Writers and Readers: Books that Shaped and Subverted the British Empire Conference 8-9 May 2015

I’ve just spent a fascinating two days at a conference held at Melbourne University that explored the impact of books and writing on and in the British Empire. Held to support the launch of Ten Books that Shaped the British Empire: Creating an Imperial Commons, this was an interdisciplinary conference that brought together academics from history, anthropology, English and museum studies to examine the writing, reading and distribution of books that both shaped and subverted the British Empire.

1888 Building, University of Melbourne

1888 Building, University of Melbourne

The keynote address was by Elleke Boehme, Professor of World Liberature in English from Oxford University (and one of the judges for the 2015 Man Booker International Prize).  She compared autobiographical texts written by Jawaharlal Nehru (Autobiography and The Discovery of India) and Nelson Mandela’s Long Walk to Freedom.   Both texts were written by outstanding leaders, both were fostered during long periods of imprisonment, and they even drew on similar themes, tropes and imagery. However, Mandela’s text departed from Nehru’s narrative in that he projected a more confident view of the future beyond the nation.

It was followed by a session that explored religious texts in empire. Troy Heffernan from USQ discussed the King James Bible and the Book of Common Prayer- two Anglican texts that accompanied the expansion of the British Empire.  I hadn’t realized that the Book of Common Prayer had undergone major revisions, most particularly in relation to the daily obligations that had shaped earlier Anglican religious expression. Then Samia Khatun from the University of Melbourne explored the global circulation of the Quran, and the Ahmadiyyan prophesies that emerged from British India at the end of the nineteenth century.  The prophesies of Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, were regularly published in Australian newspapers, and his predictions of the defeat, rise and then collapse of Turkey were interpreted, of course, in the light of World War I. Dr Khatun then shifted her attention from these public prophesies to the private stories of prophesies and dreams that were circulated through women’s stories, drawing on stories from her own family.

Large magnolia tree outside 1888 building

Large magnolia tree outside 1888 building

The next panel, Texts of Dispossession, explored three texts of empire.  Tracey Banivanua Mar discussed Edward Gibbon Wakefield’s work over the length of his career, noting in particular the feedback about Indigenous landownership that Wakefield received from his brother Felix, a surveyor in Tasmania, and Arthur, a settler with the New Zealand Company who was killed by Ngati Toa over stolen land.  Lucy Davies (fellow PhD candidate from La Trobe) took Beatrice Grimshaw’s 1911 novel When the Red Gods Call, set in New Guinea, which addressed fantasies and anxieties about masculinity, sex and gender when the main character, Stephanie Hammond, learns that her husband had once married a ‘native’ woman.  Finally, Tom Rogers from the University of Melbourne explored William Westgarth’s writings published between the 1840s and 1860s- “booster” literature that lauded Port Phillip’s progress and encouraged emigration to the colony. He traced the change in Westgarth’s attitudes towards the Indigenous population over time, with  increasingly heightened claims about infanticide and cannibalism as a way of justifying the settler-colonial project.

Two papers on Jane Eyre followed: one by Charlotte Macdonald, the other by Bryonny Goodwin-Hawkins, an anthropologist.  Both these papers were carefully written and beautifully presented.  The first explored ideas of possession and re-possession, picking up that very first scene in the opening chapter with Jane defiantly rebuffing Master Reed who bullied her when she crept behind the curtains in the drawing room to read.  The second paper ‘placed’ the image of the deserted, lonely Haworth Parsonage into the industrial context of cotton bales and looms of the Pennines region.  These were two really special papers (probably my favourites of the whole conference), quite different in construction and delivery to the more history-based papers to which  I’m accustomed.

The fourth session examined the book trade.  You only have to look at any of the early Australian newspapers on Trove to note that the final page of each four-page edition was made up of articles extracted from newspapers from across the empire. In fact, it has often struck me that these little local newspapers had probably as much international  (or at least inter-empire) focus proportionally as our newspapers do today- if not more.  Isobel Hofmeyr from the University of the Witwatersrand explored the role of the ‘exchange editor’ whose job it was to scour the newspapers as they arrived from overseas and literally cut-and-past articles into the local papers. When the concept of copyright arose- and it did not do so for some time-  it became tied up with Customs and Excise, and an exercise in sorting out the desirable from the undesirable.  David Carter from the University of Queensland discussed the transatlantic book trade which, although it restricted the development of local printing houses, did provide a means by which Australian books were offered to American and European markets (even though they were seen as ‘British’).  Australian books were reduced from three volumes to one, and often circulated in cheap libraries and as pirate copies – although at a time when copyright was unknown, a cheap knock-off was seen as a legitimate way of broadening the audience.

Christina Twomey explored Emily Hobhouse’s 1902 book The Brunt of the War and Where It Fell which demonstrated the impact of the Boer War on white women and children, but what struck me about her presentation was her sensitive portrayal of Hobhouse as the frustrated youngest daughter, confined for years in caring for her ailing father. [And I must confess that at this point, I had to leave and missed the next two papers and the book launch]

The beautiful (plane?) tree at the rear of the 1888 building. When I attended, the creche was located in the building and this tree dominated the children's playground.

The beautiful (plane?) tree at the rear of the 1888 building. When I attended, the creche was located in the building and this tree dominated the children’s playground.

