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The Ugly Side of Dickens: Decolonising English Literature

The tragic murder of George Floyd has been dubbed a watershed moment for civil rights. The event triggered a wave of international protests and galvanised a cross-cultural consensus on the urgency to address structural racism. It appears that much of the world has been thrust into a critical inflection point in the enduring struggle for racial equality.

Of the plethora of strategies that have been recommended for redressing the inequities and discrimination facing Black and minority ethnic (BME) groups, much of the discourse has centred on reforming the History syllabus in our institutes of learning.[1] While this proposal reflects a genuine desire for an impartial and candid engagement with the brutal legacy of empire, our narrow focus on one aspect of the national curriculum masks the uncomfortable truth that other subjects must also be taken to task.

Having studied and taught History for a number of years, there is an unease whenever teachers and students are forced to come to terms with Britain’s imperial past. The hesitation of chronicling the precise evils of British imperialism is patently obvious. The curriculum is all too often guilty of sanitising colonialism by engaging in the kind of revisionism that erases its sanguinary past. The question as to whether this country is still steeped in colonial baggage is often evaded and obscured through vague and disingenuous references to the era of civil rights legislation.[2] To assuage a common insecurity and guilt, the best deflection is to simply highlight how the UK is an exemplary melting pot where BME groups are equal stakeholders in society.

My deep-seated reservations with the bastardisation of history led me to join those issuing a clarion call for decolonising the curriculum by deconstructing the ethnocentric narrative underpinning subjects like History, then reconstructing a radical new inclusive pedagogy in its place.[3] [4] However, it would be dangerously short-sighted to assume that such a change could be initiated by limiting our deconstruction to History alone, since many Britons are oblivious to how racism is embedded not only in the historical archive but also in our literary canon.

Edward Said

In the course of my academic and professional career, I have grown more sensitive to the way that language, symbols, and images contained in the literary canon have coalesced to shape our subjectivities. My examination into the cross-currents of race, globalisation, and culture bears the imprint of the scholarship of Edward Said, who is often credited as the founder of postcolonial studies. Said presents a compelling account of how imperial discourses have permeated Western literature in his ground-breaking essay Culture and Imperialism.[5]

According to Said, it is the moral responsibility of readers to attend to a novel’s historical valances. A large swathe of English literature produced during the 18th and 19th centuries coincided with Britain’s imperial foreign policy and reproduced cultural tropes premised on a binary typology of advanced and backward races. This was arguably the fundamental raison d’etre of European colonialism.

Charles Dickens

Take for instance the classic English novelist Charles Dickens, who is fêted as being among the most prolific English writers and has traditionally been celebrated as a champion of the working classes and oppressed. I remember growing up marvelling at Dickensian prose, both as a student and as an English tutor. I would encourage students to reflect on the masterful composition of wit, humour, satire, fantasy, and realism evident in so many of his distinguished works.

But there is an uglier side to Dickens that situates him in a remarkably differently light to how he is represented in our institutions of learning. In an eye-opening exposé titled Dickens and Race,[6] Professor Laura Peters provides a thorough contextualisation of Dickens’s fictional engagements with race. The close examination of Dickensian literature reveals a man that was harbouring the exact racial prejudices that historically legitimised the industrial killing of particular ethnic groups.

A good example would be the acrimonious 1853 essay The Noble Savage,[7] where Dickens rails against artist George Catlin’s rather flattering portrayal of indigenous Indians based on his personal encounters in North America. Catlin’s renderings of Indian rituals and landscapes are unique, not only because they represent the largest collection of pre-photographic material of Native Americans, but also due to the empathy with which he captured their existence.[8] Much to Dickens’s chagrin, the Victorian novelist categorically rejected the humanity of the indigenous tribes who were, according to his estimation, poorly formed ‘wretched creatures’:

“My position is, that if we have anything to learn from the Noble Savage, it is what to avoid. His virtues are a fable; his happiness is a delusion; his nobility, nonsense….”

