Postcolonial Studies: A Materialist Critique

By Benita Parry | Go to book overview

7

Reading the signs of empire in metropolitan fiction

Whether by direct influence or osmosis the work of postcolonial studies has prompted the wider community of literary critics to recognize that signs of overseas empire, conspicuous or ghostly, were written across the body of both the canonical and popular British literature. 1 This is an area more extensive than 'the fictions of empire', a subgenre for long regarded as the sole repository of colonialism's imprint on the metropolitan novel. In the aftermath of decolonization these writings attracted a singular form of criticism offering retrospects on empire that were sometimes infected by apologetics and often permeated by nostalgia. Notably lacking in scepticism about representation, and in large indifferent to stylistic considerations, the studies assumed the fictions to be a form of apprehending and reproducing already existing realities. 2 The move from a misconceived quest for the fictions' truths to consideration of their invention, reiteration or estrangement of colonialist perceptions and misconceptions has since enabled the discussion of these writings as culturally constrained and ideologically inflected fabrications that were overwhelmingly received in the imperial homeland as authentic renderings of both distant geographical locations and social forms, and of the colonizer's deportment.

However, to understand the imperial imaginary of British literature, enquiry must extend beyond the manifest representation of empire to those novels where it impinges in cryptic or oblique or encoded ways, and which hitherto had been read as narratives of an English condition sealed from and largely indifferent to the external world. Students of British history have for long acknowledged that the making of the mainland economy, society and state was inseparable from its colonial ventures. 3 Despite this, there was a delay in examining its centrality to the consciousness and culture of the imperial homeland. As far back as the 1980s Edward Said had noted that British empire figured in English cultural life 'as a fact and a source or subject of knowledge', and he went on to question 'why so few "great" novelists deal directly with the major social and economic outside facts of their existence - colonialism and imperialism - and why, too, critics of the novel have continued to honour this remarkable silence'. 4 Since then and to some considerable extent in the wake of Said's subsequent writings about the determinant effects of empire on a range of metropolitan cultural forms, 5 critics have come to hear this 'silence' as resonating with sounds and echoes of empire - how to intercept and interpret cadences that changed in timbre over time is a matter of controversy.

Here a caveat about terminology is necessary: within literary and cultural studies 'colonialism' and 'imperialism' are used interchangeably to cover the many centuries of

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