Encyclopedia of the Literature of Empire - Mary Ellen Snodgrass 2010



Within the scope of the literature of empire, women authors such as the dramatist and poet APHRA BEHN, diarists MURASAKI SHIKIBU and IZUMI SHIKIBU, novelist MARYSE CONDE, journalists Nelly Bly and SANTHA RAMA RAU, autobiographer BUCHI EMECHETA, immigrant novelist ANZIA YEZIERSKA, and the frontier diarists of Canada fought battles of gender equity and autonomy. The topics are as old as Greek mythology, as indigenous to human debate as Greek playwright Aristophanes’s sex comedy Lysistrata (411 B.C.), and as alluring as the GODDESS LORE of the Sanskrit Lakshmi Tantra (ca. A.D. 780).

In Sweden, the educator and romanticist Carl Jonas Love Almqvist (1793-1866) dismayed traditionalists with his masterwork, Det gdr an (Sara Videbeck, 1839), which lauds an ideal form of wedlock practiced in Britain, France, Germany, and Scandinavia. By her actions, the protagonist demonstrates the spunk of a female who makes her own arrangements, prefers friendship to a confining marriage, and accords Albert, her mate, the freedom to come and go without jealous questions. In a riposte to Almqvist’s self-satisfied Sara, the Swedish dramatist August Strindberg (1849-1912) created Miss Julie (1888), depicting a battle between Kristin, a complacent peasant, and the title figure, an independent or New Woman who is willing to fight for the man of her choice. A bicultural American, PEARL S. BUCK (1892-1973), protested the disempowerment of women under the Chinese emperor in The Good Earth (1931) and in The Mother (1934), an experimental narrative focusing on female peasants. In the New World, the works of the Chilean Nobel Gabriela Mistral (1889-1957) and the Antiguan writer JAMAICA KINCAID (b. 1949) reflect on the residual effects of colonialism on family life in South America and the

Caribbean. Among Americans of foreign heritage, the novelist AMY TAN stands out for compiling eyewitness recollections of the collapse of imperial China and the liberation of women from centuries of male domination.

An Early Pioneer

During the Italian Renaissance, Christine de Pisan (or Pizan) (1364-ca. 1434), a Venetian-born essayist and romantic balladeer, became the first European female writer to confront literary misogyny and the trivialization of women. Raised in Paris at the court of Charles V by her father, an astrology lecturer and court physician and counselor, Tomasso di Benvenuto da Pizzano of Bologna, she educated herself by reading chronicles, literature, and scientific treatises and by mastering French, Italian, and Latin. The death in 1390 of her husband, the court secretary and notary Etienne du Castel of Picardy, of bubonic plague left her the single parent of three children and also caregiver for her widowed mother. She supported them by publishing occasional verse—allegory, anecdotes, songs, and rondeaux. With the financial backing of the duc de Berry, the duchesse de Bourbon, the earl of Salisbury, Louis I of Orleans, Isabella of Bavaria, and Philip II of Burgundy, Christine issued essays on soldiery, court behavior, and hagiography and compiled a biography of Charles V of France. With Epistre au dieu d’amours (Letter to the god of love, 1399) and an AUTOBIOGRAPHY, Eavision de Christine (Christine’s Vision, 1405), she tackled sexism promulgated by the conventions of courtly love. Her balanced arguments championed gender equality and a realistic understanding of human sexuality. She counted among her fans women of great influence—Anne of Brittany, Louise of Savoy, Leorna of Portugal, Marguerite of Austria, and Mary of Hungary.

Christine de Pisan rebuked historians in Livre de la cite des dames (Book of the City of Ladies, ca. 1405), an allegory that censures chroniclers for omitting women from world events. She defied the Catholic hegemony by refuting the interpretation of Eve in GENESIS as the cause of human miseries and by accusing Christian husbands of wife beating, drunkenness, and fortune hunting. With a sequel, Le livre des trois vertus (The Book of the Three Virtues, 1406), Christine addressed the concerns of “princesses and ladies honoured on earth” (Christine de Pisan 1985, 35) and warned of the evils of luxury and pride. The text criticizes poor female education and demands opportunities for women to fulfill their innate promise as a means of fighting frivolous stereotypes. Her apologia for female strengths lauds women for dignity and for devotion to peacemaking and justice.