The contempt for non-White native populations is perhaps at its most egregious display in a letter to Emile de la Rue,[9] where the response by Dickens to the Indian Mutiny of 1857 is again reflective of a common disposition to juxtapose civilised imperialists with primitive colonial subjects. Most notably, Dickens’s extermination rhetoric represents a continuum of orientalist thinking on civilisation, race, and class in mid-19th century Britain. Dickens writes:

“I wish I were Commander in Chief in India. The first thing I would do to strike that Oriental race…should be to proclaim to them, in their language…that I should do my utmost to exterminate the Race upon whom the stain of the late cruelties rested…to blot it out of mankind and raze it off the face of the Earth.”

Reconciling our perception of Dickens as an advocate of social justice with one who also advocated for the genocide of the Oriental race is fraught with complexity. Indulging the argument that he was an emblematic man of his times ultimately entails rationalising the shift in his racial attitudes. This saw him initially advocating a shared humanity but later endorsing a hierarchy of races. It is morally inconsistent to grant this exception while insisting on the contemporary readership to address historically objectionable views on racial differences and appealing to humanity to banish the errors of the past.

It is also important to acknowledge that such prejudicial sentiments were far from aberrant and exceptional positions. They would often manifest themselves through an implicit racial bias evident in the formulation of fictional characters.[10] We can see this through Dickens’s otherising of Abel Magwitch in the classic 1861 novel Great Expectations.

In a literature class, a student’s knowledge of Magwitch would rarely stretch beyond the fact that he was a criminal with a heart of gold who was transported to Australia as a punishment for his crimes, and as someone who played an important role in Pip’s transformation by being the source of his good fortune. The description of the character given by the student would be limited to whatever is required to satisfy the assessment objectives for that given topic and would hardly venture beyond an appreciation for the author’s skilful application of literary devices to trace character development.

What students are not taught, however, is that Dickens’s career coincided with key stages in the development of the Australian colonies. At the time of writing Great Expectations, the perception of New South Wales as a disposal ground for deplorables and delinquents like Magwitch was intrinsically bred into the Victorian imagination. Despite a difficult upbringing and a criminal life rooted in impoverishment and neglect, any collective sympathy that might be aroused for Magwitch and his ilk through consideration for their mitigating circumstances was not sufficient to deem them fully reformed and rehabilitated individuals, thus denying them the opportunity for any meaningful reintegration with mainstream society.

Many were stigmatised as irredeemable and infantilised convicts, incapable of escaping the clutches of their criminal past and forcibly transported to Australia for rehabilitation without repatriation. One may contend that the humanity of Magwitch is emphasised as he lies dying in the Newgate infirmary with Pip praying over his body, pleading to God for his pardon. However, any short-lived sentimentality would have been insufficient to redress the prevailing cultural norm that rendered his status as permanent outsider beyond question, thus precluding any possibility of absolute expiation.

Furthermore, the academic expectation for students to explore the Dickensian techniques for conveying key characters and their personalities in a novel like Great Expectations is divorced from any acknowledgement of the British expropriation of aboriginal lands and the genocide of the indigenous population that eventually facilitated the settlement-building activity of prisoners like Magwitch.[11] As a result, the suggestion that Magwitch may be an extended metaphor for England’s subordination of Australia would barely cross the mind of teachers, let alone students.

This is why I believe that the dehistoricisation of the narrative comes at a tremendous cost to our moral compass. By completely omitting this sordid history from characterisation, the national curriculum circumscribes any critical engagement with Dickens’s works, thereby depriving students of an opportunity to reckon with his essentialist framing of what was culturally perceived as a criminal ‘undercaste’ and the unequivocally racist tropes typifying much of the English representations of Australia.

Jane Austen

Any critical inquiry seeking to unpack the connections between Britain’s literary tradition and colonial history must also factor in the work of Jane Austen, a writer whose books have inspired countless biographies, adaptations, documentaries, and re-imaginings.

