Volume 2, Number 1 (Summer 2000)
Louise Yelin, From the Margins of Empire: Christina Stead, Doris Lessing, Nadine Gordimer

Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1998.
240 pp. ISBN 0801485053. 

Reviewed by Robin Visel
Furman University

Louise Yelin’s rich and thoughtful study brings together three white women novelists who published during the second half of the twentieth century: Nadine Gordimer and Doris Lessing are still writing; Christina Stead died in 1983.  Stead, Lessing and Gordimer grew up under the aegis of the British Empire, coming of age before the rapid decolonization that followed the Second World War.  Their careers are, as Yelin notes, “situated at the intersection of the colonial and the postcolonial, the modern and the postmodern” (1).  They are “English” in inflected ways that need qualification.  Stead was Australian and lived most of her life in Europe and the United States.  Lessing grew up in colonial Rhodesia and has lived most of her adult life in England, returning intermittently to her roots in what is now Zimbabwe.  Gordimer has spent her life as a member of the white, English-speaking minority in a South Africa which has changed successively from a British dominion to a Commonwealth nation to an Afrikaner-led apartheid republic, to a multiracial democracy. 

While these three writers have set themselves in opposition to colonialism, Britishness, and “whiteness,” their relation to feminism reflects more ambivalence.  Born between 1902 and 1923, they came of age as exceptional women before the second wave of feminism.  Their novels depict fraught mother-daughter relationships and offer no easy sisterhood among women.  Their commitments to left-wing and anti-apartheid politics supersede their gender identification.  Gordimer, for example, has stated that women’s equality is secondary to racial equality in South Africa; in Burger’s Daughter she depicts white liberal feminists as elitists who benefit from the labor of their black maids. 

Yelin approaches the subject of white women and empire with a synthesis of postcolonial, Foucauldian, feminist and psychoanalytic theories.  She draws on Virginia Woolf's anti-fascist, anti-patriarchal Three Guineas, Etienne Balibar’s theory of the “secret affinity” between nationalism and sexism, and Homi Bhabha’s “writing the nation,” in which postcolonial literature ambiguously performs and teaches, invents and inscribes new national literatures.  Yelin also draws upon the work of Elaine Showalter, Nancy K. Miller, Rachel Blau DuPlessis, and Jane Marcus to tease out the narrative of women’s culture as essentially, if ambivalently, oppositional to patriarchal national cultures. 

From the Margins of Empire is most interesting and original on the issues of national identity and political affiliation. Yelin sets out her project as follows:

I examine the ways that novels represent their writers’ relationship to dominant and oppositional (residual and emergent) national cultures and transnational political entities. In the process, I consider whether, how, or to what effect whites might translate or refashion colonial origins into new forms of nationness or national identity . . . . I treat novels as a record of that struggle and as instances of it, acts that resist and rewrite as well as reproduce historical conditions that they cannot imagine away--that is, that perform the cultural work of inventing or constituting identity. (5)

Thus the novels of Stead, Lessing, and Gordimer resist and refashion the colonial conditions of white-settler Australia and Southern Africa, but also to some extent reproduce colonial relationships. In these novels, the family is the microcosm of the nation: the parents are identified with the colonizers, the children with the colonized subjects struggling for independence. However, because the children of the British colonizers cannot reinvent themselves as Australian Aborigines or black Africans, their national affiliations are conflicted, their identities divided, their independence incomplete.

Yelin reads Stead’s masterpiece, The Man Who Loved Children, as a national family romance in which the household is the polis, the father the tyrant.  Sam Pollitt is a naturalist/anthropologist who orientalizes and colonizes the objects of his inquiry.  Stead attacks misogynist Australian culture but also identifies with the masculine, as Louisa Pollitt does with her father Sam. The novel rewrites the American Civil War as war within the Pollitt polis, and by conflating the feminine and the South reinscribes the colonial tropes of Gone with the Wind, even as Louisa is identified with the slave rebellion led by John Brown.  Yelin argues, 

In identifying with John Brown, Louisa imaginatively aligns herself with but also displaces the black slaves on whose behalf he raided the arsenal in Harpers Ferry.  Suppressed, in this retelling of an American tale, are the stories of particular African Americans, the race plot that underwrites the colonization of America and Australia alike, and hence the Australian beginnings of this American novel. (31) 

Yelin's reading of The Man Who Loved Children gives depth and texture to the feminist cliché that the personal is political and vice versa.   Her eclectic method does justice to the complex issues of identity, exile, and affiliation that surround and suffuse what she terms the “national family romances” of Stead, Lessing, and Gordimer. She follows Foucault in seeing the family as the "transfer point" between public and private, in which power relations are regulated and controlled through the father. She uses Kristeva’s theory of abjection and Bakhtin's theory of the carnivalesque to explain the mother as an anarchic, disorderly feminine force who subverts the rule of the father. Yelin's depiction of the family extends to such national family issues as McCarthyism, whose aim was to silence left-wing political dissent, and the White Australia policy, whose intention was to maintain an island of European racial purity and hegemony. She does a close reading of Stead’s use of the term “transportation” to describe the translation of her Australian childhood material to the American setting of  The Man Who Loved Children, noting that “transportation” evokes Australia’s origin as a British penal colony to which convicts were sentenced to be transported. Thus she reads Stead through the repressed childhood of the Australian national consciousness and vice versa. 