The Hundred Years' War (1337-1453), a conflict of territorial claims and counterclaims between England and France, ignited a fierce loyalty in the author for her adopted homeland. In 1410, she took on the persona of Minerva, the Roman goddess of wisdom and war, to compose Le livre des fais d’armes et de chevalerie (The Book of Deeds of Arms and of Chivalry), a rare field-strategy manual compiled by a woman. In the second chapter, she defends the humanitarian position opposing unrestrained combat: “For in the exercise of arms many great wrongs, extortions, and grievous deeds are committed, as well as rapine, killings, forced executions, and arson” (Christine de Pisan 1999, 14).

After retiring to the Dominican abbey of Poissy at age 54, on July 31, 1429, Christine de Pisan composed Le ditie de Jeanne d’Arc (Hymn to Joan of Arc) in opposition to the seizure of French territory by Henry V of England. The heroic ode, the only tribute to Joan of Arc by a contemporary, honors the female folk leader for her intelligence and daring in reclaiming the Loire Valley. The poem salutes Joan's courage at the siege of Orleans on April 29, 1429, and the prophetic rise of a rural shepherdess to international fame.

The Feminist Pilgrim Abroad

An illiterate contemporary of Christine, the ecstatic visionary Margery Kempe (ca. 1364-ca. 1440) of Bishop's Lynn (now King's Lynn), Norfolk, freed herself from married servitude and composed the first autobiography of a woman in English. Born to John Brunham, mayor of Lynn, she wed John Kempe, a burgher and guildsman of her own class, in 1393. She suffered depression from intimate contact but bore her husband 14 children while she ran a brewery and grist mill. Her religious fervor advanced from ecstatic fasting, prayer, and confession to hallucinations, hysteria, and masochism. Suicidal thoughts that drove her to cling to a windowsill forced John Kempe to chain her to a bedstead for eight months. In solitude, she felt forsaken by God. In 1414, she fled her home to begin a pilgrimage to Canterbury, Leicester, Walsingham, and York. Her obsession with holy shrines took her to Assisi and Rome in Italy and to Santiago de Compostela, Spain's most popular religious site. After travels to view relics of Jesus, John the Baptist, and the Virgin Mary at Aachen in the Holy Roman Empire and to Jerusalem, a shrine of the Islamic hegemony, she returned to King's Lynn to nurse her dying husband. In 1431, their marriage ended at his death with duty and benevolence. Two years later, Kempe resumed her holy wanderings with religious ecstasies at Danzig, Poland, and Bergen, Norway.

Four years before her death, Kempe dictated a memoir to her son and a priest. The Book of Margery Kempe (1436) is an account of her emotional crises and the mysticism and theatrics that relieved her fervent religiosity. Key to her recovery were places that she venerated for their sanctity rather than their temporal significance. In fall 1413, robed in white and directed by visions of Christ, she joined a party of spiritual communers with the Virgin Mary in Jerusalem under the Mamluks, who encouraged restoration and tourism of religious sites as a boost to the imperial economy. Before reaching the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, a state attraction guarded by Muslims, she remarked, “I wepe sore in this holy place wher owyr Lord Jhesu Crist was qwyk and ded” (Kempe 2006, 161). She joined a candlelight procession led by friars bearing a cross. In the hands of Islamic exploiters, she paid a “Sarazyn” (173) to guide her to the site of the 40-day fast and crucifixion. Kempe's identification with the virgin's motherhood caused bouts of wailing, lamenting, and swooning on the Mount of Calvary, the site of Jesus' crucifixion. She subsequently looked back on Jerusalem as a source of succor and forgiveness. At Leicester in fall 1417, the mayor and others denounced Kempe's outbursts and jailed her. Because of her mental affliction, she viewed less fervent pilgrims with suspicion for chiding and threatening her.

As recounted in Book 2, on her third and last pilgrimage in spring 1433, Margery Kempe traveled with her Polish daughter-in-law by ship from southeastern England along the Baltic Sea. Fearing for Kempe's son's dissolute ways, Kempe and her daughter-in-law toured shrines in Danzig, Stralsund, and Wilsnack (present-day Brandenburg, Germany) and traveled by wagon to Aachen. The strength of the Catholic faith in northern Europe's Holy Roman Empire offered a strong contrast to her journeys in Islamic Palestine. However, in neither realm did she find sympathy for women or personal and sexual emancipation.

