Representing Colonial South Africa


by

Simon Lewis

College of Charleston, Charleston SC


Copyright © 2001 by Simon Lewis, all rights reserved. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of U.S. Copyright law, and it may be archived and redistributed in electronic form, provided that the editors are notified and no fee is charged for access. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the notification of the journal and consent of the author.


Review of:

Laura Chrisman. Rereading the Imperial Romance: British Imperialism and South African Resistance in Haggard, Schreiner, and Plaatje. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2000. 241pp. Illustrated, bibliography, and index. $70.00 (cloth), I SBN 0-198-12299-3.


  1. Through its detailed and illuminating studies of the work of Rider Haggard, Olive Schreiner, and Sol Plaatje, Laura Chrisman's compact and elegant book performs a valuable meta-critical intervention in postcolonial criticism. Chrisman argues that fuller attention to South African literature produced in the Age of Empire (that is, between about 1880 and 1920), exposes the tendency of much postcolonial criticism and theory to produce totalizing accounts of imperialism and cultural resistance to it. Specifically, Chrisman aims to counter the tendency, following the powerful influence of Gayatri Spivak, to read India as the paradigmatic imperial site, and to valorize the mid-nineteenth century as the paradigmatic imperial moment. Such readings, argues Chrisman, reassert India as the "'jewel in the crown,' the land that colonized British imaginations at every point in its colonial and imperial history" and catch the critic in a "double bind [in which] imperialism's theoretical definition as the totality of Western history/knowledge/power is effectively at one with its definition as mid-Victorian missionary ideology" (1). South African literature, at least as represented by the imperialist Haggard, liberal anti-imperialist Schreiner, and African nationalist Plaatje, allows Chrisman to resist similarly totalizing implications (e.g., in Said and Jameson) of metropolitan homogeneity and the experience of imperialism.

  2. Chrisman makes these broad theoretical arguments, however, less by deduction and reference to other theorists, than by induction -- through close textual studies of Haggard, Schreiner, and Plaatje and their geo-political, economic and historical circumstances. Indeed, it is refreshing to read someone with such impeccable theoretical credentials as Chrisman really putting theory to work and going beyond the kind of "exorbitant" meta-theorizing that Perry Anderson criticized nearly twenty years ago in his In the Tracks of Historical Materialism. Chrisman's 200-odd pages of text are insistently materialist and focused, maintaining a lucid argumentative drive concerning the three authors under discussion, while using copious footnotes almost literally as theoretical underpinning. The result is a book which works superbly as a case-study of colonial representations of South Africa either side of 1900, while also furnishing a thorough bibliography of and dialogue with theoretical accounts of late nineteenth-century imperialism and related topics.

  3. While each of the authors in Chrisman's case study has received increasing critical attention recently (although Plaatje is still less familiar than he might be), their differences of origin, race, gender, and attitudes have tended to keep them apart. Certainly no single monograph has yet read all three together and so clearly established the dialectical tensions among them, using them less to make points about idealized concepts -- of race, gender, Africa, imperialism -- than about their historically specific mediations of South African political reality. For example, rather than focus on She and its essentializing representations of racial and gender difference, Chrisman concentrates on Haggard's relatively little-known Nada the Lily in the context of the Anglo-Zulu wars of the late nineteenth century in order to reveal the ideological processes whereby Haggard seeks to create mythic notions of Englishness and Zuluness.

  4. Likewise, rather than focus on Schreiner's well-known The Story of an African Farm (which, despite all its fine and pioneering qualities, appears to take place in a historical and geographical limbo), Chrisman foregrounds the scandalously under-read Trooper Peter Halket of Mashonaland and its direct political intervention in Cecil Rhodes's rapacious imperialism in the 1890s. One of the strengths of Chrisman's analysis of Trooper Peter Halket is her sense of Olive Schreiner as a literary artist whose writerly decisions are governed by rhetorical strategies, particularly concerning her immediate audience. The messages that Peter's "Palestinian stranger" entrusts him with vary from audience to audience (the people, wise men, women, and working men and women of England), indicating that Schreiner is aware that her apparent idealization of England and the English is a "political fiction" with which she can "simultaneously appeal to and attack an existing English population" (145). Schreiner used very similar tactics, again without ultimate practical success, in her efforts to avert the South African War in 1899, writing in the guise of an "English South African" a complex identity whose instability subversively asserts its own "contingency and . . . imaginary basis" (162).

  5. Plaatje's Mhudi, read in this context, acquires all sorts of resonances which Chrisman very deftly describes. Most obviously, the novel, and Mhudi herself, offer a revisionary proto-nationalist version of Haggard's Nada, placed in a dynamic historical sequence in which black South African people and peoples are self-affirming agents as well as victims. Thus does Plaatje refute Haggard's "escape" from history into a mythic past. Beyond that, however, Plaatje very subtly critiques the apparent liberalism that foregrounds the male-male bonding of Ra-Thaga and the Boer de Villiers. Emphasizing the radically decentered skepticism of Mhudi's ending with its "unambiguously positive vision of a reborn African nation in the form of the Ndebele" balanced against the "counter-narrative of the soon-to-be-subjugated Rolong" (205), Chrisman insists that models of "'writing back to the centre,' 'mimicry,' or 'hybridity' do not adequately account for the formal, linguistic, and ideological textures" of Mhudi. At the same time, Plaatje's "constitutively multiple" (208) sense of nationalism does not merely imitate "the totalizing subjectivity of British imperialism" (207). As with her attention to Peter Halket's multiple messages, Chrisman explores with particular adeptness the multiple ambivalences of Mhudi (e..g., its various pairings of Mhudi with Umnandi and Ra-Thaga, Ra-Thaga with De Villiers, and De Villiers with Hannetjie). She also does as convincing a job as I have read for claiming the feminism embodied by Mhudi. Given Chrisman's illuminating readings of Plaatje's work, it is perhaps a shame that she does not include more on Plaatje's non-fiction (to balance her treatment of Haggard's and Schreiner's non-fiction).

  6. The last words of Rereading the Imperial Romance describe Plaatje's work as "historically specific" (208). That phrase is Chrisman's own watchword in this admirable, coherent and useful book which succeeds admirably in meeting its own challenge: "to create methodologies that fuse the strengths of anti-colonial national liberationist theory, Marxism, feminism, and cultural materialism, to provide dynamic literary practice that is also 'postcolonial'" (22), but readers will still find Rereading the Imperial Romance invaluable both for its primary content and for the collection of annotated bibliographies contained in the footnotes.


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