Saturday, 29 October 2016

#CritYourFaves Post: Colonialism and Representation in Meredith Duran’s The Duke of Shadows

I have a serious tendency to just chill in my own tiny corner of the blogosphere, but this October I'm taking part in a multi-blog series hosted by Aentee over at Read at Midnight. It's called #CritYourFaves and the idea is to - you guessed it - critique a favourite read in some way. There are a lot of really interesting topics (check them out), and I'm so thankful to Aentee for running such a wonderful event, and for letting a random such as myself by a part of it. 

I've chosen to critique Duke of Shadows by Meredith Duran, which I read circa 2012 and really liked. Four years, one sub-major in postcolonial studies and an imperfect - but constantly improving - awareness of representation in literature later, I'm re-reading it to see how I regard it this time 'round. 

Duke of Shadows is set - at least in first half - in British India during what known in India as The First War of Indian Independence, but which is more commonly referred to internationally as the Indian Rebellion or Sepoy Mutiny of 1857. 

Julian, Marquess of Holdensmoor, is a pariah in Indian colonial society because of his one-quarter Indian blood. He knows that the East India Company's military need to take the growing unrest seriously, but no-one will listen to him, convinced that he is only trying to stir up trouble. Emmaline has only recently arrived in India, to be reunited with the fiance her family had arranged for her, Colonel Lindley. Her parents drowned on the voyage, during a storm that wrecked their ship, but Lindley and the rest of the British elite are more interested in the scandalous nature of her rescue. She takes comfort in the one person who doesn't seem to care: the equally scandalous Julian. When the powder keg ignites and the unrest becomes a bloody conflict, Julian attempts to get Emma to safety. They are separated, and only reunited years later in London. Julian has spent years grieving for Emma, assuming she died in the conflict, but, for Emma, Julian is a reminder of a time she does not want to relive. 

You can see, even from that short blurb, the ways in which Duke of Shadows might be inherently problematic. Julian's Indian blood does not change the fact that it is a romance between two members of the British colonial elite in India, where full-blooded Indians make only minor appearances as supporting characters. Then there's the fact it it's set against the backdrop of the so-called Rebellion, in which it is conventionally acknowledged that at least 100 000 Indians died (although some estimates are much, much higher), compared with only around 2,000 British. 

Due to his Indian heritage, Julian is shown to understand the sepoys' grievances: 
"Emma, this land has been crushed by the English. Its wealth stripped, its honor trampled. You are not dealing with penny-dreadful villains here; you are dealing with embittered human beings who have been robbed of their dignity, their autonomy, their sense of self-worth. And that is what this mutiny is about." (pp. 127-8)
It's a pretty speech, but it leads me to one of my biggest gripes with Duke of Shadows: the 'rebel' soldiers are shown as ruthless and barbaric - much like the penny dreadful villains they supposedly are not - while the brutal English retaliation is glossed over. Emma relays graphic scenes of women being gutted (p. 83), having their throat slit (p. 164), their breasts sliced off (p. 164) and suiciding after her child was killed (p. 243), all at the hands of the sepoys.

By contrast, I found only one passage that referred to the British in comparatively violent terms, although even then, it's linked to the killings perpetrated first by the 'rebels' during the Siege of Cawnpore. Julian relays that
Half a mile away, near the building where Nana Sahib's men had had slaughtered scores of British women and children, the army was strapping mutineers to cannons. Blowing them apart in steady, rhythmic explosions (p. 173)
When Emmaline is describing the actions of the British, she does not hone in on single, visceral incidents in the same way, describing only "carnage" and fields of bodies. Whether or not this reflects her ingrained prejudices or is a result of the fact that she is not the endangered party in these scenarios, it still serves to reproduce colonialist dichotomies, in which the colonial Other is portrayed as savage and barbaric. 

To give Duran her due, she does do a good job of deconstructing the counterpoint to this: the construction of the European Self as civilised. She highlights the moral hypocrisy of the elite, and, while the atrocities the British committed are not described in detail, individual British soldiers are shown to be plenty depraved, with one trying to rape Emma (twice!). But deconstructing one pole of a bipolar discourse does little to ameliorate the damage of the remaining, intact pole, and the ways in which 'British coloniser as civilised' is deconstructed also give rise to more enduring stereotypes of the time, most particularly Emma as the delicate flower of British womanhood.