Feminism in the Spanish Empire

In 1669, a Hieronymite nun of New Spain, Sor (Sister) Juana Ines de la Cruz (ca. 1648-1695), flouted the Vatican by demanding human rights and education for females. In an era when men labeled women's minds and souls as second-class, Juana Ines Ramirez de Asbaje of San Miguel Nepantla, southeast of Mexico City, enjoyed the same run-of-the-library training that educated Christine de Pisan. Before she became Sor Juana, she taught herself Latin and Nahuatl and tried unsuccessfully to enter the Royal and Pontifical University of Mexico disguised as a boy. She spent her early teens as handmaiden to Leonor Carreto, the marquise de Mancera, whom Juana honored with a troubadour's passion. By age 21, having rejected suitors, Juana had only one option for independence: to take holy vows. To a disappointed wooer, she stated, “My body disinclined to this man or that, serves only to house the soul—you might call it neuter or abstract” (Cruz 1988, 9). In the woman-managed cloister, she learned logic, debated, taught music and theater, and kept the sisterhood's archives and ledgers. Simultaneously, she composed occasional verses, two farces, five sacramental plays, 16 carols, 62 ballads, 70 baroque sonnets, and religious allegories on the veneration of the Virgin Mary.

During the Golden Age of the Spanish Empire, Sor Juana fought the objectification of women with feminist verse and prose. She warned that physical beauty “is a corpse, is dust, is shadow, and is gone” (Cruz 1994, 147). Autocrats fumed at her theological knowledge when she cited the writings of St. Jerome and St. Paula, which prelates had falsely interpreted in order to demonize, shackle, and dehumanize females. At age 43, Sor Juana rebutted the sexism of Manuel Fernandez de Santa Cruz, the archbishop of Puebla, Mexico, by composing La respuesta a Sor Filotea de la Cruz (The reply to Sister Filotea of the Cross, 1691), the first feminist declaration of educational and intellectual freedom as the right of all Christians. She reasoned, “Being a Catholic, I thought it an abject failing not to know everything that can in this life be achieved, through earthly methods, concerning the divine mysteries” (53).

In the months preceding her death during a typhoid epidemic at the Convent of Santa Paula in Mexico City, Sor Juana dipped her pen in blood to disavow her writings and, under religious coercion, liquidated for alms her laboratory equipment, musical instruments, and some 4,000 books. Extant are four volumes of Sor Juana's correspondence, 100 books, and 185 manuscripts. In 1990, Assumpta Serna played the nun's role in the movie Yo, la peor de todas (I, the worst of all).

A Scots Rebel

A forerunner of the 19th-century independent or New Woman, the dramatist and poet Joanna Baillie (1762-1851) examined the gendered elements of heroism and imperialism. She was born in Bothwell, Scotland, to the Reverend James Baillie, a Presbyterian minister, and Dorothea Hunter Baillie. She counted among her ancestors the great Scottish hero William Wallace. After studying stagecraft at a boarding school in Glasgow and privately under Sir Walter Scott, Baillie composed 14 plays and one musical drama featuring psychological motifs and moral issues that featured male and female perspectives. Her narrative poem “The Legend of Lady Griseld [sic] Baillie,” collected in Metrical Legends of Exalted Characters (1821), contributed to male-dominant Scots historical fiction a female of uncommon shrewdness and valor. Another ballad on Christopher Columbus surveys the logic of the visionary and concludes that “Earth's greatest son / That e'er earn'd fame, or empire won, / Hath but fulfill'd, with a narrow scope, / A stinted portion of his ample hope” (Baillie 1851, 732). Her sympathetic view emphasizes the fickleness of glory and the long-range shifts in historical appreciation of world exploration.

