A woman is a foreign land
Of which, though there he settle young
A man will ne'er quite understand
The customs, politics, and tongue.
B. M. Croker, Angel (1901)
Although gender represents an abiding structure of difference within colonial discourse, its metaphorical role in defining the provenance of imperial masculine power has always been a tenuous one. In the above epigraph, taken from the popular Anglo-Indian romance Angel: A Sketch in Indian Ink, the conjoining of gender and colonialism appears, on the surface, to rehearse a familiar metaphorical theme-that men were providentially entitled to settle in or govern foreign lands in the same way in which they had access to the passive bodies of women. In fact, the ideological valence of this metaphor rested on the past achievements of colonialism-of conquering and bringing under civil rule alien lands. Mirroring the ruling tenets of male civility that dictated nineteenth-century Britain's national and domestic order, the metaphor also links the disciplinary modalities of control and governance to the imperial enterprise of “settling” in a “foreign land.” Yet, that powerful metaphor also appears to be infected with a sense of uncertainty: because both women and the colonized world possessed an intransigent-and, indeed, irreducible-“foreignness, ” the imperial masculine task turns out to be at best a vulnerable enterprise. In fact, it is often ridden with the problem of unreadability and incomprehension, and with the attendant anxieties of being eluded by the very object that had appeared to be so immediately accessible.
I am concerned here with the ways in which this problem reverberated in the popular stories about the Indian empire that were narrated in the Anglo-Indian romances of the late nineteenth century, of which Croker's Angel: A Sketch in Indian Ink is a fitting example. These stories often speak of a crisis in civility, a crisis that is linked to the very definition of power and masculinity. Historically that crisis had been propelled by key shifts in the larger domain of gender and class relations within colonial Britain, changes that necessitated a reworking of masculinity in the cultural imagination of the public in order to restore faith in the colonial enterprise