I was in secondary school when I first read Mansfield Park. As teenagers, most students grow accustomed to reading endearing and affectionate profiles of Austen, who undoubtedly illuminated the struggles of women and the lives of the landed gentry with a realistic and romantic edge that contributed immeasurably to the art form.

For those who went on to study the novel at further and higher education settings, there was a greater emphasis on variant readings of Austen, especially the intersections of feminist and Marxist critical theory. This encouraged ruminations on what it means to be free from the constraining standards of the patriarchy. This academic requirement aside, student appraisal of Mansfield Park tends to conform with how the story has been received across generations: a classical, old-fashioned, emotionally conflicted tale of relationships and meritocracy in provincial England. 

But in today’s climate, when humanity has been thrust into a global discourse on racial injustice, we must probe more deeply at the received wisdom of one of the great books of Western civilisation. As Said opined, conventional readings of the text disguise a darker underbelly in Mansfield Park, namely, the centrality of the empire.[12] This is exemplified by Sir Thomas Bertram, the uncle of the protagonist Fanny Price. Bertram was a wealthy landowner whose country house was most likely maintained from the proceeds of slavery, without which the comforts enjoyed by his dependants would not be possible.

The relationship between the metropole and the colony exercised a profound impact on the English imagination, so much so that overlooking the deafening silence that greets the subject of slavery when Bertram returns from Antigua risks ignoring what may have been a cultural guilt surrounding a depraved practice. It could also mask the more disturbing possibility that Austen, like many of her contemporaries, might have been desensitised to arguably the most heinous criminal enterprise known to man and which furnished the comfortable lifestyles of Britain’s well-heeled communities.

While renderings of the English countryside have historically depicted country houses as symbolic of civility and refinement, they have rarely highlighted how these iconic signifiers of British aristocracy emerged to a great extent from the profits generated by the exploitative practices of slave trading commissions and the East India Company. By identifying Bertram’s Antiguan estate with the West Indian sugar plantations, the novel presents an important question: Was Austen’s morality anchored to the blind and unquestioning assumption that Black people existed purely for the pecuniary benefits of English proprietors?

I appreciate that it is by no means a simple task to determine whether Austen personally endorsed or contested slavery, especially when there are only scant references to the practice in the novel. Nor is it easy to speculate whether an English novelist writing during the imperial heyday was by default unwittingly complicit in perpetuating biases through their stories and fictional characters. After all, Bertram may have been one in a long line of hereditary successors who inherited the estate. One can arguably discern a critique of colonial attitudes in the novel, even if it is only through a half-hearted attempt at conversation on the subject with Price’s uncle. Furthermore, Austen’s personal familial connections to the Caribbean estate holdings would likely have afforded her an intimate knowledge of the sugar plantations in Antigua, and it is argued that she shared the same distaste for the slave trade as abolitionists.

Nonetheless, if we are to draw any meaningful connection between the domain of literature and the world of ideas, an exposition of the racialised cultural milieu in which Austen operated must be made a fundamental starting point for students of literature. The mere fact that 19th century novels may not necessarily yield straightforward conclusions does not justify the tendency to disentangle Britain’s literary tradition from the imaginative construction of the British Empire. Succumbing to such indifference not only compromised the writings of Orientalists,[13] it also contributed to our historical amnesia, which explains Britain’s insouciance about the transatlantic slave trade.

Conrad & Kipling

In case the racial underpinnings that informed the works of Austen were ambivalent and inconclusive, there is little room to doubt the racist Eurocentrism that abounds in the works of venerable literary giants like the Nobel laureate Rudyard Kipling.

Few writers have emphatically expressed the moral imperative to civilise non-Whites more than Kipling. Arguably the most accomplished British writer since Dickens, Kipling would persistently dehumanise people of colour and was renowned for being a chief apologist of the British Empire. For generations, we have celebrated his spellbinding storytelling while overlooking the racial triumphalism glaringly obvious in some of his masterpieces.

