Teaching Romantic India

This article argues that India occupies a central position in Romantic literature, and that this centrality requires teachers of this period to engage with India as both a site of cultural production and an object of imaginative fascination. It offers teachers of Romantic literature a pedagogical framework and three specific case studies to illustrate approaches to Romantic India across a range of courses. In the first case study, I suggest how a narrowly focused seminar could pair texts produced by British and South Asian writers—representatives of the “Anglo-Indian” and “Indo-Anglian” discourse communities, respectively—to help students grasp how the writing and experience of British and Indian subjects of the early Indian empire was at once intermingled and strictly segregated. The second case study considers how a period survey might incorporate a brief unit on Romantic India that nonetheless treats India as an integral part of the literature of the period. I suggest pairing some of Robert Burns’s short lyrics with poems by Henry Derozio, who engages analogous themes of nationalism and poetic vision in the Indian context. Reading Burns and Derozio together, I suggest, can help students see how literary dialects of English could serve as powerful but problematic tools of identity-formation and social mobility in both the colonial and domestic contexts. In the final case study, I examine the possibilities of teaching a longer work, Sydney Owenson’s The Missionary. I show how Owenson’s novel offers rich opportunities to engage students with key elements of Britain’s colonial history in India while simultaneously illustrating many of the formal tensions that characterized the novel in this period.

Teaching Romantic India

1.        India figures in English writing of the Romantic period as both an important literary topos and a geographic and discursive site from which British and Indian writers produced a diverse array of texts. As an imagined space, “India” [1]  brought with it the baggage of centuries of European fascination with the exotic Orient; in this guise, the subcontinent was merely one part of a vast and relatively undifferentiated mass stretching from North Africa and the Eastern Mediterranean to the shores of China and Japan. At the same time, however, Britain’s deepening involvement with India in an economic, cultural, and “boots-on-the-ground” capacity helped to specify the subcontinent in the British imagination. Britons both at home and abroad began to write with a newly intimate and empirical (though not necessarily more accurate) knowledge of the people and places of South Asia. And in India itself, the growing influence of the British meant that Indian subjects of the (as yet informal) empire increasingly turned to English as a medium of communication, advocacy, and expression. Indeed, Gauri Viswanathan makes a strong case in Masks of Conquest that the discipline of English itself originated in the schools and colleges administered by the East India Company in the 1820s and 1830s. Thus, if students of Romantic-era Britain are to understand the literature, culture, and politics of the period, they must become to some extent students of the India of that era as well; they will need to grasp at least the outlines of the relationship that would so crucially mold the literatures and histories of both nations—and the development of literature in English around the world—in the centuries to follow.

2.        To that end, this article suggests some general pedagogical principles, as well as a few specific texts and classroom approaches, for the teaching of Romantic India. It does so according to the model advocated by Harish Trivedi, among others, which views colonial discourse as a series of “transactions”: “an interactive, dialogic, two-way process rather than as a simple active-passive one” (Trivedi 1). While Trivedi’s model could lend itself to underemphasizing the inequalities that underlie these literary-cultural transactions, I will argue that this danger is not disabling and that a transactional approach can acknowledge the agency of colonized writers without effacing the context of oppression. The single greatest strength of the transactional approach, however, is that it breaks down the divisions, sometimes tacit, sometimes explicit, that have tended to creep up between British and Indian writing, and also between the canonical “literature” produced in Britain versus the texts of merely “historical” interest produced—by both British and Indian writers—“in the Empire.” By seeing the ways in which writers of different national and imperial identities used literature to respond to the opportunities and anxieties inspired by the colonial encounter, students can gain a much “thicker” sense of the world(s) of the Romantic era.

