Reading the Child Between the British Raj and the Indian Nation

UoM administered thesis: Phd

  • Authors:
  • Veronica Barnsley


We all claim to 'know', in some manner, what a child is and what the term 'child' means. As adults we designate how and when children should develop and decide what is 'good' for them. Worries that childhood is 'disappearing' in the global North but not 'developing' sufficiently in the South propel broader discussions about what 'normal' development, individual and national, local and global, should mean. The child is also associated across artistic and cultural forms with innocence, immediacy, and simplicity: in short with our modern sense of 'interiority', as Carolyn Steedman has shown. The child is a figure of the self and the future that also connotes what is prior to 'civilised' society: the animal, the 'primitive' or simply the unknown. The child is, according to Jacqueline Rose, the means by which we work out our relationship to language and to the world and, as Chris Jenks expresses it, 'the very index of civilization'. In this study I begin with the question that Karin Lesnik-Oberstein asks: 'why is the child so often portrayed as 'discovered', rather than "invented" or "constructed"?'. I am concerned with how the child is implicated as 'knowable' and with asking what we may lose or gain by applying paradigms of childhood innocence or development to the nation as it is imagined in British and Indian literature at the 'zenith' of the British Raj. In order to unpick the knot of factors that link the child to the nation I combine cultural constructivist approaches to the child with the resources of postcolonial theory as it has addressed subalternity, hybridity and what Elleke Boehmer calls 'nation narratives'.In the period that I concentrate on, the 1880s-1930s, British and Indian discourses rely upon the child as both an anchor and a jumping off point for narratives of self and nation, as displayed in the versatile and varied children and childhoods in the writers that I focus on: Rudyard Kipling, Flora Annie Steel and Mulk Raj Anand.Chapter 1 begins with what have been called sentimental portrayals of the child in Kipling's early work before critiquing the notion that his 'imperial boys', Mowgli and Kim, are brokers of inter-cultural compromise that anticipate a postcolonial concern with hybridity. I argue that these boys figure colonial relations as complicated and compelling but are caught in a static spectacle of empire in which growing up is not a possibility.Chapter 2 turns to the work of Flora Annie Steel, a celebrated author in her time and, I argue, an impressive negotiator between the positions of the memsahib (thought of as both frivolous and under threat) and the woman writer determined to stake her claim to 'knowledge' of India across genres. From Steel's domestic manual, The Complete Indian Housekeeper and Cook, to her 'historical' novel of the Indian Mutiny, the child both enables the British woman to define her importance to the nation and connotes a weakness against which the imperial feminist defines her active role.In Chapter 3 I discuss the work of Mulk Raj Anand, a 'founding father' of the Indian-English novel, who worked to unite his vision of an international humanism with the Gandhian ideal of a harmonious, spiritually inflected Indian nation. I look at Anand's use of the child as an aesthetic position taken by the writer from the colonies in relation to the Bloomsbury avant-garde; a means of chronicling suffering and inequality and a resource for an idiosyncratic modernist method that has much to say to current theoretical concerns both with cosmopolitanism and materiality.


Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
Award date31 Dec 2013