Baillie welcomed the ascension of Queen Victoria to the British throne and, in a letter written in spring 1837, wished for the empire an epoch of “peace and plenty” (Baillie 1999, 67). At literary maturity, she composed the metrical romance Ahalya Baee (1849), the tale of the legendary title figure, a Hindu queen who caught the interest of historian Sir John Malcolm, a diplomat and officer of the East India Company to whom the poet alludes. Beginning in 1735, according to the ballad, Ahalya reigned amid tribal turmoil on her borders, and yet, from age 30 to 60, she ruled at Maheshwar in the province of Mulwa in westcentral India, without combat. A parallel to the imperial presence and control of Queen Victoria in British colonies, Ahalya puts down warlords and devotes herself to promoting prosperity, honoring Brahma, relieving poverty, and elevating the family. Baillie depicts a golden era in which urchins surround the rani's palanquin and chant, “She is our Mother, and she loves us all” (Baillie 1851, 842). At her death, a sage regrets that India's “restless chiefs” lack Ahalya's judgment and benevolence (847).

Joanna Baillie died in Hampstead, England, on February 23, 1851, leaving behind a wealth of poetry and plays she collected into one large volume published shortly before her death.

Indian Womanhood

A voice for the Indian woman, the civil libertarian and journalist Nayantara Sahgal (b. 1927) writes of imperialism as it spans southern Asian history from ancient times. A contemporary of the feminist author ANITA MAZUMDAR DESAI, Sahgal viewed the coming of independence for her country through the actions of prominent parents; her uncle, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru; and her cousin, Indira Gandhi, a subsequent prime minister. Trained at a missionary academy at Woodstock, Mussoorie, and at Wellesley College, she edited Nehru's letters and worked as a freelance journalist, writing for the Guardian, Frontline, Indian Express, Journal of Commonwealth Literature, and the Times. She published two memoirs, Prison and Chocolate Cake (1954) and From Fear Set Free (1962); the polemical The Freedom Movement in India (1970), A Voice for Freedom (1977), and Point of View: A Personal Response to Life, Literature and Politics (1997); and the biography Indira Gandhi: Her Road to Power (1982).

On the issues of violence against women, Sahgal denounced not only the wrongs of empire but also Hindu misogyny, the murder and cremation of female rebels by their kin, and suttee, or ritual burning of widow. Her novels This Time of Morning (1965), A Situation in New Delhi (1977), and Rich Like Us (1983) survey the price of feminist protest. The glib, witty Mistaken Identity (1988), set in 1929 during a period of arbitrary imprisonment, examines motivation and retaliation in northern India during protests against the British Raj. Of the empires that ruled his country, her protagonist, Bhushan Singh, a maharajah's son, titters about “the brilliant centuries between the barbarous hordes of Ghazni and Ghori, and the barbarous British” (Sahgal 1988, 26). The juxtaposition captures Sahgal's skill at denouncing imperialism.



Almqvist, Carl. Sara Videbeck. Translated by Adolph

Burnett Benson. New York: American-Scandinavian Foundation, 1839.

Baillie, Joanna. The Collected Letters of Joanna Baillie.

Edited by Judith Bailey Slagle. Cranbury, N.J.:

Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1999.

------- . The Dramatic and Poetical Works of Joanna Baillie.

London: Longman, Brown, Green, and Longmans, 1851.

Christine de Pisan. The Book of Deeds of Arms and of Chivalry. Translated by Sumner Willard. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1999.

----- . The Treasure of the City of Ladies: or, The Book of Three Virtues. Translated by Sarah Lawson. London: Penguin, 1985.

Cruz, Sor Juana Ines de la. The Answer/La Respuesta: Including a Selection of Poems. Translated by Electa Arenal and Amanda Powell. New York: Feminist Press, 1994.

------- . A Sor Juana Anthology. Translated by Alan S.

Trueblood. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1988.

Forhan, Kate Langdon. The Political Theory of Christine de Pizan. Aldershot, U.K.: Ashgate, 2002.

Holloway, Julia Bolton, Constance S. Wright, and Joan Bechtold. Equally in God’s Image: Women in the Middle Ages. Florence, Italy: Aureo Anello, 1990.

Kempe, Margery. The Book of Margery Kempe. Translated by Barry Windeatt. Rochester, N.Y.: D. S. Brewer, 2006.

Mehrota, Arvind Krishna. A History of Indian Literature in English. New York: Columbia University Press, 2003.

Sahgal, Nayantara. Mistaken Identity. London: Heinemann, 1988.