3.        Because the endpoints of our period are so variable and contentious, Romanticists are well used to both problematizing and defending the notion of literary periodization. In India, “the Romantic period” is an even less coherent entity than in Britain, since the subcontinent, even the limited parts of it under British rule or influence, was subject to very different historical and cultural pressures than operated in Britain itself. To take just two examples: since France’s influence in India had atrophied almost completely in the wake of the British East India Company’s victories during the Seven Years’ War (1756–1763), the impact of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars, so transformative in Britain and continental Europe, was muted on the subcontinent. Similarly, Britain’s ongoing industrialization, with the accompanying movements toward enclosure, urbanization, and labor unrest, was felt very differently in India, though the emerging globalization of the textile industry meant that these material pressures could be magnified or refracted unpredictably as well as attenuated by distance and time. [2]  In short, two of the markers of historical “context” most familiar to scholars and teachers of British Romanticism are of limited value in illuminating the development of colonial discourse in India.

4.        Conveniently, however, the conventional endpoints of the Romantic period in the 1780s and 1830s do contain events of considerable import to life in British India. The 1780s witnessed both William Jones’s founding of the Asiatick Society, which would produce much of the influential Orientalist scholarship of the next century (including the “Indo-European hypothesis” of a fundamental kinship between the languages of India and Europe), and the sensational impeachment trial of Warren Hastings, then governor-general of Bengal. [3]  Edmund Burke’s speeches before and during the trial, which were hugely popular (and controversial) for their florid, often sentimental rhetoric, alleged that Hastings’s regime was marred by corruption, atrocities, and militaristic overreach. [4]  At the other end of the Romantic period, the 1830s saw a decisive shift away from the engagement with the languages and cultures of India that characterized the “Orientalist” era of Jones and Hastings. In its place developed the “Anglicist” program of acculturation famously codified in Thomas Babington Macaulay’s "Minute on Indian Education" of 1835 and implemented through the English Education Act of the same year. [5]  Macaulay’s call “to form a class of persons who may be interpreters between us and the millions whom we govern,—a class of persons Indian in blood and colour, but English in tastes, opinions, in morals and in intellect,” which did much to inaugurate the ambivalent legacy of English education and literature in India, can serve as a symbolic endpoint for the era of “Romantic India” (249).

5.        Because curricular resources at most colleges and universities are too limited to devote an entire course to the topic of Romantic India, I will discuss approaches to teaching a unit on this topic in two different, more broadly focused, types of courses. The first is a survey of Romanticism that emphasizes the global reach of British literary as well as material interests in this period. The second is an upper-level seminar on Indian literature in English, which I have taught under the title "English in India/India in English." In this course, the Romantic era is one episode in a longitudinal survey of literary transactions between Britain and South Asia running from the eighteenth century to the present. The remainder of this article is organized around three “case studies,” each presenting a text or pair of texts along with some teaching approaches. One caveat: my own experience with these texts has come in universities in the United States, a country whose own involvement in the complex relationship between Britain and India is, though real, at a considerable remove. Clearly, teaching these texts in other places would raise different issues and questions for instructors; however, inviting students to explore their own geographical and cultural location as they read, as well as those of the producers and consumers of these texts, can be an excellent starting point for discussion and collective interpretation. How, for example, might these texts and events mean differently for readers in Britain, or South Asia, or other former British colonies, than they do for readers in the United States? How did they unite or divide different audiences in their own time?

