Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

Fashioning Women, Fastening Empire: Domestic Dress and Savage Skin in Mr. Meeson's Will

Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

Fashioning Women, Fastening Empire: Domestic Dress and Savage Skin in Mr. Meeson's Will

Article excerpt

Critical interest in the works of Henry Rider Haggard has always turned upon his status as a writer--perhaps the writer--of imperial romance. (1) Neil Hultgren's survey of Haggard criticism shows that even prior to the explosion of postcolonial studies that galvanized and dominated treatments of Haggard in the 1990s, critics tended to separate his romances, set in the empire, from his other novels, concentrating on the former for their imperial politics while mostly dismissing the latter. This divide remains largely intact today, as studies of Haggard continue to focus on his romances despite some renewed interest in his lesser-known novels like Dawn (1884) and Jess (1887) (Hultgren 647, 655). And yet, I agree with Hultgren's observation that while "Haggard's works often roam far afield from depicting British imperial exploits in Africa, the settings, themes, and concerns of the fiction depend in part on Haggard's African experiences" (646). If Haggard's domestic novels follow the more conventionally Victorian plots about marriage and inheritance, they are nonetheless framed by concerns germane to imperial anxiety--those of cultural and political identities, and of how they are defined.

Haggard's strange novel Mr. Meeson's Will (1888) exemplifies precisely this imbrication of the imperial and the domestic. Set primarily in England, the major plot lines, which involve both courtship and courtroom drama, hinge directly upon the main characters' adventures abroad; their brushes with the colonial sphere remind us of the porousness of the empire's boundaries. Recent scholarship on Mr. Meeson's Will attends closely to this interchange, focusing on the tattooed will that marks the heroine's flesh and splitting over the question of her agency. Cathrine O. Frank discusses the tattoo's "role as a cultural marker of the exotic, savage, or primitive--in short of the adventure connoted by colonial discourse--in which tattooed people could participate... without leaving home" (328), linking the tattoo to the testamentary will in its disciplinary inscription of the woman's body. LeeAnne Richardson has shown that the tattooing scene transforms the New Woman novel into an imperial romance, resulting in a flattened and tamed female character. Joining these readings, Patricia Murphy understands the tattoo through its "othered" cultural associations in both the periphery and the center, arguing that Haggard uses the tattoo to punish and subdue his plucky, intelligent woman novelist.

My own work adds to this conversation by further exploring the implications of imperial influence on English domesticity through a reading of Augusta's tattoo that counters the tendency to interpret Mr. Meeson's Will through an antifeminist lens. I argue that her tattoo articulates the limitations of imperial power by highlighting the ambiguities that characterize the objects and practices used to stabilize the empire's definition of civilization, including the legal apparatuses--such as testamentary wills--that constitute its backbone. The novel undermines the authority of the will that claims Augusta's body by underscoring its dependency on cultural discourses about legitimacy, property, and civilization that weaken with increased distance from the metropole. By instead situating Augusta's ink within the context of colonial women's tattoos, I suggest that her inscription signifies an inimitably personal experience rather than a prescriptively legal one, allying her with a broader discursive practice that opposes strictly patriarchal narratives of women's bodies.

I examine the colonial tattoo's challenge to imperial demarcations of cultural legibility through what may, at first glance, seem to be a narrowly domestic lens--that of fashion. But because "fashionable women" became a nexus around which dialogue concerning the condition of Englishwomen and their impact on nation and empire regularly occurred, my attention to fashion reveals the extent to which the cultural stability associated with suitably-attired women is quickly contested in an imperial context, highlighting women's identities as complex sites of both domestic and imperial negotiations of power and cultural exchange. …

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