Kipling’s jingoism reaches an apogee in The White Man’s Burden, [14] where he paints colonialism as a benevolent and altruistic enterprise appealing to the highest ideals of the fledgling American Empire. Written during the beginning of the Philippine-American war in 1899, Kipling’s bigoted screed eulogises the purportedly philanthropic motives of White conquerors and makes no secret of Kipling’s capacity for chauvinistic intolerance. Kipling exhorts the US and the wider Anglosphere to assume the imperial mantle and civilise an ostensibly backward people who are unable to comprehend the benefits of Europeanisation.

The entire poem reads like an ode to White supremacy and is infamous for exposing Kipling’s trademark paternalistic condescension towards the regressive captives whom he often caricatured as heathens, or, as he put it, “new-caught, sullen peoples, Half-devil and half-child”.

In novels like Kim, the archetypal imperial propagandist presents India as a static and homogeneous entity that is fundamentally inferior to its progressive European counterparts. Besides flattering descriptions of the natural beauty and picturesque adventures along the Grand Trunk Road, as well as an appreciation for the visceral charm and enchanting simplicity of Indian pastoral life, Kipling viewed India as a civilisational backwater whose natives were incapable of self-government and too feeble-minded to produce a socio-political discourse independent of their colonisers. Unsurprisingly, Kipling omits any mention of the destruction wrought on the subcontinent by the colonisers, instead attributing its woeful condition to the regressive proclivities of the indigenous population.

Kipling finds in Kim an Indianised Irishman working as a spy for the British Secret Service a perfect ideal for carrying the White man’s burden by bringing enlightenment to an uncivilised people. Of course, this edifying potential would not be possible were it not for his European extraction, so the fact that Kipling’s protagonist is a Westerner is no mere accident. A civilising centre interacting one-sidedly with a periphery of supposed inferiors was a recurring colonial motif in English literature, and Kipling – the drum-beater for Empire – was its most vocal advocate.

Even the works of Joseph Conrad present a troubling ambiguity. Although Conrad railed against the savagery of Belgian imperialism and cast a light on his experiences with ivory trading in the Congo, the sincerity behind his anti-colonial discourse in Heart of Darkness remains deeply contested.[15]

According to Nigerian essayist Chinua Achebe, Conrad was guilty of reproducing crass stereotypes of Africans.[16]His disparaging connotations of Blackness was a hallmark of primordial representations of the continent, which internalised the myth of the coloured savage. His description of Africans communicating with “short grunting phrases” and “a violent babble of uncouth sounds” was unmistakably a product of a culture that stigmatised the dark continent as the most undesirable location on Earth,[17] inhabited by untamed creatures who were bereft of human agency and whose utility was measured solely by its capacity to fuel the burgeoning industry of European factories through an abundant supply of raw materials.

Not only did this kind of vulgar characterisation make the economic exploitation of Africans more palatable to the English conscience, it also formed the bedrock of a broader hegemonic apparatus and macro-structural process that historically legitimised the subordination of Black people.

Conclusion

Coming to terms with an uncomfortable past takes so much more than a few isolated victories at the legislature, promoting members of BME groups to positions of power, or impulsively ejecting literary masterpieces from the canon. To really effectuate root and branch change, and to cultivate the critical consciousness necessary for decolonising the curriculum, we must look beyond oversimplistic demands to discard all problematic scholarship. Instead, we should move towards a serious interrogation of the systems of thought and values that have persisted across generations to contribute to our deplorable state of race relations.

Some of Britain’s most prodigiously gifted writers viewed the non-White race through a haze of distortions. This is an important moral lesson to teach our pupils and incorporate as part of our instructional practices. Integrating the literary with social and political history is one of the higher callings of academia in our present context. Once we embark on a comprehensive scrutiny of the educational syllabus, we can then appreciate the urgency for developing explicatory frameworks to intuit the unsavoury connotations that are rife in English literature.

