Indian Commodities in Victorian Domestic Novels
The University of Michigan Press (November 28, 2010)
By the early nineteenth century, imperial commodities had become commonplace in middle-class English homes. Such Indian goods as tea, textiles, and gemstones led double lives, functioning at once as exotic foreign artifacts and as markers of proper Englishness. The Empire Inside: Indian Commodities in Victorian Domestic Novels reveals how Indian imports encapsulated new ideas about both the home and the world in Victorian literature and culture. In novels by Charlotte Brontë, Charles Dickens, and Anthony Trollope, the regularity with which Indian commodities appear bespeaks their burgeoning importance both ideologically and commercially. Such domestic details as the drinking of tea and the giving of shawls as gifts point us toward suppressed connections between the feminized realm of private life and the militarized realm of foreign commerce.
Tracing the history of Indian imports yields a record of the struggles for territory and political power that marked the coming-into-being of British India; reading the novels of the period for the ways in which they infuse meaning into these imports demonstrates how imperialism was written into the fabric of everyday life in nineteenth-century England. Situated at the intersection of Victorian studies, material cultural studies, gender studies, and British Empire studies, The Empire Inside is written for academics, graduate students, and advanced undergraduates in all of these fields.
CHARLOTTE -------- JAMES TAILOR --------- BOMBAY
1851 Charlotte rejects a marriage proposal from James Taylor, a member of her publishing house.
When James Taylor came in 1851 to set up Smith Taylor & ; Co, an Indian branch of the publishers Smith Elder, he had called at Haworth en route and – as if in bizarre imitation of St John Rivers’s proposal at the end of the novel, Jane Eyre – had asked Charlotte to marry him. Charlotte Brontë turned him down flat, for he was ugly, red-headed and Scottish. She did not fancy a life in India but she did like writing letters, so for a few years the pair maintained a desultory, rather desperate long-distance correspondence.
LETTER from Charlotte to JAMES TAYLOR, BOMBAY
‘Haworth, November 15th, 1851.
‘My dear Sir,—Both your communications reached me safely—the note of the 17th September and the letter of the 2nd October. You do yourself less than justice when you stigmatise the latter as “ill-written.” I found it quite legible, nor did I lose a word, though the lines and letters were so close. I should have been sorry if such had not been the case, as it appeared to me throughout highly interesting. It is observable that the very same information which we have previously collected, perhaps with rather languid attention, from printed books, when placed before us in familiar manuscript, and comprising p. 320the actual experience of a person with whom we are acquainted, acquires a new and vital interest: when we know the narrator we seem to realise the tale.
‘The bath scene amused me much. Your account of that operation tallies in every point with Mr. Thackeray’s description in the Journey from Cornhill to Grand Cairo. The usage seems a little rough, and I cannot help thinking that equal benefit might be obtained through less violent means; but I suppose without the previous fatigue the after-sensation would not be so enjoyable, and no doubt it is that indolent after-sensation which the self-indulgent Mahometans chiefly cultivate. I think you did right to disdain it.
‘It would seem to me a matter of great regret that the society at Bombay should be so deficient in all intellectual attraction. Perhaps, however, your occupations will so far absorb your thoughts as to prevent them from dwelling painfully on this circumstance. No doubt there will be moments when you will look back to London and Scotland, and the friends you have left there, with some yearning; but I suppose business has its own excitement. The new country, the new scenes too, must have their interest; and as you will not lack books to fill your leisure, you will probably soon become reconciled to a change which, for some minds, would too closely resemble exile.
‘I fear the climate—such as you describe it—must be very trying to an European constitution. In your first letter, you mentioned October as the month of danger; it is now over. Whether you have passed its ordeal safely, must yet for some weeks remain unknown to your friends in England—they can but wish that such may be the case. You will not expect me to write a letter that shall form a parallel with your own either in quantity or quality; what I write must be brief, and what I communicate must be commonplace and of trivial interest.
‘My father, I am thankful to say, continues in pretty good health. I read portions of your letter to him and he was interested in hearing them. He charged me when I wrote to convey his very kind remembrances.
p. 321‘I had myself ceased to expect a letter from you. On taking leave at Haworth you said something about writing from India, but I doubted at the time whether it was not one of those forms of speech which politeness dictates; and as time passed, and I did not hear from you, I became confirmed in this view of the subject. With every good wish for your welfare,—I am, yours sincerely,