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Jane L. Bownas, Thomas Hardy and Empire: The Representation of Imperial Themes in the Work of Thomas Hardy

Peggy Blin-Cordon
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Jane L. Bownas, Thomas Hardy and Empire: The Representation of Imperial Themes in the Work of Thomas Hardy, Farnham, Ashgate, 2012, 188 p. ISBN: 978-1-4094-4082-6

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1This book by Jane L. Bownas sets out to shed new light on the novels and poetry of Thomas Hardy. As Bownas mentions in her short introduction, her aim is to place Hardy’s work within the historical context of nineteenth-century imperialism, and to adopt the original perspective of Hardy as an ‘imperial’ writer.

2Bownas clearly intends to show how Hardy’s poetry and prose bear imperial traits, and how they deal with imperialist matters more than superficially and thematically. Indeed, she argues that the author’s views on Christianity, class, gender, and Victorian power structures in general, were profoundly influenced by a domestic vision of life, itself profoundly shaped by imperialism. In doing so, she further discredits the theory of Hardy being part of the national cultural heritage and having a certain vision of national identity, an image of ‘Englishness’ and pastoralism which did at some point serve the establishment. She also argues that Hardy’s handling of the imperialist motifs present in his works actually challenged the ideology at the root of imperialism. Her analysis is organized in five chapters.

3In the first chapter, ‘Colonies and Colonizers’, Jane Bownas examines the references to the colonies present in Hardy’s poems most particularly, and in Two on a Tower (1882), A Pair of Blue Eyes (1873) and Tess (1891). She also seeks to prove how the process of colonization actually operates within the boundaries of Great Britain. Her first chapter essentially reviews the different theories by Said, Cain and Hopkins, Williams and Foucault altogether, dwelling on the effects of colonialism and on the relationship between the metropolis and colonies. The tendency among some of Hardy’s characters to escape to foreign and exotic lands is shown to resemble the themes found in the work of other writers (a parallel with Conrad’s Heart of Darkness is drawn at length) and to represent an opportunity to explore an ambiguous morality and the permissiveness of other social norms (19), so as to come back home with a broadened mind. In this chapter J. L. Bownas also states that the domination of London and its elite over rural England actually mirrors the colonization of the lands abroad by the Western world. According to Bownas, such an argument is particularly significant in Hardy’s Tess.

4In her second chapter, J. L. Bownas demonstrates how the extensive references to the Roman Empire in Hardy’s work function as a counterpoint for nineteenth-century imperialism. The author was a fervent admirer of the overpowering, far-reaching Roman civilization, and knew much about it. Reading between Hardy’s lines, we understand that the Roman Empire could have served as a warning or a model to Imperial Britain (33). It is apparent in The Mayor of Casterbridge (1886), in which the Roman past plays a great role. It is indeed an all-pervasive background in which some characters embody the defeated, primitive, barbarian Celts (Henchard) and others, the victorious, modern, literate Romans (Farfrae). The ‘Poems of Pilgrimage’ section in Poems of the Past and Present (1901) represents an implicit criticism of nineteenth-century Britain. The Roman Empire equally allows Hardy to fathom the cycle of civilizations, the idea that imperial Britain at that time had reached a climax of hundreds of years of historical progress and so wanted to spread throughout the world (45). Thanks to this parallel, the transience of such a power and the fact that Hardy never equates imperialism with historical progress become important features in his poetry essentially.

5Following the work of Pine and Orel, the case of Hardy’s epic verse drama, The Dynasts (1904, 1906, 1908), is treated in Chapter 3. The focus then is no longer on the ideology of imperialism but on emperors. Ambitious Napoleon is described as an alternative to ruling dynasties in old Europe, yet proves to be, when declaring himself emperor, as egocentric as they are. Hardy shows in The Dynasts how the hopes to overthrow the ‘wormy dynasties’ (71) Napoleon Bonaparte fosters, are crushed by a natural born ruler. The Dynasts indeed draws the portrait of a great man dwarfed by his ambitions.

