Miranda Carter on ‘colonial’ literature (translation – all those cracking books you read as a child):
Adventure stories set in the British empire are now so unfashionable they don’t even have a name, even though they are a distinct genre.
These stories told big, primal tales from the frontier, or what Arthur Conan Doyle called in The Lost World, “the big blank spaces in the map”. They provided a vast, exotic, canvas, far from increasingly safe and conventional Britain, on which to recast old familiar plots: quests, struggles with evil, tests of strength, exciting encounters with the unfamiliar. Their protagonists were tested and came through. An energetic plot was vital – it is no accident that many of the most famous have spawned multiple film versions.
Some better than others, but all well worth watching. But, according to Miranda, no longer worth reading:
Time has brought changes. Many of these books are now unreadable.
Really? *leafs through ’Robinson Crusoe’*
Seems perfectly readable to me…
It is striking to compare the energetic debates of the last few weeks over how the first world war should be presented – a reflection of our constant fascination with the two world wars – with the near-silence with which we still approach the subject of the empire. Increasingly distant from us, empire is such a knotty, ambiguous subject, in which the British are the bad guys rather than the plucky underdogs, that it has become easier to ignore our imperial legacy than to examine it full in the face.
The hook on which this entire article is built, of course, is that she’s writing a book set in … yes, Colonial India. But hers will be a nice, oh-so-PC and nuanced book. Not like those awful stuffy old white men’s books:
It transpired that in Indian folk memory, Sleeman was – perhaps not surprisingly – a ruthless figure, not at all the benevolent administrator of imperial histories. Though at the time I didn’t realise it, both of these narratives had emerged from postcolonial and subaltern studies. There was the traditional colonial version and, right next to it, the postcolonialist rejoinder, waiting for a plot to bounce them off each other. I learned much – more than I expected – from academic theory, and I hope I have managed to breathe some life into a contested, neglected genre.
Will your book be read in 50 years time? I think the others will.