Saturday, March 19, 2011

Less prep... more write

So I think things have been going well... as noted in my "tweet," I reread and copied notes from Major Gahagan, this incredible but somehow overlooked early Thackeray novella: it's narrated by this Barry Lyndon type-braggart (Irish of course) as he retells his adventures while serving the British army in India in the first decade of the 1800s.  I think I already shared the episode where he "almost" married Julia Jowler, the Colonel's daughter who is 1/4 native; Gahagan is willing to "overlook" this for her beauty, but abandons her when he realizes that during his absence she married an Indian Raj ("Chowder Loll," whom Gahagan kills in battle) and had his child.  I want to explore how she's suddenly an unacceptable bride, not because she's a widow and mother, but "contaminated" by having married a native.  Still, I'm very wary of one-dimensional postcolonial readings...

I also read three interesting articles: Norton's "The Ex-Collector of Boggley-Wollah: Colonialism in the Empire of Vanity Fair," (a little less Bahktin & Foucault would be awesome...), Perkin's response to Norton's article ( a big Said fan himself), and this brilliant article from a history journal: Sivasundaram's “The East India Company's Elephants in India and Britain.” He tracks the East India Company's relationship with elephants, what they represent to 19th century imperial culture, and concludes with the significance of the horrific account of Chuny, the Indian elephant brought to London for show and horrifically put down in 1826 when he turned violent (seriously, look it up, you'll cry...)

But, the gem of this week's research is a reference in Sivasundaram's article to a 1911 book by F.B. Bradley-Birt entitled ‘Sylhet’ Thackeray.  I found it online (for free!), hoping for, but not counting on, a significant connection.  There were a LOT of Thackerays in 19th century Englannd.  

I learned A) Sylhet is a place in India and B) the book is about the original William Makepeace Thackeray, aka, Bill Thack's paternal grandfather and his distinguished career in India in the second half of the 18th century.  So many of the events recounted are foundational to Major Gahagan and even Vanity Fair.  The craziest event entails Willy T senior purchasing 60 elephants for the East India Company and marching them to a designated location.  Six elephants die along the way and the rest, understandably, arrive in rough shape.  The EIC refuses to pay Willy T Sr., leading to a bunch of legal drama.  Also, while there, he ultimately fins his bride and witnesses the displaced British marriage market (matches were not focused on love, but money and social standing), a social aberration which Thackeray criticizes throughout his novels.

After contemplating all of this in conjunction with his letters, relevant criticism and  his fictions, I'm coming to find that yes, Thackeray was racist, particularly in terms of interracial relationships; in addition to common 19th century prejudice, I believe this stems from his issues with his father's half-Indian daughter.  And yes, he supported the "Christian," "civilizing" mission of empire, but he uses his satire to critique what he sees as problematic about Englishness that's simply been transplanted into the British colonies: social climbing, dirty politics, greed, unnecessary warfare, vanity, etc.  This will make more sense shortly...

On a personal note, I'm working but need to work faster, and smarter, take a tip from Liana who cranked out 4 pages today!  I'm in my old mode of reading and typing up notes for days and days and not producing! I'm presenting on Saturday and hoped to include pages on India, so here we go...

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