Case Study 1: Anglo-India vs. Indo-Anglia

6.        One textual pairing I have used with some success in an upper-level seminar is between Phebe Gibbes’ 1789 novel Hartly House, Calcutta and Dean Mahomet’s 1794 travel narrative The Travels of Dean Mahomet (often cited as the first published text by an Indian author), both of which are available in recent scholarly editions. I chose relatively short excerpts from the two texts near the beginning of my "English in India/India in English" course to frame two categories important to the history of Indian literature in English: “Anglo-India,” which in the nineteenth century described the transplanted society of Britons in India, and “Indo-Anglia,” a term that has gained traction in recent decades as a way of categorizing writing in English by Indian and diasporic authors. [6]  Seeing these two discourse communities intersect at or near their points of origin helps students grasp how the writing and experience of British and Indian subjects of the early Indian empire could be at once intermingled and strictly segregated. Sophia Goldborne, the narrator of Hartly House, Calcutta, is the daughter of an East India Company official who travels to Calcutta during the Hastings administration and writes letters recounting her experiences there to a friend back in England. Sophia’s experience of India is squarely one of Anglo-India, contained entirely within the British settlement at Calcutta and involving minimal contact with actual Indians. Nonetheless, even Anglo-India was exotic enough to Britons of the day that Sophia narrates her encounters with the company nabobs in the kind of ethnographic and loco-descriptive detail that characterized eighteenth-century encounters with geographical and cultural “others.” Dean Mahomet, in contrast, was a Bengali Muslim who joined the company’s army in 1769, serving as a soldier and subaltern officer until 1783, when he emigrated to Ireland. The Travels, written and published several years after Mahomet’s arrival in Britain but focusing only on his time in India, is also epistolary in form, addressed to an unnamed British “friend” and offering a mixture of autobiography and ethnography.

7.        My students were quick to see many of the similarities between Gibbes’s and Mahomet’s texts—the epistolary form, for example, with its address to an audience at once immediate and displaced, and the sometimes awkwardly integrated conventions of the travel narrative and amateur ethnography. I found their responses to other aspects of these texts more varied and conflicting. Some were quite conscious, for example, of Mahomet’s somewhat ambivalent occupation of his position as native informant, at once a representative of and alienated from the people he describes. For example, when he offers an “account of the form of marriage among the Mahometans, which is generally solemnized with all the external show of Oriental pageantry,” both the phrase “the Mahometans” and the stereotyped reference to “the external show of Oriental pageantry” suggest an unhesitating identification with the perspective of the colonizer (65). As other students more sympathetic to Mahomet’s divided loyalties pointed out, however, this alienated perspective also has a certain cosmopolitan sophistication, and Mahomet often acts as an advocate, if sometimes a condescending one, for the civilizations and cultures of his native country. While Gibbes attempts a similar cosmopolitanism—such as when her narrator Sophia admonishes her correspondent that “all the prejudices you have so long cherished against [India] must be done away; and for this plain reason, that they are totally groundless”—some students were frustrated by the novel’s stubborn focus on the British settlements and the restriction of Indians’ roles to providing “local color” (3). These frustrations can be pedagogically useful, however; Sophia Goldborne’s limited horizon, for example, suggests the restricted mobility of the few British women in India in the early days of empire as well as the “invisibility” of many Indians in British accounts of this period. Dean Mahomet’s pioneering “Indo-Anglian” narrative, then, might be offered as a corrective to some of the omissions of the “Anglo-Indian” texts of the Romantic era.

Case Study 2: Comparative Romanticisms

8.        In an introductory course on British Romanticism, it is especially important to build connections between writing from and about India and other topical clusters, so that students see “the India stuff” less as an isolated curiosity than as an integral part of the literature and history of the period. One way to do this is by emphasizing the points of commonality between colonial difference and other kinds of marginalization (e.g., geographical, class, gender, ethnic, linguistic) at work on the home front. Juxtaposing Robert Burns with the Bengali poet and reformer Henry Derozio, for example, can help students see how literary dialects of English could serve as powerful but problematic tools of identity-formation and social mobility in both the colonial and domestic contexts. Burns and Derozio make a fascinating combination because they and their poetry play to different prevailing myths about the figure of the Romantic poet: on the one hand, Burns, celebrated as the poet born, not made, whose untutored genius brought him brief glory before his inevitable decline. On the other, Derozio, who (like Keats) died extremely young; who (like Shelley) flirted with philosophical materialism and even atheism; and who (like Byron) adopted a rakish persona, flouted the social mores of polite society, and was surrounded by rumors of sexual scandal. While we often treat dispelling these “romantic” myths of authorship as a pedagogical duty, students are usually more receptive to a gradual complication of these reductive narratives than to a frontal assault; in the case of an unfamiliar and marginalized figure like Derozio, interesting them in the larger-than-life “character” may be a necessary first step toward engaging them with his writing.

