Academic journal article Journal of the Association for the Study of Australian Literature : JASAL

William Pember Reeves, Writing the Fortunate Isles

Academic journal article Journal of the Association for the Study of Australian Literature : JASAL

William Pember Reeves, Writing the Fortunate Isles

Article excerpt

In all its phases, the career of William Pember Reeves was shaped by overlapping social and cultural identities. From his childhood as an English migrant in New Zealand being groomed to join the colonial ruling class, to his advocacy of Greek independence and chairmanship of the Anglo-Hellenic League in his last decades, Reeves illustrates the kind of mobility across social as well as national and geographical borders that calls for the use of the term 'transnational colonial' rather than 'expatriate.'1 He has this in common with many Australasian writers at the turn of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. This paper will focus on how he 'wrote New Zealand,' particularly after his move to London in 1896 as Agent-General.

The expression 'transnational colonial,' coined by Ken Gelder in relation to popular fiction (Gelder 1), conveys the cultural hybridity of the late nineteenth century Australasian abroad without imposing a rigidly 'centre/margins' structure of imperial power relations. The term 'transnational' stresses the existence of two-way or multiple exchanges of influences and ideas between colonial and metropolitan writers, publishers, readers, and markets. Such an approach to colonial/imperial cultural relationships has been developed by postcolonial critics and historians such as John Ball in Imagining London: Postcolonial Fiction and the Transnational Metropolis (2004), Angela Woollacott in To Try Her Fortune in London (2001), and Andrew Hassam, in Through Australian Eyes: Colonial Perceptions of Imperial Britain (2000). Similarly, in their excellent study of late colonial writing, Maoriland: New Zealand Literature 1872-1914, Jane Stafford and Mark Williams argue that 'empire was an internationalising force in ways not often recognised. Nor was all the traffic of ideas from centre to periphery' (15).

While the white settler colonies had distinctive identities and were regarded as emerging nations, they were still firmly bound by legal, political and economic ties. Writers and artists from the antipodes moved freely as British citizens travelling the circuits of Empire. Studies of Australasians travelling or living in London have stressed the plurality of cultural identity for colonial and British subjects, and the effect of displacement on the construction of cultural identity. Ros Pesman, for instance, reminds us that

... for a century and a half, at least, European Australians claimed two homes, that of birth, family and friends, of memory and family history, and that of domicile. Despite the cri de coeur of constructors and the critics of the cultural cringe, few colonists felt any conflict between their loyalty to the old land and to the new. (Pesman 4)

As I have argued elsewhere, and as many cultural historians have acknowledged, much twentieth-century discussion of national identity fails to convey the full range of colonial, imperial, and British cultural identities and affiliation, a multiplicity which in the 1890s could be taken for granted.2 Multiple identities or cultural affiliations could be carried simultaneously or selectively emphasised according to circumstances and context (Hassam 25-27; Pesman 17; Tasker 3, 16-17; Woollacott 9-10). Through public engagement with political and social as well as literary networks and institutions in the late nineteenth century, across both hemispheres, Reeves and other 'British Australasians' performed as transnational colonials, simultaneously citizens of New Zealand, Australasia, London, Britain, the British Empire, the Dominions, and the English-speaking world.

Like his contemporary in Australian politics, Alfred Deakin, Reeves was a colonial nationalist insisting on the autonomy of his own colony, but with a vision of the future in which the British Empire would continue to exist as 'a more meaningful and democratic institution' (Rickard 111). Ruth Feingold in 2007 summarised debates around Australian national identity, noting that with some exceptions, 'most historians agree that both Australians and New Zealanders of this period simultaneously subscribed to both a colonial nationalism and an imperialism almost religious in its intensity' (Feingold 64). …

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