Educating Seeta: The Anglo-Indian Family Romance and the Poetics of Indirect Rule

Educating Seeta: The Anglo-Indian Family Romance and the Poetics of Indirect Rule

Ohio State University Press
May 2010
161 pages
Cloth ISBN: 978-0-8142-1126-7
CD ISBN: 978-0-8142-9224-2

Shuchi Kapila, Associate Professor of English
Grinnell College, Grinnell, Iowa

Even though Edward Said’s Orientalism inspired several generations of scholars to study the English novel’s close involvement with colonialism, they have not considered how English novels themselves were radically altered by colonialism. In Educating Seeta, Shuchi Kapila argues that the paradoxes of indirect rule in British India were negotiated in “family romances” which encoded political struggle in the language of domestic and familial civility. A mixture of domestic ideology and liberal politics, these are Anglo-Indian romances, written by British colonials who lived in India during a period of indirect colonial rule. Instead of providing neat conclusions and smooth narratives, they become a record of the limits of liberal colonialism. They thus offer an important supplement to Victorian novels, extend the study of nineteenth-century domestic ideology, and offer a new perspective on colonial culture. Kapila demonstrates that popular writing about India and, by implication, other colonies is an important supplement to the high Victorian novel and indispensable to our understanding of nineteenth-century English literature and culture. Her nuanced study of British writing about indirect rule in India will reshape our understanding of Victorian domestic ideologies, class formation, and gender politics.

Read the introduction here.

Educating Seeta makes the case that representations of such interracial relationships in the tropes of domestic fiction create a fantasy of liberal colonial rule in nineteenth-century British India. British colonials in India were preoccupied with appearing as a benevolent, civilizing power to their British and colonial subjects. They produced a vast archive of writing, which includes memoirs, official and private correspondence, and histories, in which they confronted their anxieties about their motives for colonial rule. I expand the definition of “family romance” to include not only interracial love between an English man and an Indian woman, but also political conflict represented as domestic drama featuring Indian women who appear in many roles: as widowed queens who act like recalcitrant daughters; as wives who bring domestic felicity but also usurp the English household; as heroic and rebellious natives; and as compliant and educable subjects. I argue that these seemingly disparate representations of Indian women all have the structure of a family romance, a romance that portrays the permutations of interracial domesticity as a political allegory of indirect colonial rule. This Anglo-Indian family romance—as I will call it here—thus becomes a particularly appropriate literary narrative that enables British writers to justify colonial rule as positive, educative, and benevolent. Two concepts, thus, become central to this study: first, that domestic fiction provides the tropes in which liberal British fantasies about India are represented, and second, that the presence of Indian women signals sites of crises in these fantasies…

…The death of the Indian woman in many of these romances, signaling that interracial love is not socially viable, is an instance of such narrative failure. For instance, in Flora Annie Steel’s On the Face of the Waters, Zora dies early, setting the English hero, Jim Douglas, free to love an Englishwoman. There are, of course, exceptions to this rule, for instance in the Orientalist idealization of the Indian woman in Maud Diver’s Lilamani, in which interracial marriage between Neville Sinclair and Lilamani heralds a new understanding between cultures with the ultimate goal of “civilizing” other cultures into European ways of life. Even Kipling, that canonized recorder of Anglo-Indian life, was unable to give us a full-length study of an interracial relationship. In most of his short stories, such relationships are unconsummated and end tragically.  Anglo-Indian romancers also seem reluctant to represent mixedrace children. When they do enter the picture, they are depicted with the same fear and horror that greeted miscegenation among white and black populations in nineteenth-century America. Despite these narrative failures, however, Anglo-Indian romancers do make a foray into imagining mixed households and interracial marriages. They execute a variety of formal explorations, which often surprise readers into confronting unorthodox outcomes about the possibilities of mixed race sociality…

…Until the recent wave of colonial cultural studies, most historians ignored interracial romances between European colonizers and native women as a marginal and colorful byproduct of colonialism that did not teach us much about colonial society. One reason for this neglect could be that interracial love, and its corollary, the possibility of miscegenation, while it has always existed in colonial societies, has also been proscribed in official ideologies of most such societies. In the case of colonial India particularly, the absence of discussion about interracial relationships could be because such relationships were visible largely in the last two decades of the eighteenth century…

…A second kind of nineteenth-century interracial romance is usually in the high Orientalist mode and does not dwell on either the contribution of the Indian companions to the creation of a syncretic upper-class culture, the role of such alliances in the acquisition and management of political power, or the process by which they were justified in private and political circles. Such exercises in Orientalist fiction include Sydney Owenson’s The Missionary: an Indian Tale (1811), Maud Diver’s Lilamani (1911), and Philip Meadows Taylor’s Seeta (1872). The women in these novels, melancholy, “idealized,” exotic beauties who represent not only the glories of Hindu culture but also its repressive aspects, are rescued by Englishmen. The attempt to match two glorious civilizations flounders when the inevitable racial differences are confronted. Maud Diver’s trilogy, of which Lilamani is the first part, is unusual in taking the story through many generations. Most such interracial stories come to an unhappy end before their authors confront the question of mixed

…The book is divided into two parts consisting of two chapters, each of which begins with a historical introduction to the context of interracial romances. The first part includes two chapters: the first studies the epistolary record of an interracial romance between an Englishman, William Linneaus Gardner, and his aristocratic Muslim wife, Mah Munzalool nissa Begum; the second chapter focuses on Bithia Mary Croker’s early twentieth-century romances, which represent interracial relationships at a time when official proscriptions against them were really strong. Both chapters explore British representations of mixed domesticity; the construction of class, racial, and national identity in the mixed household; and the place of the Indian woman in this literary-political domain. By focusing on the mixed household as either a place of intense social negotiation or of a gothic, traumatic discovery, I show that interracial domesticity is a nodal point for the cultural and political negotiations of Britain’s Indian experience. Mixed households contest the values of English domesticity and reconfigure interracial relationships away from the predictable tropes of rescue and discovery to an exploration of how class and social power were acquired by colonial elites…

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