Analysis of fin-de-siècle or early 20th century gender representations in Britain is often done with reference to first-wave feminism and the suffrage movement that culminated in the achievement of the vote for women in 1928. This history shows the fraught and prolonged struggle to transform gender relations and gain personal and group rights and universal suffrage, which was marked not just by gender prejudices but also those of class. But what if we explore this topic of the representation of Edwardian women and their gender relations through an alternative lens? What if we explore it through the theme of Empire to see the connections between the representation of women in Britain and political events that took place in distant climes and far-off places? What sort of new meanings would emerge in this alternative view? Such an analysis would be valid because Britain’s empire had caused a skew in gender demographics since the Victorian period as its men left in large numbers to govern the ever-expanding British Empire. Indeed, in the decades leading to the Edwardian period, a shift in gender relations had become imminent. Joanna Trollope points out that by the mid-1800s over 35% of women of reproductive age—those between 20 and 44 years of age—were single (23). The 1871 census showed that there was a surplus of 718,566 women in Britain. This surplus of women was matched by the large numbers of British men stationed all over the colonies, in the army, civil service and civilian life. Furthermore, Britain needed more and more young men to fuel its armies in its dizzying acquisition of empire, especially in the period of high imperialism. Imperial rule internationally had profound influence on domestic matters, especially within the context of gender.
In this paper, we will focus on one such iconic moment that shook Britian’s imperial rule in mid-nineteenth century—the Sepoy mutiny of 1857—that changed the course of imperialism, redefined masculinity and affected Anglo-Indian women’s lives and that reverberates to the present. Indeed, no fewer than five academic books were written about this event between 2002 and 2007, the 150th anniversary of the mutiny. We will specifically discuss the relationship between the Sepoy mutiny and gender relations in Britain by examining three novels written by Charles Pearce in the Edwardian period. We want to focus on Pearce’s mutiny triptych published between 1909 and 1912 because his status as a British writer (who had never been to India) rather than an Anglo-Indian one, raises interesting issues about the metaphoric function played by the Indian Mutiny in the British imaginary. We use the term in a psychoanalytic sense, referring to an internalized, idealized image of oneself at the end of the period of high imperialism. Pearce’s triptych also provides an opportunity to comment on the significance of aspects of memory and nostalgia in the construction of gender, as each of his novels deals differently with the recuperation of the past. The origin for this paper lay in the question: Why would a powerful and dominant Britain, seemingly in firm control of a vast Empire, continue to look back to the Mutiny which was perhaps the single-most destabilising moment in its imperial history especially during a period of relative political stability in the Edwardian period? In addition to empire reshaping gender relations, it also reshaped fiction. Sir Alfred Comyn Lyall in Studies in Literature and History, published in 1915, points out that the presence of empire had a deep influence in the shaping of fiction from the 1880s through the first decade of the twentieth century in that there was a convergence of the novel of manners with the adventure novel to produce a new form of action novel that did not dwell on the fantastic but rather "on genuine materials … and a stricter canon of probabilities". Thus the Mutiny, Edwardian gender relations and Edwardian fiction are in a relationship with each other, which we wish to unpack and reveal through our analysis of Charles Pearce’s triptych.
gender, imperialism, fiction, mutiny, India, Britain