9.        Fortunately, Derozio, who could adopt the orientalist clichés of a Byron or a Moore in a poem like "Song of the Hindustanee Minstrel" (“There’s many a valued pearl / In richest Oman’s sea; / But none, my fair Cashmerian girl! / O! none can rival thee [lines 5–8]), also produced poetry whose relation to both “East” and “West” is more complex, such as the sonnet "The Harp of India":

Why hang’st thou lonely on yon withered bough?
Unstrung for ever, must thou there remain;
Thy music once was sweet—who hears it now?
Why doth the breeze sigh over thee in vain?
Silence hath bound thee with her fatal chain;
Neglected, mute, and desolate art thou,
Like ruined monument on desert plain:
O! many a hand more worthy far than mine
Once thy harmonious chords to sweetness gave,
And many a wreath for them did Fame entwine
Of flowers still blooming on the minstrel’s grave:
Those hands are cold—but if thy notes divine
May be by mortal wakened once again,
Harp of my country, let me strike the strain! [7] 
There are a number of resonances here that students in a Romanticism class might pick up on: in addition to the Aeolian harp figure in line 4, the “ruined monument on desert plain” either alludes to or indirectly evokes "Ozymandias," raising the question of where Derozio might locate himself in that rumination on empire’s transience. Is the speaker here aligned with Shelley’s traveller, or with the “Oriental” civilizations whose ruins he contemplates? Students might also be curious about the poem’s formal oddness: the repeated rhyme in lines 4 and 5 subverts the quatrain pattern that underlies most English sonnets; its rhetorical turn comes at the precise middle, between lines 7 and 8, avoiding the sonnet’s characteristic asymmetry; and the closing couplet’s return to the “-ain” ending of lines 2, 4, 5, and 7 gives the poem’s aural texture an unfamiliar thickness. Students could be asked to find evidence to support or refute the proposition that these deviations are signs of resistance to British cultural authority—or, alternatively, of an incomplete assimilation of the sonnet’s conventions.

10.        Although "The Harp of India" is often described as a patriotic protest against British rule, the ambiguity of its imagery, together with its adoption of European conventions (including, obviously, the medium of English), raises interpretive questions that can be neatly coupled with an examination of the poem’s form. Is Britain’s intervention presented as the cause of India’s long silence—or is it the clarion that will awaken her from slumber? Does the poem’s use of a canon of nationalist imagery borrowed directly from European sources undermine or enhance its nationalism? Conversely, do the echoes of the tradition of resistance from Britain’s Celtic fringe that Katie Trumpener has labeled “bardic” nationalism align India with other peoples subjected to British colonialism? Pairing "The Harp of India" with one or more of Burns’s nationalist songs, such as "Caledonia" or "Such a Parcel of Rogues in a Nation," offers students a way to compare the participation of these two very different poets in a literary tradition that both lauded and marginalized their efforts. The martial and strikingly defiant tone of a poem like "Caledonia," which personifies Scotland as a warrior goddess whose ferocity has taught “The Anglian lion, the terror of France” “to fear in his own native wood” (lines 29, 32) stands in marked contrast to the mournful ambivalence of Derozio’s poem. Similarly, the conditional mood of Derozio’s closing pledge—“if thy notes divine / May be by mortal wakened once again, / Harp of my country, let me strike the strain!”—differs starkly from the supreme confidence of Burns’s assertion that “brave Caledonia immortal must be” (line 43). Do these differences reflect a divergence in personal aesthetics or the differing conditions of the poets’ two subject nations? Would an Indian poem as defiant as Burns’s have found an audience—or even a publisher? Reading Derozio alongside Burns would allow students to explore and interrogate parallels between the Indian and the Scottish poets from multiple perspectives: poetic and political, textual and contextual. [8] 

