Romantic Representations of British India/byron and Orientalism

By Watt, James | The Byron Journal, June 2007 | Go to article overview

Romantic Representations of British India/byron and Orientalism


Watt, James, The Byron Journal


ROMANTIC REPRESENTATIONS OF BRITISH INDIA. Edited by Michael J. Franklin. London and New York: Routledge, 2006. Pp. xiv + 290. ISBN 0-415-37827-3. £75.00.

BYRON AND ORIENTALISM. Edited by Peter Cochran. Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars Press, 2006. Pp. xii + 320. ISBN 1904303900. £39.95.

In recent years, studies of the colonial encounter between Britain and India have increasingly rejected binary models of analysis in favour of a focus on the dynamic processes of intercultural contact and exchange. As Michael Franklin outlines in his wide-ranging introduction to Romantic Representations of British India, with reference to the work of Raymond Schwab, one important dimension of this encounter is that the eighteenth-century European 'discovery' of Eastern languages, literatures and cultures provided a crucial stimulus to the development of Romanticism. The polymath Sir William Jones, not surprisingly, is a recurrent figure in this collection, featuring in many of the essays. Tim Fulford's 'Poetic flowers/Indian bowers', for example, considers Jones's interests in Linnaean botany as well as Hindu mythology, and his account of the way in which Jones's diverse writings transformed British Orientalist poetry is complemented by Lynda Pratt's discussion of both the personal and ideological differences between Jones and Robert Southey: Southey's strange epic The Curse of Kehama, Pratt shows, signals an imaginative indebtedness to Hindu tradition even as its preface and notes repudiate heathen superstition. Franklin's essay on Romantic-period fictions of India is especially alert to the (lost) possibilities of cross-cultural encounter on Indian soil, as exhibited in Phoebe Gibbes's Hartly House (subtitled 'A Novel of the Days of Warren Hastings') and Sydney Owenson's The Missionary, a work which, Franklin argues, attempts to keep alive the 'syncretic vision' of Jones against the grain of the period in which it was written, when evangelical and utilitarian ideologies of 'improvement' were in the ascendant. Chapters by Tilar Mazzeo and Bennett Zon similarly address the role of Jones as a cultural intermediary, dealing in particular with the nineteenth-century reception of his writings on music. Jones's treatise 'On the Musical Modes of the Hindus', Zon argues, helped to make accessible what had hitherto been a 'closed musical world' (though later musicologists were to dispute the terms of his translation), and this new world of Indian song, as Mazzeo shows, provided Percy Bysshe Shelley with the inspiration for the seductive 'musical maidens' that feature in allegorically suggestive yet politically ambiguous poems such as Prometheus Unbound and Laon and Cythna.

If one of the strengths of the collection is that essays such as these enrich our understanding of the cultural phenomenon of Romantic Orientalism, another is the way in which many of the volume's contributors emphasise that intercultural contact is a necessarily two-way affair, where the distribution of agency is far from straightforward and the consequences are often unpredictable. Natasha Eaton's chapter on 'Art Gift and Diplomacy in Colonial India', for example, provides a nuanced account of the symbolic role of portraits and prints in the complex gift-relationships between East India Company officials and Indian courts during the 1770s and 1780s. In an essay titled 'Travelling the Other Way', meanwhile, Nigel Leask considers the fascinating case of the Indo-Persian Mirza Abu Taleb Khan, who came to Britain in 1799 with the intention of teaching Persian and Hindi to Company employees: Abu Taleb was not a critic of British imperialism, and the published account of his Travels was treated with condescension by the Quarterly's reviewer, Reginald Heber, but this work nonetheless incorporates independent and informed criticism of British customs and manners, in addition to the writer's playful description of his knowing performance of long-established European stereotypes, such as that of 'the lascivious Muslim'. …

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