It is time we radically revise our perception of seminal English literature by redressing the postmodern obfuscation that has largely detached authors from their cultural environment. If teachers are honest and brave enough to unpack the meta-narrative of some of our most celebrated literary works, then students of literature can be effectively enlisted in the fight against racial injustice, and a human sensitivity for racial oppression may be restored.

Source: www.islam21c.com

Notes:

[1] https://www.theguardian.com/education/2020/jun/10/white-guilt-on-its-own-wont-fix-racism-decolonising-britains-schools

[2] https://www.independent.co.uk/voices/black-history-month-racism-institutional-britain-slavery-education-employment-culture-colonialism-a9170841.html

[3] https://www.ted.com/talks/pran_patel_decolonise_the_curriculum

[4] https://www.independent.co.uk/voices/black-history-month-colonialism-history-teacher-whitewashing-selective-past-a8025741.html

[5] https://www.hepg.org/her-home/issues/harvard-educational-review-volume-65-issue-1/herbooknote/culture-and-imperialism_309

[6] https://blogs.lse.ac.uk/lsereviewofbooks/2013/05/20/book-review-dickens-and-race/

[7] http://www.ric.edu/faculty/rpotter/temp/noblesav.html

[8] https://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/george-catlins-obsession-72840046/

[9] Dickens, C. and Hartley, J., 2015. The Selected Letters Of Charles Dickens. Oxford: Oxford University Press, p.328.

[10] https://www.theguardian.com/books/booksblog/2007/dec/17/dickensmuddledhisracistcar

[11] https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/2158244013499143

[12] https://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2017/07/on-teaching-but-not-loving-jane-austen/534012/

[13] https://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/jan/23/british-readers-writers-embrace-colonial-past

[14] https://www.ferris.edu/HTMLS/news/jimcrow/question/2009/november.htm

[15] https://blog.bookstellyouwhy.com/is-heart-of-darkness-racist

[16] https://polonistyka.amu.edu.pl/__data/assets/pdf_file/0007/259954/Chinua-Achebe,-An-Image-of-Africa.-Racism-in-Conrads-Heart-of-Darkness.pdf

[17] https://www.thoughtco.com/why-africa-called-the-dark-continent-43310

The views expressed on Islam21c and its connected channels do not necessarily represent the views of the organisation.

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About Hasnet Lais

Hasnet Lais is a teacher and freelance journalist with a Masters in Islamic Societies and Cultures from the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS). He is also a columnist for British Muslim news site 5Pillars.

2 comments

  1. Thomas I Al-Yasha

    Bismillah
    The existence of opposites is a reality learned at an early age when we had our first experience with fire. Comfort & ease became discomfort and pain in an instant.
    As with the consequences of disobedience to Allah, His Messenger Muhammad, SAW & the Messages of all of Allah’s Messengers, our circumstances quickly change.
    Let us rejoice in being the recipients of Allah’s Mercy & Grace. Rejoice in the knowledge that all Good comes to us from Allah, All correction comes to us from Allah, all Mercy comes to us from Allah.
    All Forces serve the plan of Allah, Heaven for Belief, Hell for Disbelief, “Tawasa bil Haqq, Tawasa bis Sabr”

    • Thomas I Al-Yasha

      Bismillah
      The existence of opposites is a reality learned at an early age when we had our first experience with fire. Comfort & ease became discomfort and pain in an instant.
      As with the consequences of disobedience to Allah, His Messenger Muhammad, SAW & the Messages of all of Allah’s Messengers, our circumstances quickly change.
      Let us rejoice in being the recipients of Allah’s Mercy & Grace. Rejoice in the knowledge that all Good comes to us from Allah, All correction comes to us from Allah, all Mercy comes to us from Allah.
      All Forces serve the plan of Allah, Heaven for Belief, Hell for Disbelief, “Tawasa bil Haqq, Tawasa bis Sabr

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