Case Study 3: Teaching a Longer Work

11.        Finally, I want to discuss some of the opportunities presented by teaching a longer text—in this case, Sydney Owenson’s 1811 novel The Missionary: An Indian Tale, now available in a fine critical edition from Broadview Press. While I have not had a chance to teach Owenson’s novel myself, I would like to present a case for the potential benefits of assigning it, most likely in an upper-level undergraduate or graduate course. Of course, a novel, even a relatively short one like The Missionary, consumes a substantial chunk of course time; it is a significant advantage, then, to choose a text that can be brought into dialogue with more than one set of thematic and contextual concerns. Owenson’s novel meets this requirement nicely by mapping the colonial encounter in India onto both national (Irish) and gendered struggles for self-determination; in addition, it offers an opportunity to expose students to the Romantic novel beyond Frankenstein and Jane Austen. As an Irishwoman, Owenson was a subject of British rule in ways that both mirrored and sharply differed from the experience of colonized Indians, and The Missionary is a fascinating instance of the displacement of one set of imperial anxieties onto another. The novel is set in the 1630s, when Portugal was both a colonial power in India and a subject nation, under Spanish domination since 1580—a position with obvious parallels to Ireland’s in the early nineteenth century. The Missionary details the relationship between a Portuguese missionary, Hilarion, and a Brahmin priestess, Luxima, who is the object of his efforts—initially toward conversion, but soon toward romantic union in defiance of both his priestly vows and the caste prejudices of Hindu India. Their relationship bears considerable national-allegorical freight, and Owenson follows a popular tendency (to which her 1806 novel The Wild Irish Girl had already contributed) to figure the conquering nation as male and the conquered as female. Still, however idealized and sacrificial she may seem at times, Luxima is a character of considerable agency and interest, whose resistance to colonial domination and the “priestcraft” of both Catholic and Hindu establishments clearly resonated with certain segments of the Romantic reading public: as Michael Franklin notes, Percy Shelley “recommend[ed] Owenson’s novel to friends with a proselytizing zeal” (167).

12.        The Missionary is also an excellent text for teaching the ways in which literature both is and isn’t about its ostensible subject. While Irish and protofeminist politics are central to the novel, and while British imperialism is displaced onto Portugal and Spain, The Missionary remains firmly entrenched in the religious, ideological, and pragmatic concerns of early nineteenth-century imperial Britain. As Julia Wright’s excellent introduction to the Broadview edition points out, missionary activity in India was a particularly hot topic in the years between the Vellore Mutiny of 1806 (which many blamed on overzealous proselytizing) and the renewal of the East India Company’s charter in 1813 (Owenson 40). Like many texts in this period, then, The Missionary was both a work of fiction and an implicit argument about the course of empire in India. Its use of India—particularly of the “India” that Orientalist scholarship had recently made available to Britons—is at once aesthetic and ideological. In a class focused on India, a useful comparison point might be Robert Southey’s The Curse of Kehama (1810), which argues implicitly (as Southey did explicitly in his periodical writing) for the necessity of British evangelism among the Hindus, whose faith he described as “of all false religions [. . .] the most monstrous in its fables, and the most fatal in its effects” (3). A juxtaposition between two such closely contemporary yet starkly contrasting texts can offer students a portal into the complex intertwining of aesthetics and ideology, representation and power, that characterized the literary transactions between Britain and its Indian “possessions.”

Works Cited

Ahmed, Siraj. The Stillbirth of Capital: Enlightenment Writing and Colonial India. Stanford UP, 2012.

Buck, Sir Edward Charles, editor. Indo-Anglian Literature. Thacker, Spink & Co., 1883.

Burns, Robert. The Poems and Songs of Robert Burns. 1968. Edited by J. Kinsley, vol. 1, Oxford UP, Oxford Scholarly Editions Online, 2014. Accessed 4 May 2018.

Chander, Manu Samriti. Brown Romantics: Poetry and Nationalism in the Global Nineteenth Century. Bucknell UP, 2017.

"Derozio, Henry Louis Vivian (1809–1831)." Representative Poetry Online. U of Toronto Libraries, https://rpo.library.utoronto.ca/poets/derozio-henry-louis-vivian. Accessed 4 May 2018.

