Recent critiques of postcolonial studies have been shaped around two lines of inquiry: a consideration of its origins and ascent within the academy, and the analysis and critique of its substantive contributions. While the prestige of postcolonial studies is often credited to Edward Said for his monumental work, Orientalism, with a runner’s up prize for Gayatri Spivak, its popularity owes just as much to the social context as it does to the talents of its progenitors. As Arif Dirlik, Aijaz Ahmad, and others have pointed out, postcolonial studies’ ascent came through the displacement of Marxist theory, hitherto the dominant intellectual force on the Left. and this in turn was the intellectual reflection of a political conjuncture — the dramatic defeats of the global left after the 1970s, and the retreat of radicals into the university. On the back of these defeats, social theory in the 1980s swapped a materialist emphasis on class analysis for the inflation of culture in human affairs. Under the tutelage of a few savvy Third World intellectuals in the Global North, this reached the shores of colonial studies as well. A new postcolonial discourse thus took hold.
Over the past generation or so, the field has expanded by claiming an ever-increasing part of the intellectual universe into its ambit, sometimes as an extension of its inner self, and in other instances as parts of its pre-history of radicalism. Given this ironically imperial ambition, what Arif Dirlik describes as “a new orthodoxy in cultural criticism and academic programs,” 1 it is not altogether surprising to find its advocates trying to hitch canonical figures of nineteenth-century literature to the postcolonial wagon. It is largely within this scholarly trend that Oliver Lovesey’s Postcolonial George Eliot (Palgrave Macmillan UK, 2017) must be located.
At first glance, a postcolonial analysis of George Eliot seems plausible, given that the late nineteenth century was a period of consolidation of the British empire, with the transfer of power in India from the East India Company to the British crown in 1858, and the declaration of Victoria as the Empress of India (the empire’s “jewel in the crown”) in 1876. As Lovesey points outs, these dates mirror almost exactly the period of Eliot’s literary corpus: her first fiction, “The Sad Fortunes of the Revered Amos Barton” was published in 1857, and her last novel, Daniel Deronda, in 1876. But, as Lovesey himself acknowledges, and Nancy Henry has shown before him, Eliot’s writings never engage directly with the colonial project.2 She never traveled outside Europe herself, and though she did have some minor personal linkages to empire, those were mostly through her partner, G. H. Lewes. She also dabbled in high-yield colonial stocks, and, like other contemporaries, she and Lewes were directly involved in shaping the colonial careers of the latter’s sons in South Africa. But while these signal her engagement with the fact of empire, do they also indicate that empire is a useful prism through which to read her literary production? One may well ask, how and why does Eliot get reclaimed within a postcolonial framework, and what is the value of establishing her credentials in that special way?