The validation of the evangelical creed in Jane Eyre is in stark contrast to Collins's satire of Victorian religious hypocrisy through Miss Clack and 'our Christian hero' (199) Mr. Godfrey Ablewhite in The Moonstone. The Moonstone was published in 1868, by which time myths and facts about the British termed the Mutiny of 1857 were firmly entrenched in the national consciousness. Amidst the widespread repercussions of the events of the mutiny was a loss of former power on the part of the East India Company. This led to a spate of writing which sought to valorise the Colonial regime: — witness for instance, Tennyson's elegiac description of the mutiny 'And ever upon the topmost roof our banner of England flew' (76) in "The Defence of Lucknow." Evoking similar memories, Wilkie Collins, however, links looting and violence with colonial maladministration. The novel focuses on Colonial invasion, expropriation, and exploitation while rejecting stereotypical binary oppositions to show the complications and entanglements of the British imperial moment. Collins had earlier collaborated with Dickens to write "The Perils of Certain English Prisoners," which they published in Household Words in 1857. It commemorated 'some of the best qualities of English character that have been shown in India.' The Moonstone, however, represents a shift away from such an unambiguous celebration of British empire.
In many ways then, Collins's The Moonstone represents a distinct challenge to the colonial mindset. Although the majority of the tale takes place in England, the Indian location of the prologue and epilogue root The Moonstone within the context of the colonial experience in India. The colonial space is not an incidental embellishment; rather it provides the site for the theft of the eponymous jewel, carried out by John Herncastle — an upper-class Englishmen. Moreover the theft of the moonstone, which typifies colonial greed, takes place during the siege of Seringapatam in 1799, an event which consolidated the dominance of the East India Company in colonial India.
The Moonstone offers a version of imperial history that is simultaneously private and domestic, thereby collapsing the divide between public and private spaces, the nation and foreign territory. It represents the spread of social and moral chaos to the inner sanctum of the country-house, infecting that emblem of British upper-class domesticity. Hostile critics attacked the sensation novel, which Collins invented, for destabilizing the Victorian domestic ideal — 'What do we know of the mysteries that may hang about the houses we enter? Foul deeds have been done under the most hospitable roofs' Robert Audley tells his aunt in Braddon's Lady Audley's Secret (94). The Moonstone, in a similar fashion, records the infiltration of the country-house of the landed gentry — first with the theft and later Sergeant Cuff's investigations: 'look at the household now! Scattered, disunited-the very air of the place poisoned by mystery.'(170) This intrusion is symptomatic of a culture in transition. The vulnerability of the landed gentry is evident in the detective's insinuation that Rachel, a lady, is the thief and his disregard of hierarchies when he decides to investigate not just the servants and maids of the household but 'everybody — from her ladyship downwards'(105). As a result the Verinder Estate is 'brutally democratised' (Miller 156), and Rachel, unlike Fanny who maintains the stability of the bourgeois domestic order, finds herself enmeshed in a sordid tangle of theft and deception. This spatial disruption is reflected in Collins's choice of the name for the geographical site which surrounds the Verinder Estate: the name 'Shivering Sands' perhaps best describes the state of the aristocracy during the mid-nineteenth century. This state is evident in the destabilisation of the opposition between the public and the private as the 'detective fever' (147) spreads and Betteredge's room becomes the 'court of justice' (111). This fracture of stable domestic relationships, I feel, is central to the Collins's undercutting of the imperial ethic.
Moreover, the novel links the idea of violation of a woman's chastity to imperial theft. The post-Freudian reader can easily recognise the connotations of the theft of a precious jewel from Rachel Verinder's unlocked cabinet. The presence of the stained gown, too, suggests the potential for loss of virginity. Tamar Heller points out that the juxtaposition of plots of courtship and colonialism 'suggests an analogy between imperial and sexual domination' (Heller 145). The male theft of the moonstone and the threat implied by Rachel's approaching loss of virginity are equated with the colonial rape of a feminized India.