Another of these discursive binaries is the presentation of the colonial/Oriental Other as depraved, hypersexualised beings, in contrast to staid Victorian 'morality'. By virtue of his quarter Indian blood, Julian is constructed by the elite in this way, as can be seen when he talks about the desire officers' wives have to sleep with him: 
There was also an absurd set of ideas circulating about him in Anglo-Indian circles, variations on the theme of exotic Eastern eroticism, and he'd long since grown weary of it. (p. 8)
Despite this hypersexualisation, both Julian's half-Indian mother and full-Indian grandmother married British men, and this is something that I notice with the backstories of almost all British-Indian historical romance characters: they are legitimate, and, while there were many consensual relationships between Indian women and British men, very few resulted in marriage, particularly if those men were officers and of the upper classes, contrary to what historical romances would have us believe. 

I get it, we all love a Happily Ever After, but it's unrealistic here, and it perpetrates systemic violence and erasure. Indian (and colonial women in general) were seen in sexual terms, and the discursive separation between sex and marriage in Victorian times meant this pretty much automatically excluded them from being wife-material. Also, once a colony (or quasi-colony in the case of Company-ruled India) was established, one had to consider the precarious position ruling elite: all that separated them from the population they ruled was their whiteness, and the superior traits that supposedly gave them. While illegitimate offspring could be ignored, if 'miscegenation' that resulted in legitimate offspring occurred, this would undermine the distinction between the Self and the Other, and thus the justification for British rule. In a nutshell, this is everybody's problem with Julian: not that he has mixed blood, but that he has mixed blood and a title, and thus threatens the Self and Other as clear-cut, mutually exclusive binaries. 

Having all these happy British-Indian marriages also denies the fact that there was sexual violence committed against Indian women by British men, especially soldiers, though epistemic violence - the privileging of one point-of-view (that of the male colonist) and the suppression, erasure or ignorance of other, less privileged viewpoints - means that the historical record on this is slim. 

As I have mentioned, having a mixed Indian-British hero or heroine is the done thing when setting your historical romance in India. I've linked to this post before, when I wrote a rant-y review of a book with an Anglo-Indian heroine, but romance writer Suleikha Snyder has a post that succinctly and emotively tackles the half-Indian character, the psychological scars left by colonialism in South Asia, and the harm of bad representation. There's not much I can say that she hasn't already said, but she asks what stops authors from making the character 100 percent Indian, and I think this is an important point. In Duke of Shadows, as in other romances where the part-Indian character is a peer, my initial reaction is to go 'oh, no, but they couldn't be full-blooded, because then they wouldn't be a peer and that's important because xyz!'. In Julian's case, his peerage gives him entree to British colonial society, allowing him to meet Emma, while his Indian blood allows him to be more 'in touch' with the growing uprising, and to pass as Indian as necessary. But this reaction is disingenuous. Just because the plot's been set up so that mixed blood is necessary, that doesn't mean it gets a free pass, it means that we need to scrutinise the plot, characters and book as they currently exist, asking why it has been set up as it is.  That's a big call, and not my place or comfort zone, but it's worth a thought. 

Overall, my re-read of Duke of Shadows was fraught, and I was relieved when I finished it. I didn't connect to the book at all this time around, despite liking it last time. Partly, I think this was a result of having my analytical hat on at the exclusion of my reader hat (usually, they co-exist more peacefully), but it was also that heaps of things made me uncomfortable, and I couldn't get into the story as a result. The section set in India was shorter than I remembered, but even back in London, a lot of the focus is on their time in India, so it's not much of a relief. 

Although I initially intended to frame my post in terms of Duke of Shadows as a problematic fave - one of Aentee's intended talking points - I didn't end up doing so, because I couldn't find many reason for it to still be a fave. So, in the end, I didn't so much #CritMyFave as #CritSomethingIThoughtWasAFaveOnlyTurnsOutIt'sActuallyNot

Despite that, I'm incredibly glad I did re-read Duke of Shadowsbecause it really reinforced the value of something that someone I follow on Twitter suggested a while ago: not recommending books that you haven't read recently. 99% of problematic stuff or potentially problematic stuff about this book went over my head when I read it as an 18 year old with little awareness of my privilege, and no understanding of colonialism, Orientalism or any other number of important things. I suspect I'd have a different reaction to many of the books I remember favourably from that time, and so, to avoid harm, I won't recommend anything (both on the blog and IRL) that I haven't re-read recently, regardless of how I remember it. 

P.S. Sorry for the lack of blog posts lately, guys. My laptop carked it the day before by final assignments for uni were due. I'm sure I don't need to explain the horror! But I am now armed with a new laptop, so we can resume normal programming.

EDIT 5/11: There's been a review over at Smart Bitches, Trashy Books where Carrie verbalises really well what I clumsily touched on in this post. She writes:
In reflecting on my experience with this book, I realize that I compartmentalized a horribly problematic element of the book to such an extent that I almost managed to erase it from my own head....This allows me to accomplish some useful academic things, but it’s also an expression of my own privilege. 

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