Subjects of Empire
- Gillian Whitlock (Author)
The Intimate Empire: Reading Women's Autobiography. Cassell (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Laurie McNeill
Gillian Whitlock opens The Intimate Empire by describing Queen Mary’s Doll House, built for the 1924 British Empire Exhibition, now on display at Windsor Castle. Inside the doll house is a miniature world map, awash in the pink of the vast British Empire. Whitlock reads this tiny map, and the Exhibition for which it was created, as touchstones for British colonial discourses; the Exhibition promoted the kind of colonial enterprises and sentiment that the imperialist colouring of the map reflects: countries were either "in the pink" or irrelevant. The hegemony of imperial Britain and its attitudes are central to Whitlock’s post-colonial readings of women’s autobiography out of Empire, from 1830 to the present, including the writings of Mary Prince, Susanna Moodie, Karen Blixen and Sally Morgan. In its focus on Empire, her study covers an unusually diverse geographical range, with texts from Canada, Britain, Australia, Kenya, South Africa and the Caribbean.
Against this British imperial atlas, Whitlock constructs a map of the "intimate empire," a territory of reading and writing that studies the selves projected by these autobiographies from the Empire. Her approach incorporates Leigh Gilmore’s theory of autobiographies, insisting on the need to locate these writers in their particular sociohistoric, institutional and cultural contexts in order to avoid universal categories of "woman"; this theory also recognizes the possibilities for "points of resistance" within these autobiographies. While mapping this Intimate Empire, Whitlock explores "the leakage between what might seem to be secure gendered, national and racial identities." In its application of both post-colonial theory and critical approaches from autobiography studies, The Intimate Empire continues to expand the autobiography canon, and brings new insights into readings of colonial and settler discourse and subjectivity.
Whitlock’s mapping metaphor recalls not only the activities of imperialism but also the autobiography theory of Helen Buss, whose influential Mapping Our Selves (1988) suggested cartography as a new trope for reading women’s autobiographical subjectivity. Unlike Buss, who did not examine the politics of map-making, Whitlock concentrates on the imperial and political connotations of the metaphor, and on women’s role in perpetuating Empire. Beginning with the autobiography of Mary Prince, an escaped slave who dictated her story to Susanna Strickland (better known as Susanna Moodie), Whitlock interrogates "the production of truth and authority in autobiography," of who is authorized to speak and what they can say. Because Prince’s autobiography was dictated, by a woman to a woman, and by an escaped slave, it was not considered "authoritative" without the inclusion of considerable prefaces, notes, and marginalia that used Prince as a voice for the abolitionist movement. Even Prince’s contemporary editor has "authorized" her autobiography, turning her story, Whitlock contends, into a mouthpiece for feminism. The history of Mary Prince’s autobiography, then, details "the marking of identities through relationships and social processes" of colonialism. Prince’s text, along with the travel narrative of Mary Seacote, a free-born Jamaican woman who nursed in the Crimean War and travelled widely throughout Europe, also highlights Whitlock’s reading of the (racialized) body as textual performance. This concept is crucial to her map of the "Intimate Empire," and her attention to it adds a post-colonial dimension to the theorizing of subjectivity and the body by Gilmore and by Sidonie Smith.
Like Stephen Slemon, Whitlock argues against the hostility in post-colonial criticism towards discussion of settler subjects, and suggests it is time to read these texts and their subjects in their own tradition. Scholars of Canadian literature will be interested to see Whitlock’s analysis of the two grandes dames of settler literature, Susanna Moodie and Catherine Parr Traill. She reads Moodie’s Roughing It in the Bush and Parr Traill’s Backwoods of Canada as acts of "translation and reformulation of the domestic subject in the New World," where received scripts for settler narratives have failed. Considering Moodie and Parr Traill as settler subjects opens up possibilities for analysis of their identities as informed by emigration and colonizing, and shows their negotiation of identity within competing discourses of gender, nationality and class. Whitlock then turns this interrogation of white settler identity to colonial Africa, and examines the representations of Africa as Eden or as heart of darkness in the autobiographies of white women settlers in Kenya between the First and Second World Wars. She sees these narratives as dialoguing with the seductive "white imaginary" of Karen Blixen’s Out of Africa, a text whose romantic view of settler society still resonates today. Like Moodie and Parr Traill, these settler autobiogra-phers show a "new consciousness of self through emigration." Their texts also sought to create and legitimate, or in the case of second-generation colonizers, modify, a white African identity.
Against these formations of white settler identity, Whitlock looks at contemporary Black South African and Australian autobiographies, considering the politics of writing and of identity for speakers with unequal access to an "authoritative" voice. Many of these autobiographies, like Mary Prince’s, experience an ongoing process of authorization through prefaces, introductions and editor’s notes. Despite the negotiation of voices and the problematics of truth and authority in autobiography, the genre does offer the possibility for opposi-tional narratives, where marginalized voices speak and resist categories of identity forced upon them by dominant society. Sally Morgan’s My Place, for example, uses the technologies of autobiography to construct an Aboriginal identity, an identity that the life-writing of other contemporary Aboriginal women such as Ruby Langford Ginibi have further problematized. The shifting identities available in autobiographies defy the fixed racial identities determined by apartheid and other racist government policy; Whitlock notes how autobiographical writings proliferated in South Africa following the Soweto uprising, and in Australia since the 1980s formation of the Aboriginal movement. Such a phenomenon suggests that the genre of autobiography has the capacity to uphold or resist the subjectivities created by Empire.
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MLA: McNeill, Laurie. Subjects of Empire. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 24 May 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #172 (Spring 2002), Auto / biography. (pg. 201 - 203)
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