Collins goes to great lengths to undermine the myth of imperial necessity and generosity which validated imperialism in nineteenth-century Britain. While Collin's descriptions are not saturated with contempt, an underlying anxiety can be sensed in his tale of detection. The moonstone, which has a sinister quality, has to be expelled from the country for the bourgeois home to regain its stability. Gabriel Betteredge, for instance, sees the sanctity of the English home as having been 'invaded by that cursed Indian jewel' (278).
Betteredge's view of The Moonstone echoes Eric Stokes's The English Utilitarians and India (1959), which characterises India as a 'disturbing force, a magnetic power placed at the periphery tending to distort the natural development of Britain's character' (Stokes qtd. Bhabha 85). The novel, like Robinson Crusoe, is littered the 'structure of attitude and reference toward' the empire that Edward Said considers part of the culture of imperialism (Said 1993: 73). It does not completely expel the myth of colonial enterprise: although multiple thefts of the moonstone expose colonial greed, satirizing the colonial project and rendering it ironic, the novel seems to insist that the worth of the moonstone in India lies solely in its spiritual associations. Collins undercuts the values on which the colonial hegemony perpetrates itself, but the colonized space is still linked to the idea of pagan ritualism. However one must remember that supra-political objectivity was hardly possible in an age characterised by the mass dissemination of stereotypes about the Orient.
What's more, the predominant presence of the Orient is significantly, though not exclusively, shaped by generic demands which foreclose/open certain narrative possibilities. Popular responsiveness to racialization of cultural difference by Victorian intelligentsia had its roots, not only in colonial expansion and the creation of an urban proletariat, but in folk myth and long-standing domestic prejudice against Jews, gypsies, and Celtic vagabonds. The overlapping nature of these concerns can be witnessed in the explicit interrelation of discourses on itinerancy, class, criminality, race, colonialism and empire in the context of writing about London, the empire's capital, which is best exemplified in Mayhew's writing: 'The nomadic or vagrant classes have all an universal type, whether they be the Bushmen of Africa or the 'tramps' of our own country' (qtd Himmelfarb 721). Writing with John Binny, Mayhew repeated these assertions in The Criminal Prisons of London and Scenes of Prison Life (1862): 'If the Carib Islands have their savages, the English Capital has types almost as brutal and uncivilized as they. If India has its Thugs, London has its garotte men' (4-5)
The social world of the novel can be understood as a symbolic system premised on the logic of difference. Portsmouth, by virtue of 'the smallness of the house . . . the thinness of the walls' (273), is constructed as the dark underside of Mansfield Park. Rochester's reference to the 'mud and slime of Paris' as opposed to the 'clean wholesome soil of the English country garden' (Brontë 164) relies on the construction of a similar binary. Clearly the novel form relies on a series of dualities, even as it seeks to highlight an organic view of society and the Orient provides a more sinister and non-negotiable geographic territory to serve this end. The ethnological discriminations, thus, cannot be said to mirror the ideology of the author in any straightforward way. In that sense, the colonies can be categorised as designed space — designed to suit the generic demands of the novel. It is perhaps in this context that Collins's emphasis on the moonlit wilderness of India represents the country as an exotic, mysterious land outside the matrix of time and history must be read.
While some of this can be explained away by underscoring the centrality of wild, subterranean elements in the sensational novel; the closure of The Moonstone deserves fuller inspection. The restoration of the Moonstone to the forehead of Vishnu in the temple of Saumnath and the union of Blake and Rachel is integral to Collins's vision of social harmony within a hierarchical society. Notwithstanding the desire to restore some kind of harmony once crime is expelled, the novel ends with the assertion that 'the same events revolve in the cycles of time' (464). The modalities and implications of such a representation, which rejects manichean binaries, lie in preparing the way for later imaginings of resistance. The use of colonial markers and the subversion of stereotypes, used to illumine the dark underside of the colonial project, highlight a link between the destabilisation of the bourgeois home and colonial exploitation.
