BRITISH ORIENTALISMS, 1759-1835 by James Watt, Reviewed by Gillen D'Arcy Wood

By James Watt
(Cambridge, 2019)
Reviewed by Gillen D'Arcy Wood on 2019-12-06.

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This excellent book is a pessimistic study, skeptical of liberal narratives past and present. Edward Said's Orientalism (1978) set the terms for postcolonial critique a generation and more ago, but in the last decade and a half, scholarship on West-East relations in the Georgian period has tested a hopeful, revisionist narrative of "colonization-in-reverse" based upon a thesis of increasing British "openness" to the East. To take three notable examples, Ros Ballaster's Fabulous Orients (2005), Srinivas Aravamudan's Enlightenment Orientalism (2012), and David Simpson's Romanticism and the Question of the Stranger (2012) all examined incipient forms of British sympathy and identification with an "Oriental other."

In Watt's book, these revisionist hopes are elegantly but firmly quashed. The "Cockney Orientalists" Leigh Hunt and Charles Lamb, for example, are scolded for their "casually denigratory" attitudes to the East, which involved "being imperial and not thinking very much about empire at all" (223). In Watt's account, the Cockneys compare unfavorably with the British Orientalist sympathizers of an earlier generation, notably William Jones. But doubting even his true sympathies, Watt aims to devastate the recent postcolonial "story of a larger metropolitan cultural awakening partly effected by Jones" (124). As Eastern markets opened in the seven decades after the Seven Years' War, Watt argues, minds closed. If liberalism preaches that inter-cultural contact produces greater understanding, Watts counters that familiarity breeds contempt.

Watt's argument is essentially Burke's at the infamous trial of Warren Hastings in the late 1780s, which cast English attitudes to India in the dimmest possible light. Burke's point, made over seven long years of the trial at Westminster, boiled down to "how little Britons knew about India" (58). Of this, Watts offers no shortage of exhibits from the orientalist fiction, poetry, and drama of the late Georgian period. Far from exemplifying an "enlightened orientalism," for example, Goldsmith's The Citizen of the World (1762) remains "uninterested in the 'real' China" (38). Likewise, the anti-nabob fiction of the 1770s and 80s (treated in chapter 2) evinces the same "lack of interest" in the Asian tropes it (re)circulates, preferring to maintain a hygenic "spatial and cultural distance" (86).

Watts's detailed commentary on "seraglio discourse" as the core of British Orientalism in the Georgian period is among the most satisfying in the book. It also contains his most trenchant criticism of the revisionist narrative of progressive "openness":

Where India is concerned, much recent criticism has emphasized the intellectual and creative cross-fertilization that took place under the E[ast] I[ndia] C[ompany]'s aegis during the Hastings era. There is a parallel story to tell about British metropolitan imaginings of 'the East' in the late eighteenth century, though, and it concerns the ossification of unexamined claims about the benighted condition of seraglio-bound women across 'Asia' as a whole--the seeming inescapability of this notion an index of its ideological usefulness. (90)

The enlightened orientalism of Burke and Jones was no more than a "moment," Watts argues, before the resurgence of a mainstream orientalism that "eschewed any such imaginative openness to the East" (90). The fantasy of the seraglio, as a figure for Oriental government in general, was particularly indispensable as a rhetorical foil against which to define British liberty and its supposed foundation in mixed sociability (an idea so laughable to Mary Wollstonecraft).

In the first decades of the nineteenth century, the Orient was increasingly commodified in Regency court spectacle and in the best-selling Eastern tales of Byron and Moore, which could not be trumped by the more engaged, "Jonesian" performances of cultural translation such as Southey's Thalaba the Destroyer (1801). Even reformist elements of Regency culture preserved nothing of the enlightened orientalism of Burke and Jones, Watts argues, but instead regressed to "an idea of the East as the domain of romance and imagination" (188). Sounding much like Blackwood's Magazine, Watts chides Leigh Hunt and Charles Lamb for trading in orientalisms "unapologetically second-hand," and "parad[ing] ignorance of China" (193). Though Hunt's vaunted cosmopolitanism has attracted much positive critical attention in recent times, Watt adds, "his global vision also displays an insouciant facility of reference" (204). John Gibson Lockhart could hardly have said it better.

Watt concludes by surveying the new mode of Oriental "picaresque fiction" that emerged in the late 1810s and 1820s, including such little-studied novels as James Morier's The Adventures of Hajji Baba of Ispahan (1824) and William Browne Hockley's Pandurang Hari, or Memoirs of a Hindoo (1826). But for Watt, the stubbornly "closed" orientalism of these works contradicts any progressive thesis of colonial contact, much less colonization-in-reverse. In Watt's words, these genre fictions "not only invite skepticism about the prospect of imperial 'improvement,' but also accentuate for their readers the imagined distance of the 'Orientals' depicted" (228). Post-Napoleonic fictions of the Orient thus converge with and reinforce the crude high-imperial ideology of John Stuart Mill's History of India (1817) and Macaulay's Indian writings of the 1830s: rhetorical foundation-stones of the British Raj.

Overall, with its original and thoughtfully curated bibliography of orientalist writings during the reign of George III and after, Watt's book makes a laudable contribution to postcolonialist literary history. Many of the works considered, from Johnson's Rasselas to Lamb's Elian "Old China," are canonical, but many others, particularly the novels, will be new even to specialists in the period. Though Watt's editorial framing is decidedly and almost uniformly negative, he proves a subtle and informative guide to these orientalist texts.

But is Watt's negativity always justified? In setting out to show the unreconstructed racism and sheer imperial blinkeredness of writings high and low of the late Georgian period, has Watts perhaps set himself a rather too-easy task? He never properly defines what a true "openness" to the Orient in the Georgian period might plausibly look or read like, and he judges orientalist texts in light of present-day values, again unexamined. By contrast, recent revisionist arguments for "enlightened orientalisms" appeal to us precisely because they imaginatively recuperate forms of colonial engagement and empathy that are often hard to see at first or even second glance. Watt sometimes forgets that the past is another country, in L. P. Hartley's words, because "they do things differently there." While broadly faulting Georgian writers and opinon-makers for their lack of curiosity and sympathy for the Asian "other," Watt never extends the same critical courtesy to the historical Britons themselves. With only a select suite of texts as evidence, and with material culture entirely left out, the question of a declining British "openness" to the East in the long Romantic period must remain, for this reader at least, an open question.

Gillen D'Arcy Wood is Professor of English and Environmental Humanities at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.

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