Reviews 2015

Colonial Girlhood in Literature, Culture and History, 1840-1950

Colonial Girlhood in Literature, Culture and History, 1840-1950. Ed. Kristine Moruzi and Michelle J. Smith. Basingstoke and New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014. 288 pages. $90.00 (hardback).

Colonial Girlhood in Literature, Culture and History, 1840-1950, edited by Kristine Moruzi and Michelle J. Smith, offers sixteen essays exploring the idea of "girlhood" through the lens of colonialism, race, class and gender. From Cecily Devereux’s investigation of the making of the Anglo-colonial girl in late nineteenth-century and early twentieth-century print culture to Fiona P. McDonald’s reflection on the personal stories shared with her by five women of European descent who immigrated to New Zealand in the 1940s and 1950s, the chapters make important contributions to our understanding of the literary and historical lives of colonial girls in various locations around the British Empire between 1840 and 1950. A central concern of this study is to situate a broad range of real and fictional colonial girlhood experiences from British and settler societies side by side, thereby inviting readers to "see patterns in colonialism...that are often based on race and class" (3). Taken together, the essays in this volume represent the various approaches to girlhood that have developed for over the last two decades. The study uses a diversity of material—including unpublished and non-textual historic evidence—to take due account of the complexities of girlhood and girls’ experiences during the colonial period.

The essays are arranged in five sections, which focus respectively on "Theorising the Colonial Girl," "Romance and Marriage," "Race and Class," "Fictions of Colonial Girlhood," and "Material Culture." As the introductory chapter makes clear, a number of contributor essays could have been placed in different sections, for "ideas about maturation, racial identity, social position, literature and culture permeate the entire volume" (3), but the divisions are mostly logical; with the exception of the essays in the first section, which are somewhat arbitrarily grouped together, the structure of the book will help readers put its multiple perspectives into meaningful categories. Moruzi and Smith’s opening chapter also offers valuable, if disjointed, entry points into some of the shared insights of contemporary theorists of girlhood, in addition to providing abstracts of the other fifteen essays.

The first section comprises essays by Woollacott, who describes the life stories of two sets of colonial girls, the first from Jamaica, Mauritius, India and South Africa, or what she calls the "colonies of exploitation" (15), at different moments in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and the second set from mid-nineteenth-century Australia; and Devereux, who considers how the white Anglo-colonial girl of the British Empire is constructed in narratives of imperial adventure and how this construction reflects the ways in which colonial space is itself constituted through discursive means. The former is an interesting essay, although not one that lives up to the ostensible purpose of theorising colonial girlhood insofar as it simply catalogues several stories of girls’ colonial lives rather than reflecting on the "commonalities and divergences between globally-scattered colonial girlhoods" and laying bare the dynamics of colonialism (15). In the latter, Devereux ably demonstrates how Bessie Marchant’s adventure stories represent the empire as a "fantasy time-space in which the colonial girl is...a fiction," putting the image of the "good type of girl" to work for the imperial project (41).

Part Two begins with an examination of the interplay between colonial Australian girls’ experiences of domestic and industrial employment and the different destinies that are open to them as a result. Gelder and Weaver offer a series of articles by Beatrix Tracy as examples of a conservative view of the Australian girl’s future, in contrast to Florence Young’s and Mabel Forrest’s colonial narratives, which are said to show that the imperial project of nation building can be realized in a way that is unconnected to marriage and motherhood. The essay is soundly argued but would have benefitted from a final drawing together of the notable ideas that it raises. In Chapter 5, Doughty’s significant point is that the characters in Elizabeth Whittaker’s female robinsonade can be seen as modelling a central dilemma of nineteenth-century feminism in that "the opportunities and privileges of the white girl come at the expense of the Indigenous girl, who is assimilated into performing bourgeois femininity," while the white colonial girl achieves a freedom which is unavailable to the British girl at home (75). Finally, Ghosh’s essay centres on attempts that were made by the British authorities to define girlhood and the marriageable age of Indigenous girls in nineteenth-century colonial India, but the analysis is undermined by a lack of solid grounding in theory and criticism as well as a repetitious and rather tedious prose, making it the weakest chapter in the book.

In the next section’s stimulating first chapter, Bradford is concerned with representations of the Māori princess in New Zealand colonial fiction for girls, considering how the princess emerges as a "useful and ideologically flexible figure who plays out cultural concerns about race, the feminine, colonial histories and nationhood" (108). O’Conor’s essay is particularly engaging in the way that it demonstrates how the focus on early girlhood in colonial children’s literature might be seen to mobilize support for the transformative agenda of colonialism which seeks to ensure supposedly improved modes of living for Indigenous Australian girls. Part Three concludes with Duff’s chapter on working-class girlhood in late-nineteenth-century Cape Colony, which takes as its focus middle-class anxieties that are contingent upon the perceived withdrawal of girls’ labour from domestic service and explains the possible reasons for this trend.

The four essays in the following section each explore particular novels featuring colonial girls: Wagner investigates Ethel Turner’s representations of Australian girlhood and of the production of girls’ print culture in colonial Australia through close readings of Turner’s portrayal of female writers and editors; Rodgers argues that L. T. Meade’s depiction of Irish girlhood illustrates the tension between national and colonial identity in the context of late-nineteenth-century Ireland; Cahill is interested in what Rosa Mulholland’s fictional girls tell us about the intersections between girlhood and nationhood in an upper-middle-class Irish Catholic context; and Moruzi and Smith compare several Canadian and Australian novels published in the early twentieth century, seeking to examine the different nation-based feminine ideals embodied by their female protagonists. Even though these chapters are cogently argued and highly informative about colonial girlhoods throughout the British Empire, I would have liked to see Rodgers’s essay demonstrate rather than assert the significance of the characters’ role as both subjects and agents of the colonial regime.

The final section on material culture comprises essays that explain how physical artefacts—as opposed to printed texts—can help construct the real-life colonial girl and build her sense of selfhood. Alexander draws our attention to the visual sources available to scholars of the Girl Guide movement, Ishiguro looks at the work performed by parcels of gifted clothing and the textual content of the letters exchanged between Mary Hawks Moody and her family in England, while McDonald focuses on the oral histories of five non-Indigenous women from a fibre arts community in Auckland. Overall, these essays represent a welcome engagement with the materiality of colonial girls’ culture.

The volume’s sixteen essays lay the groundwork for future discussions of the variations of girls’ roles, experiences and aspirations during the colonial era. There can be little doubt that the collection has opened up new areas of investigation while managing to articulate the imperial girl’s significance for the project of legitimising colonial rule. This is a keenly focused and broadly applicable study that will be useful to anyone exploring the intersections between children’s literature and colonialism.

Blanka Grzegorczyk
Philological School of Higher Education, Wroclaw, Poland