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Melodramatic Imperial Writing

Melodramatic Imperial Writing: From the Sepoy Rebellion to Cecil Rhodes

Copyright Date: 2014
Published by: Ohio University Press
Pages: 256
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  • Book Info
    Melodramatic Imperial Writing
    Book Description:

    Melodrama is often seen as a blunt aesthetic tool tainted by its reliance on improbable situations, moral binaries, and overwhelming emotion, features that made it a likely ingredient of British imperial propaganda during the late nineteenth century. Yet, through its impact on many late-Victorian genres outside of the theater, melodrama developed a complicated relationship with British imperial discourse.Melodramatic Imperial Writingpositions melodrama as a vital aspect of works that underscored the contradictions and injustices of British imperialism. Beyond proving useful for authors constructing imperialist fantasies or supporting unjust policies, the melodramatic mode enabled writers to upset narratives of British imperial destiny and racial superiority.Neil Hultgren explores a range of texts, from Dickens's writing about the 1857 Sepoy Rebellion to W. E. Henley's imperialist poetry and Olive Schreiner's experimental fiction, in order to trace a new and complex history of British imperialism and the melodramatic mode in late-Victorian writing.

    eISBN: 978-0-8214-4483-2
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-xii)
  4. introduction “At Last!” and “Too Late!”
    (pp. 1-26)

    At Last! Too Late! These designations of temporality appeared in two successive issues ofPunchas captions for cartoons in February 1885. By serving as both opposing utterances and successive labels in a series, they tell two stories. First, they bear witness to the British army’s failed attempt to rescue famed imperial hero Major General Charles “Chinese” Gordon from the siege of Khartoum. Yet they also chronicle a failed effort to capture the truth of historical events. The followers of the Sudanese religious and military leader the Mahdi had beheaded Gordon on January 26, 1885, before British forces, dispatched belatedly...


    • one Imperial Melodrama after the Sepoy Rebellion
      (pp. 29-62)

      Melodrama has long been considered an important mode for representations of the Sepoy Rebellion that took place from 1857 to 1859. Patrick Brantlinger, Jenny Sharpe, and Don Randall gesture toward melodrama to generalize about plays, novels, and articles related to the British Empire in India and more specifically to the events of the 1857 Rebellion. These writers highlight the moral polarization and intense emotion of texts of the rebellion. These features of the melodramatic mode suggest an alignment of melodrama with racism, anxieties about interracial rape, and imperialist panic. As I acknowledge in the introduction, Brantlinger notes the comfortable fit...

    • two Romance; or, Melodrama and the Adventure of History
      (pp. 63-90)

      Despite dickens’s and collins’s experimentation with melodrama’s providential plotting in their reactions to the 1857 Sepoy Rebellion, as well as Collins’s designation ofThe Moonstoneas a romance,¹ discussions of melodrama have been less prevalent in relation to the imperial romance, a genre that came to prominence in the decades after the publication ofThe Moonstone.Yet just as critics have examined the imperial romance through its ties to discourses of masculinity as well as circles of male writers, the imperial romance is also clearly connected to melodrama, a genre known for its representations of women and excessive emotion.² This...


    • three Imperialist Poetry, Aestheticism, and Melodrama’s Man of Action
      (pp. 93-125)

      While melodrama’s plotting shaped historical representations of the British Empire, its reliance on excessive forms of emotion buttressed new articulations of active imperialist masculinity in the work of writers W. E. Henley and Rudyard Kipling. Melodrama’s overwhelming pathos also structured Robert Louis Stevenson’s encounter with leprosy in Hawaii; it aided him in separating his feelings from those he observed in native peoples while he simultaneously drew attention to commonalities between his Western and Polynesian audiences. Melodrama depicts a world in which feelings are augmented and magnified, where nuances are abandoned in favor of feelings that overwhelm the individual and conflict...

    • four Stevenson’s Melodramatic Anthropology
      (pp. 126-152)

      Henley and kipling relied on the emotionality of the melodramatic mode to craft a vision of violent, confrontational, and masculine British imperialism. For these writers, melodrama’s excesses were compatible with the promulgation of late-Victorian militarism and imperialism. Yet such excesses when exhibited by colonized peoples in a domestic setting proved less acceptable. This chapter considers Robert Louis Stevenson’s reaction against what he saw as excessive emotional display and contagious sympathy in Polynesia. Stevenson’s career bears witness to his enduring interest in the melodramatic mode, though with surprising alterations to familiar narratives of British imperial melodrama. For instance, Stevenson collaborated with...


    • five Olive Schreiner and the Melodrama of the Karoo
      (pp. 155-187)

      While stevenson saw melodrama as a mode that enabled provocative forms of cross-cultural communication with audiences from Europe and Oceania, Olive Schreiner was less certain how the form of community imagined by the melodramatic mode might transfer to the imperial frontier. Her writings suggest that melodrama requires a metropolitan community (like that found in London), and her depiction of melodrama’s failure in her novelThe Story of an African Farmimplies that melodrama’s comforts are, like the British homeland, distressingly distant for the inhabitants of rural South Africa. Yet before we examine Schreiner’s insights on the ties between location, community,...

    • conclusion Pirates and Spies
      (pp. 188-194)

      There is a significant temptation to conclude a study of melodramatic aesthetics with fulfillment, such as the culmination of imperial melodrama in a certain moment—Schreiner’s depiction of Cecil Rhodes entering heaven—or with melodrama’s decline in the face of modernist irony. It would also seem fitting to mark melodrama’s loss along with the death of Queen Victoria or to attach melodrama to the imperialist hubris threatened by criticisms of the South African War at the end of the century. But given Corelli’s reliance on melodrama to represent Queen Victoria’s death and George Bernard Shaw’s obsession with melodrama well into...

  8. Notes
    (pp. 195-232)
  9. Bibliography
    (pp. 233-246)
  10. Index
    (pp. 247-260)