Franklin, Michael J. "Radically Feminizing India: Phebe Gibbes’s Hartly House, Calcutta (1789) and Sydney Owenson’s The Missionary: An Indian Tale (1811)." Romantic Representations of British India, edited by Michael J. Franklin, Routledge, 2006, pp. 154–79.

Gibbes, Phebe. Hartly House, Calcutta, edited by Michael J. Franklin, Oxford UP, 2007.

Gibson, Mary Ellis, editor. Anglophone Poetry in Colonial India, 1780–1913: A Critical Anthology. Ohio UP, 2011.

Macaulay, Thomas Babington. "Minute on Indian Education." Selected Writings, edited by John Clive and Thomas Pinney, U of Chicago P, 1972, pp. 235–51.

Mahomet, Dean. The Travels of Dean Mahomet: An Eighteenth-Century Journey through India, edited by Michael H. Fisher, U of California P, 1997.

Owenson, Sydney. The Missionary: An Indian Tale, edited by Julia M. Wright, Broadview, 2002.

Southey, Robert. Robert Southey: Poetical Works 1793–1810. Vol. 4: The Curse of Kehama, edited by Daniel Sanjiv Roberts, Pickering & Chatto, 2004.

Suleri, Sara. The Rhetoric of English India. U of Chicago P, 1992.

Trivedi, Harish. Colonial Transactions: English Literature and India. Manchester UP, 1995.

Trumpener, Katie. Bardic Nationalism: The Romantic Novel and the British Empire. Princeton UP, 1997.

Viswanathan, Gauri. Masks of Conquest: Literary Study and British Rule in India. Columbia UP, 1989.


[1]For the purposes of this article, I will use “India” to reflect common usage among English speakers in the Romantic era. “India” was a capacious category that included, at one time or another, most or all of the territories now generally identified as “South Asia”: principally the nations of India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka; and, to a lesser extent, Nepal, Bhutan, Afghanistan, and the Maldives. BACK

[2]See Siraj Ahmed’s excellent The Stillbirth of Capital: Enlightenment Writing and Colonial India for a detailed account of how the entanglement of British and Indian economies in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries was reflected in the period’s literature. BACK

[3] Asiatick Researches, which began publication in 1788, was the organ of the Asiatick Society and contains most of Jones’s scholarly treatises, along with articles by other important orientalist scholars, such as H. T. Colebrooke and Horace Hayman Wilson. Facsimiles of most of the issues of Asiatick Researches are available through open-access resources like Google Books and the Internet Archive. BACK

[4]Extracts from these speeches would make a suggestive intertext to read alongside Burke’s more frequently taught texts on the sublime and the French Revolution. Sara Suleri’s chapters on Burke in The Rhetoric of English India remain the definitive readings of the connections between Burke’s aesthetic theory and his anti-Hastings rhetoric. BACK

[5]Viswanathan offers an excellent summary of the Orientalist/Anglicist debate in chapter 1 of Masks of Conquest. BACK

[6]“Anglo-Indian” has also been used, particularly since the early twentieth century, to describe people of mixed British and Indian ancestry. Although this might cause some confusion, nineteenth-century texts are fairly consistent in limiting the use of the term to Britons living abroad in India. The term “Indo-Anglian” was in at least modest circulation as far back as 1883, when a slim collection of specimens of Indian writing in English titled Indo-Anglian Literature was published in Calcutta (Buck). BACK

[7]Derozio’s poetry is difficult to find in print, though Mary Ellis Gibson’s Anglophone Poetry in Colonial India, 1780–1913: A Critical Anthology, has made strides toward rectifying that situation. Fortunately, a number of his poems can be found online. Both "Song of the Hindustanee Minstrel" and "The Harp of India" are available at Representative Poetry Online ("Derozio"). BACK

[8]Chapter 1 of Manu Samriti Chander’s recent Brown Romantics: Poetry and Nationalism in the Global Nineteenth Century offers a deft and thoughtful reading of Derozio’s often subversive deployment of English poetic conventions to “Indocentric” ends. BACK


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