6Chapter 4 explores the notion of the primitive and the civilized in several of Hardy’s novels, principally The Return of the Native (1878) and The Woodlanders (1887). Hardy’s novels in general go against the nineteenth-century binary opposition between primitivism and barbarianism. With his ‘hawk vision’ (W. H. Auden) (96) Hardy once more puts himself in the position of a distanced commentator on history, and places himself as humanist writer. J. L. Bownas takes the example of the Heath in The Return of the Native, a land peopled with primitive, pagan, illiterate characters representing the colonized, invaded by a Christian character (Clym Yeobright) who plays the part of the civilized and is eager to educate the ignorant masses. Similarly, in The Woodlanders, the character of Fitzpiers bases his theory of a new era on scientific grounds, a theory which would assert his own supremacy over the people of the woodland, regardless of their values, customs and way of life. Those characters and the ideology they convey, serve to highlight Hardy’s constant challenging of the idea of progress and modernity. They further illustrate Hardy’s efforts to challenge the duality of the hierarchical opposites (civilized vs. primitives) which form the foundations of Victorian society.

7Finally, J. L. Bownas focuses on the fact that the institutions dominating Britain in the late nineteenth century were the very structures exerting power in the colonies, so much so that the concepts of gender, class and race applied to the colonies were deeply influenced by the domestic vision of them. Disappointedly, Bownas practically always adopts an exclusively historical point of view to refer to those concepts. A lot has been written on Hardy and class, Hardy and money, Hardy and women, (Penny Boumelha, Marjorie Garson, Kristin Brady, Rosemarie Morgan) and we sometimes regret the fact that previous criticism of Hardy in relation to those topics is perhaps only superficially exploited, with the notable exception of Joanna Devereux, Gillian Beer and Henry Wotton’s work. However, the ideas she develops are highly stimulating, even if some of them were already dealt with by the Hardy specialists earlier mentioned, such as the idea of the dominant and the dominated which Bownas endorses, stating that Hardy’s female characters represent the mirror image of the colonized, and the male attempt at their domination a reflection of the imperial spread throughout the world. Such an authoritative discourse is mainly built on Darwin, Spencer, and J. S. Mill’s publications, which promote a logic asserting male superiority over women, basing male pre-eminence on the idea that women are weaker, less intelligent owing to a smaller brain, childlike, more emotional, and for some, even degenerate. Those characteristics can apply to the colonized, who in the nineteenth century could be epitomized by the figure of the exotic woman. When Hardy tries to challenge masculinity in his depiction of ‘new’ women, he voices the idea that women are by no means inferior beings but merely represent the Other, and so, to a certain extent, implies a criticism of the patriarchal image of colonized peoples. J. L. Bownas most particularly focuses on Hardy’s last three novels, Tess, Jude and The Well Beloved, in which Hardy challenges the oppression of women in patriarchal society. Tess, ontologically a ‘pure’ woman, is corrupted by the male gaze (on that matter, see Margaret Higonnet or Kristin Brady) and it is that very gaze which makes her a sexual being, a temptress and ‘an anomaly’ (Tess 135). The childlike attitude of Tess also corresponds to a preconceived characteristic of colonized peoples; it represented for the imperial authority a valuable argument in order for it to ground its domination on men and women who then were supposedly in need of protection. In a later novel, Sue embodies an alternative to the binary order of society since she—vainly—challenges the boundaries between men and women, and endeavours not to consider relationships with men only in sexual terms. Further into this opposition of sexes, the last evolution of Hardy’s women is the woman who substitutes herself for men in The Well Beloved (1897).

8The reader of J. L. Bownas is quite persuaded by the relevance of the misinterpretation of Hardy as the contributor to cultural imperialism. Her conclusion on the position of Hardy as being—quoting Homi Bhabha‘s The Location of Culture (1994)—‘almost the same, but not quite’ (151) is convincing, and can apply to other fields of studies when considering the author as conforming to tradition or not. At times in the demonstration though, the link between imperialist themes and the fictional, poetical patterns of the author fails to convince, mainly because some parallels between imperialist topics and Hardy are either somewhat contrived perhaps, or well-grounded but not explicit enough because both themes (as the title of the book suggests: Thomas Hardy and Empire) happen to be coordinated but do not rely on enough substantial dialectic. However, studying both his prose and his poetry, the author succeeds in further defending the idea that Hardy wrote against ideological oppression. She also gives us a complete, extremely well-versed perspective on imperial studies, relying on an extensive bibliography, which enables the reader to have clear insight into the position held by nineteenth-century Britain towards its empire.

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Peggy Blin-Cordon, « Jane L. Bownas, Thomas Hardy and Empire: The Representation of Imperial Themes in the Work of Thomas Hardy »Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens [En ligne], 78 Automne | 2013, mis en ligne le 16 mai 2014, consulté le 16 juin 2021. URL : ; DOI :

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Peggy Blin-Cordon

Université de Cergy-Pontoise

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