path of excess," the malady resulting from excess of sensibility. Indeed, Hilarion embodies "sensibility in retreat, segregated from a world impervious to it" (Mullan 234, 213).

Owenson thus dismantles, through its self-subverting ties to both sensibility and late Enlightenment rationalism, the Romantic masculine ideal described by Marlon Ross as the Romantic poet's "myth of masculine self-possession" that enables his "historical resituation," in turn allowing him to "adapt psychologically, philosophically, and pragmatically to historical forces that are beyond his control as a human being but that nurture the myth of self-control as the primary means for containing those forces" (28-29). Hilarion, whose self-possession abandons him on each of these fronts in the course of his mission to convert Luxima, becomes afflicted with an excess of sensibility, a paralyzing concoction of rage, arrogance, lust, and repression.

Hilarion is an amalgam of the Romantic poet, imperialist, and Orientalist; his experience of sublimity as he is transported East introduces him as a man who conflates the material claims of imperialism with the visionary: "[T]he imagination of the Missionary, escaping beyond the limits of human vision, stretched over those various and wondrous tracts, so diversified by clime and soil, by government and by religion. …

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