TWISTED WORDS: TORTURE AND LIBERALISM IN IMPERIAL BRITAIN by Katherine Judith Anderson, Reviewed by Miriam Burstein
 


TWISTED WORDS: TORTURE AND LIBERALISM IN IMPERIAL BRITAIN
By Katherine Judith Anderson
(Ohio State, 2022) xi + 214 pp.
Reviewed by Miriam Burstein on 2022-07-30.

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For some time now, scholars working across disciplines ranging from political science to literary theory have been investigating how liberalism is sustained by forms of violence that it frequently tends to disavow. Here Katherine Anderson examines the shifting practices, definitions, and discourses of torture from the mid-nineteenth to the early twentieth centuries. The "acts and rhetoric of torture" studied in this book, she argues, "emerge when institutions in the British Empire--including in Britain itself--face some form of urgent threat, ranging from outright subject rebellion to the financial crisis threatened by colonial citizen-subjects' simple refusal to pay taxes" (5). Anderson defines torture as "a state-sanctioned, physical or mental means of compulsion that is inflicted to elicit a specific response from either the victim, those who hear about the act (witnesses in a broad sense), or both" (5). Having thus defined torture, Anderson shows how it became increasingly expanded and complicated over the course of the century, as the Victorians engaged in new forms of such "state-sanctioned" violence that could not be assimilated to older norms. Since Victorians liked to assure themselves that torture was safely confined "to a past realm of ancient barbarism" (8), its recurrence often strained the liberal political discourse of imperial governance, prompting calls for political reform, redefinitions of torture, or fresh insistence on its necessity at moments of crisis.

Anderson subdivides her study into key institutional locations: "church," "imperial bureaucracy," "military," "family," and "settler." As the book proceeds, torture becomes less institutional and more individuated and privatized. It includes, for instance, the psychological manipulations of an abusive husband and the extra-legal acts of settler-colonists. But even these private forme of torture subtly serve such goals of the state as regularizing marriage and expropriating land.

In the service of her argument, Anderson treats both fiction and non-fiction. . While her two chapters on the "imperial bureaucracy" and the "military" analyze official reports, newspaper and periodical articles, and correspondence, the other three chapters examine novels and short fictions by well-known authors such as George Eliot, Anthony Trollope, John Henry Newman, and George Meredith, and little known authors such as Louis Becke, W. C. Scully, and Bertram Mitford. Moreover, while the "church" chapter shows how contemporary religious questions were treated by means of analogies in historical fictions, the rest of the book shows how Victorians faced the problem of torture without the polite veil of historical distance.

Highlighting "church," chapter 1 explores the historical novels devoted to martyrdom that emerged in the wake of the so-called "Papal Aggression" of 1850. As Anderson succinctly puts it, "[t]he reestablishment of Catholic hierarchy provided a a rallying point for Protestants" (23), so in order to establish their respective authorities, Catholics and Protestants alike turned to historical martyrdoms. Because endurance of torture was frequently central to religious witnessing, it became a "sensationalized focal point" in martyrological fictions; "presented as worse than death," it certified "the status of the martyr and her attempt to witness" (26). Anderson's argument here questionable. Though she argues that their appeal to "aural and tactile senses" distinguishes these martyrological novels from "the devotional reading genre" (31), which addressed itself to sight, it's a distinction without difference, for devotional texts and images in multiple theological traditions did and do encourage dwelling intensely on the martyr's physical agonies. For Newman, notoriously not a fan of liberalism, an appeal to the "senses" could bridge the gap between faith and reason by rousing the mind to intuit martyrdom (36). George Eliot's Romola, we are told, reinforces this point. Though drawn from a very different kind of faith, it replaces "the bildungsroman's abstract liberal subject with a fully fleshed and female citizen-witness," one "receptive to the physical sensations experienced and generated by those around her" (45).

Turning away from fiction, chapters 2 and 3 analyze a sea change in both governmental and public attitudes to torture. In the chapter on "imperial bureaucracy," Anderson argues that in 1854, the British were shocked to learn that local officials in Madras had "resorted to torture while collecting the British land-tax from local peasants" (46). Precisely because torture functioned here as part of a bureaucratic apparatus, not as "an extraordinary spectacle of sovereign power" (55), it had to be adjudicated and understood as something unique to contemporary governance. To put it differently, the new mode of torture, which was meant to serve "global commerce" (55), exemplified the banality of evil in action. Moreover, in addition to rethinking how torture might be used against one of "us" (the victims, after all, were under British rule), the British also had to decouple the concept of torture from the belief that it required dedicated implements. Unintentionally, debate on this matter spawned new understanding of a "possibility for a more inclusive British citizenship" (69)--although obviously the possibility remained just that.