But I was back bright and early this morning for the second day.  The first session ‘The Caribbean’ explored three texts- two of which were unfamiliar to me, the other more well-known.  Trevor Burnard from University of Melbourne discussed Edward Long’s History of Jamaica, published in 1774 by a wealthy and influential British absentee planter, who was resident in Jamaica between 1757-1769. This three-volume book is more often dipped into for its facts rather than read as as a text in its own right, and although it is a racist rant, it is also a critique of the short-termism of English policy compared with French planning, perseverance and expenditure.  Aaron Kamugisha from the University of the West Indies followed, with a presentation on C.L.R. James’ The Black Jacobins: Toussaint L’Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution, published in 1938, and hugely influential in shaping the views of three generations of radical activists and intellectuals.  The text was originally a stage-play starring Paul Robeson before James reworked it as a history, and appearing as it did just as World War II broke out, the first edition is difficult to find.  It was translated into French in 1949 and promptly banned, and it is the second edition of 1963 that had such a profound effect in bringing the Haiti Revolution to audiences throughout the world.  The final paper of the session was by Sue Thomas from La Trobe University who discussed Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea (which of course links with the Jane Eyre papers of the previous day) and the biographical influences of Rhys’ own family that are echoed in the novel.  She quoted from a cache of financial letters from Rhys’ great-grandparents, their son, and their creditors, that highlighted the indebtedness and sense of financial injury that form the background to Rhys’ own family and which inform the context of Wide Sargasso Sea.

The next panel ‘The Colonial Writing World’ started with Ken Gelder’s discussion of colonial Australian detective fiction- especially the world’s first detective novel, John Lang’s The Forger’s Wife (1853).  George Flower, the detective, was himself an emancipated convict, and was probably based on Israel Chapman.  He went on to Mary Fortune’s detective stories, especially Dandy Art’s Diary where one detective undercover watched another detective undercover.   The detective held an uneasy social position, just below respectable, and as in Fergus Hume’s Mystery of a Hansom Cab, there were many others who competed with the detective to solve the crime.   Bruce Knox then followed with a paper on Edward Bulwer Lyttton, who was a novelist, MP and eventually Secretary of State for the Colonies.  He wrote what sounds like a very strange science fiction/satire The Coming Race where a subterranean people, possessing the awesome power of ‘Vril’ practiced colonization  and planned to eventually ascend to the upper world and displace the existing inhabitants.  It was a satire and critique on Utopianism, Equality and Democracy (and was also the source of name of the ‘Bovril’ drink [Bo as an abbreviation of bovine or beef, and ‘vril’ from The Coming Race])

240px-Bovril_250g

Helen Bones rounded off the session with a discussion of Antipodean writers who span the Australian/New Zealand nexus, in particular Arthur H. Adam and Edith Lyttleton (who wrote as G. B. Lancaster).  Lyttleton’s books are ‘Dominion’ novels, set in Australia, Canada and New Zealand. Both these writers are often overlooked because they are in-between the two countries, and fall outside nationalistic approaches to literature with their emphasis on identification with landscape.

The final session that I stayed for (because I again left early) was ‘The Imperial Formation of Australian National Identities’.  Karen Downing who wrote Restless Men (reviewed here) gave a beautifully constructed paper that picked up on the argument in her book for the importance of Robinson Crusoe as an inspiration and point of identification for men in the emerging British colonies. Melanie Nolan, the General Editor of the Australian Dictionary of Biography, followed, with a discussion of Coral Lansbury (Malcolm Turnbull’s mother) and her book Arcady in Australia which argued that the egalitarian, Arcadian view of Australia was not formed in the bush in the 1890s as Russel Ward argued, but was instead imported to Australia by English writers of the 1850s – Samuel Sidney, Charles Dickens and Edward Bulwer Lytton (who we met in an earlier session).  She suggested that Lansbury and her book Arcady in Australia  has been largely overlooked because she was an expatriate, died early, went into English Departments rather History (as Russel Ward did), and she didn’t write about women beyond an article in Meanjin.  I have a copy of Lansbury on my shelf, and I’ll be reading it soon.  And, for me, the last paper of the day was by Kate Darian-Smith who discussed two post-war books, Henrietta Drake-Brockman’s The Fatal Days (1847) set in Ballarat and a thinly disguised book on Australian nationalism, and Florence James and Dymphna Cusack’s controversial Come in Spinner, which had a long and stormy gestation after winning a prize as an unpublished manuscript and then had to be cut and censored for its raciness and anti-Americanism.

The beautiful stained glass windows in the Gryphon Gallery (where the conference was held), commemorating members of the Melbourne Teachers College (whose building this originally was) who died and served in World War I

The beautiful stained glass windows in the Gryphon Gallery (where the conference was held), commemorating members of the Melbourne Teachers College (whose building this originally was) who died and served in World War I

As you can gather, this was a wide-ranging conference that discussed many books and ideas.  The panels were well-organized by theme, and I enjoyed being exposed to the different presentation styles from other disciplines.  And so, what WERE  the Ten Books That Shaped the British Empire? I don’t know: I wasn’t there for the launch and there were no copies on sale today. So I guess I’ll just have to read it to find out!

[If I’ve made any errors or misrepresentations here, please contact me at my email address in the ‘About’ section]

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One response to “Writers and Readers: Books that Shaped and Subverted the British Empire Conference 8-9 May 2015

  1. Sounds fascinating… and in a different context just yesterday we were talking about the role of social novels in shaping Australian ideas in the 30s! The pen is mightier than the sword, as they say. Which is why censorship was so rigid here for so long, of course…

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