This blog post was originally written for the Victorian Popular Fiction Association’s blog following the Association’s annual conference this summer. The theme of Travel, Translation and Communication made for an engaging and varied programme, and I couldn’t resist attending this panel on gender and adventure.
The papers of this panel promised adventure, and did not disappoint.
Alisha Walters’ paper was titled ‘A “woman-comrade upon the bleak and barren heights before Sebastopol”: Mary Seacole and the Affective, Feminine Modelling of Wartime British Identity’. Walters’ paper focused on Seacole’s autobiography, which, as it was written to save her from bankruptcy, after the Crimean War, consciously deployed the tropes of the adventure story in both title – “The Wonderful Adventures of Mary Seacole” – and style.
As well as a profitable adventure story, though, the autobiography was a chance for Seacole to construct herself as an imperial subject, and Walters provided a fascinating analysis of how Seacole did this. Most radically, Seacole created and sustained her imperial identity through affect, stressing her emotional connection with the British soldiers and the imperial project of war. In locating identity in this communal, emotional experience of imperialism, she challenged Robert Knox’s inheritance model of identity.
Walters’ gave a great impression of the fun Seacole had as an imperial subject among the British servicemen – including when, as a joke, they presented Seacole to some Russian soldiers as Queen Victoria! Sadly though, all this adventuring came to an end when the war ended, and Seacole had to return to England, and a less certain imperial position.
Imperial identity was also seen as communal in Matthew Crofts’ paper, ‘Crossing The Bounds of Decorum and Travelling in the First Ages: Transformation and Travel in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and Kipling’s “The Mark of the Beast”’. However, Crofts emphasised ambivalence around ideas of the communal project of imperialism, which led writers like Conrad and Kipling to write new forms of gothic horror in response.
Crofts argued that both writers display a fear that the imperial position was by no means secure – that reverse colonisation could occur, and darkness could return to the civilised world. But Crofts also argued that these stories show an awareness that darkness was already inherent within the imperial race and that the gothic is used to express this deep dark truth. In Kipling’s story, the supernatural Other literally transforms the coloniser into a beast. However, after his transformation, his companions continue to act alongside him, even allowing the torture of a colonised subject, and are seemingly bound to the beast by their shared nationality. In Conrad’s Heart of Darkness there is no need for anything supernatural to turn Kurtz into a monster: only the machinery of empire is required.
Ambivalence about imperial identity continued with Elly McCausland’s paper, ‘”I wouldn’t trust that map”: Unmapping Adventurous Masculinity in Victorian Imperial Romance’. At its heart, this paper was a captivating reading of the relationship between maps and adventure, with adventure being defined as a sudden temporal event, an attitude, and a rejection of plans. Though this might seem to go against the structure of maps, McCausland reminded us that in boys’ adventure stories maps enact a slippage between knowledge and possibility: some can’t be trusted, there are blank spaces and edges – in effect, they offer a false omniscience and become the inspiration for adventure.
Adventure stories developed boys’ imperial masculinity by providing hypothetical situations in which boys could imaginatively be prepared (like boy scouts) for their imperial future. However, McCausland noted that there was ambivalence around this form of literature for boys, and fears that the genre was creating an ever-increasing appetite for adventure. The heroes of these stories arguably suffer from too much adventure: in the end they are left restless and unsatisfied, unable to make plans, and therefore unable to be of much help as the imperial project developed.
Overall, the British imperial project was a hard to ignore backdrop to these papers, but the speakers showed how this context offered rich opportunities for identity creation, new literary genres, and, of course, adventure.