To shed firrther light on this topic, chapter 3 examines a much more infamous scandal: Governor Eyre's brutal repression of Jamaican resistance in 1864. Since British soldiers "were expected to demonstrate simultaneously the zealous energy of the violent arm of the state and the cool (but not cold-blooded) deliberation of the liberal citizen," Anderson finds that they were judged by both of these criteria. Home-based readers of their dispatches were less "enraged" by what they had done than by their "inability to conform to cultural expectations for both the military institution and the potential citizen" (76). If emancipated Jamaicans were just as much entitled to the rights of "citizen-subjects" as the Indians were, what could justify their being tortured under martial law? At the same time, reports of what the soldiers did shocked the public and in turn the soldiers themselves, leading to two prominent suicides.

Although the shift from military torture to familial torture seems at first a little startling, Anderson argues that in the novels of Eliot, Meredith, and Trollope, the news of these overseas scandals led to a revaluation of torture on the home front. Their novels consider how women may be tortured within the household itself--not necessarily through assaults on their bodies but through manipulation of their minds. In the words of Anderson, "Meredith, Eliot, and Trollope disrupt rather than normalize gender discrimination, breaking the linear trajectory of the courtship plot through an insertion of torture at various points along the way" (110). Since Sir Willoughby Patterne tries to control Clara throughout The Egoist by subtle acts of "sensory torture" (119), her rebellion against him derails the marriage plot as well as making her politically self-aware. Similarly, Gwendolen's experience of Grandcourt's brutality in Daniel Deronda at least suggests how she may "live rightly" (127)--though the ending of the novel may leave some readers wondering about its overall ambiguity. Likewise again, the struggle between Emily and Louis in He Knew He Was Right shows how "the inherent dangers of"outmoded forms of power" can endanger :the torturer as well as to the victim," leading readers to imagine "more equitable laws governing relationships among British citizens" (134).

Finally, Anderson returns to the imperial territories by analyzing what she calls "colonial fictions" as distinct from "adventure romances," which valorize "white male power and imperialism" (139). In these colonial fictions, no settler is "good," so the inevitable result is "torture" (143)--suggesting, once again, the unacknowledged violence of liberal empire. In the "sordid sensory realism" (146) of Louis Becke's work, for example, Anderson finds an exposé of "white settlers' property-driven relationships with Indigenous women in Oceania" (148) as well as with Indigenous bodies more generally, and the horrific scenes (flagellations, beheadings, disembodiments) make the reader see just how settler-colonialist power works. Also, just as Becke's graphic violence re-enacts what we find in the historical novels of chapter 1, so do the South African novels of Bertrand Mitford.

In offering no "impersonal" justice (156), the colonizing settlers of Mitford's fiction are said to undermine the entire pretense of their so-called civilizing mission. Two examples may suffice. The Gun-Runner bares the (literally) violent liberal hypocrisies underlying the British assault on the Zulus, and in The Weird of Deadly Hollow, settler violence as a whole is epitomized by the sheer excess of the white protagonist's vengeance against the San man (a "racist caricature" [159]) who raped and murdered his wife, and by his subsequent collapse. Finally, W. C. Scully's Daniel Vananda, which re-examines the problem of "bureaucratic torture" (168) in the interbellum period, shows how the protagonist suffers from a false accusation of theft. Since the racist legal system of the colonial settler context constricts the potential that Daniel might otherwise realize within a bildungsroman, he can never "achieve full citizen status" (171). .

Joining such studies as Nathan Hensley's Forms of Empire: The Poetics of Victorian Sovereignty (2016), this book valuably complements current scholarship on empire, liberalism, and genre. While future studies in this vein might benefit from more engagement with disability studies and their re-theorization of pain, the only real defect of the present book--in my judgment-- is its slighting of the visual. Featured widely in the Victorian popular press as well as in the famous woodcuts to the Book of Martyrs, depictions of torture permeate the history of religious painting and are even now disseminated through photographs, social media, film, and television. Given the centrality of spectacle to torture, some discussion of these phenomena would have been welcome. But overall this book will considerably interest scholars of literature and empire.

Miriam Elizabeth Burstein is Professor of English and Chair of the English Department at Suny Brockport.


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