Nation and Novel: The English Novel from Its Origins to the Present Day

By Patrick Parrinder | Go to book overview

13
From Kipling to Independence:
Losing the Empire

IT was not until the British Empire was nearing its end that it became both a major presence in English fiction and a controversial topic in the discussion of English identity. Before Rudyard Kipling's birth in 1865 the English, in Sir John Seeley's words, had 'conquered and peopled half the world in a fit of absence of mind'.1 There had been representations of British seafaring, trading, plantation-owning, and colonial administration in English novels since the seventeenth century, yet these activities were mostly taken for granted and nearly always kept in the background. The heroes of the early journey novels and rogue novels were likely to visit Britain's overseas settlements, but not to stay there except as fugitives from British justice. In the novel of courtship, the need to manage a colonial estate provided a convenient explanation for a lover's or father's absence. Early Victorian novels such as David Copperfield, Mary Barton, and Charles Kingsley's Alton Locke (1850) end with the emigration of characters who cannot find a suitable place in English society. By the end of the nineteenth century, the emphasis was no longer on the wealth to be garnered from colonial exploitation but on imperialism as an extension, or even a quintessence, of the national identity.

In 1869 John Seeley, formerly a professor of Latin at University College, London, was appointed Professor of Modern History at Cambridge. Seeley made little impact as a historian until 1883, when his lectures on The Expansion of England offered a fundamental challenge to the conception of the modern British nation put forward by Macaulay and his successors. The proper subject for English historians, in Seeley's view, was not the domestic politics of the British Isles but the 'Greater Britain' or 'vast English nation' spread all over the globe. England, Seeley argued, was now and in the future 'wherever English people are found' (88–9, 141). Seeley's confidence in the strength of imperial institutions makes him an intellectual forerunner of the twentieth-century Commonwealth; he was strongly opposed to the conventional liberal view that the

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