Despite stereotypical representations of the three Indian Brahmins, Collins subverts popular expectations by focusing his critique on the underlying disorder and hypocrisies of English society. Collins elicits sympathy for Ablewhite's murder in a decade when the racist discourse of colonialism saturated large sections of British society. He uses the novel form to interrogate rather than empower colonialist ventures. U.P. Mukherjee draws attention to the culture of dissent, which espoused a powerful criticism of colonisation during the latter half of the nineteenth century and insists that fictional works, such as Collins's novel 'play a disruptive rather that monolithically constitutive role' (9) in the imperial process.
Collins's most important intervention, however, occurs at a meta-fictional level. He seems to question an unambiguous replication of oriental discourses by pointing to the unstable nature of the process of writing itself as his multiple narratives seems to suggest that writing can never establish absolute truths, for it is always mediated by ideological locations and conditions under which an author writes. There is an abdication of authority by the narrator as several narrators contend for pre-eminence within the body of the meta-narrative. This narrative strategy foregrounds British anxieties regarding the expanding empire and 'the struggle over geography' (Said 1994: 6).
The novel can thus be understood as an allegory of the English nation — its 'Imagined Geographies' are a tool of power, a means of controlling and subordinating certain areas. The English identity is super incumbent insofar as it marginalises that which defines it: foreign spaces, colonised territories, and the colonised subject. The novel itself forms a field — a system of social positions structured internally in terms of power relationships — and it provides a social arena of struggle over the appropriation of certain races. The images of the Oriental habitus, circulated by the popular novels of the period, became central symbols for conceptualising the social and economic changes associated with imperial expansionism in England. The inter-linkages between bourgeois domesticity and imperialism can be gauged from the reaffirmation of both stable domesticity and imperialism in Mansfield Park; the fraught discursivity of Jane Eyre which ruptures the domestic ethic to introduce desire, but reinforces Oriental stereotypes and validates the white-man's burden; and the ultimate destabilisation of the hierarchical ethic of the country-house and the colonial self/colonised other in The Moonstone.
These novels need to be read as resonant cultural artefacts endowed with symbolic power. The appropriation of history, historicisation of the past, narrativisation of society and interrogation of social spaces all lend the novel form its force. The continuum between geography, generation of knowledge and power, with Britain always in the master's place, bespeaks a specific epistemological framework peculiar to England — or at least to those who advocated Empire — in the nineteenth century. The construction of domesticity is closely linked to the construction of imperialism in the novel. However, I hope I have demonstrated that, despite the prevalence of ethnocentric and imperialist binarisms in these novels, the process of mapping the Oriental habitus generates dissent in novels like Mansfield Park, Jane Eyre and The Moonstone.
Imagined Geographies: Representations of the Orient in Three Nineteenth-Century Novels
- 'I love to hear my uncle talk of the West Indies . . . it entertains me': Jane Austen's negotiation with slavery in Mansfield Park
- 'She bit me . . . like a tigress': Charlotte Brontë's construction of the 'Other' in Jane Eyre
- Bibliography of Works Consulted
- The Moonstone and British India
- Collins's "A Sermon for Sepoys"
- The British Empire: An Introduction
- The British Empire: An Overview
- Victorian India: An Overview
Austen, Jane. Mansfield Park. Ed. Dr. Jan Littlewood. Hertfordshire: Wordsworth Classics, 2002.
Bhabha, Homi. K. The Location of Culture. London: Routledge, 1994.
Bourdieu, Pierre. Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste. Trans. Richard Nice Cambrige: Harvard University Press, 1984.
--- Social Space and Symbolic Power. Sociological Theory. Vol. 7, No. 1, Spring 1989: 14-25.
Collins, Wilkie. The Moonstone. Ed. David Blair. Hertfordshire: Wordsworth Editions Limited, 1999.
Himmelfarb, Gertrude. 'The Culture of Poverty.' The Victorian City: Images and Realities. Eds. H.J. Dyos and Michael Wolff. 2 vols. Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1973.
Said, Edward. Culture and Imperialism. New York: Vintage Books, 1993.
--- Orientalism. New York: Ram House Inc., 1994.
Tennyson, Alfred. Victorian Poets: Tennyson, Browning, Rossetti. Ed. Suroopa Mukherjee. Delhi: Worldview, 2001: 56-83.
Last modified 19 July 2007