Whereas Stead chose to remain nationless, Lessing has positioned herself within a postwar, postcolonial, multiethnic, cosmopolitan Englishness.  Lessing is ironic about the nostalgic Englishness-in-exile of the settler community in Southern Africa, who enthuse about the remembered joys of “home.”  When Lessing’s autobiographical protagonists come “home” to England, as do Martha Quest and Anna Wulf in The Four-Gated City and The Golden Notebook, they find themselves in exile from Africa.  Yelin reads the motifs of  “cracking up” and “integration” in The Golden Notebook in terms of the breakup of the British empire and the integration of nonwhite Commonwealth immigrants into postwar British society during the 1950s and 60s.  Lessing’s narrative of coming home is complicated by the gender narrative of the 1950s: the return to the home, which segues into the gender narrative of the 1960s, “Free Women” (as one of The Golden Notebook’s narrative strands is called).  Martha Quest and Anna Wulf are also in exile from the “home” of the British Communist Party, which “cracks up” in the 1950s, and tentatively “integrate” themselves into the Labour Party.  Thus the themes of psychic exile, crack-up and integration are read as interconnected public-political themes. 

Just as Yelin critiques Stead’s repression of her Australian origins, she is critical of Lessing’s tendency to let class and gender obscure race.  She traces a slippage among these three terms: The Golden Notebook is anti-feminist, homophobic, its gender ambivalence partly symptomatic of its repressed origins in the retrogressive, conservative Englishness of the white settler colonials.  Thus Yelin reads the ending of The Golden Notebook as an integration into conventional femininity, heterosexuality, white middle-class citizenship of the British welfare state: “In the process, it inscribes itself in contemporary debates about the national culture and the crisis of postwar reconstruction and produces itself as an instance of performative nationality, a British (women’s) novel” (89).

She goes on to read Lessing’s 80s novels, The Good Terrorist and The Fifth Child, as Thatcherite dystopias which attack the “enemy within.”  The monstrous fifth child Ben displaces the “real” English children as a symbol of the return of the colonial repressed, “akin to the voices who announce on posters in England in the 1970s, ‘We are here because you were there’” (105).  Yelin suggests that in these novels Lessing represses difference and hybridity in favor of an exclusive vision of the nation, akin to Thatcher’s. 

In contrast, Gordimer’s national family romance is inclusionary: her novels written during the apartheid regime imagine, perform, and invent a utopian nonracial democracy.  Her project is a rehearsal for the future, written in the future perfect tense, anticipating what will have happened. According to Lyotard, the future perfect is the tense of the postmodern, which anticipates what is not yet possible. Thus Yelin sees Gordimer as employing European postmodernism as a strategy for undoing colonialism. This strategy, she argues, limits Gordimer's ability to envision an African national identity.

Burger’s Daughter is set during the 1970s when the leadership of the liberation struggle was passing from the hands of the Communist Party and the African National Congress, in which whites were prominent, to the Black Consciousness and Soweto students’ movements, which excluded whites.  Rosa Burger is alienated from the political struggle from which she has inherited a personal identification.  And so Gordimer writes her voice and point of view out of the novel at the end, a narrative strategy that Yelin reads as Gordimer’s failure to “transplant and translate” the European novel into South African terms.  She suggests that A Sport of Nature, written in the 1980s when the end of apartheid was in sight, similarly fails to invent a future for its white characters and raises the question of  “whether the writings of English-speaking whites can transmute postmodern, postcolonial practices of cultural critique into an indigenous South African growth” (149).

Yelin, then, criticizes Gordimer for her difficult, even heroic choice to remain in South Africa and use the political novel to write a way out of apartheid and oppression.  On the other hand, she criticizes Lessing for choosing Englishness over Africanness, and Stead for her internationalism (read as rejection of nation).  This reductive reading of Stead, Lessing, and Gordimer exaggerates the choices and minimizes the constraints under which they wrote. Stead was deeply alienated by the cold-war anti-communism of both the United States and Australia.  Lessing was prohibited from returning to Rhodesia or South Africa. Gordimer was subject to the legal constraints of apartheid and the police-state powers of South Africa’s anti-terrorism legislation.  I would argue that their novels are aware of these constraints and of their own contradictory narrative positions.  Yelin demonstrates the near-impossibility of their white female protagonists achieving meaningful political agency, then condemns them for not taking viable political action.  I would argue that the protagonists, plots, narration, and imagery revolve around this very dilemma.  The narrative failures that Yelin notes are in fact built into the novels, even form their bases. 

One of the problems with Yelin’s biographical-historical approach is, then, a slippage between author and protagonist, life and work; another is the slippage among these three authors and their novels.  The grouping of three quite different writers invites comparisons which are not always apt, logical, or fair.  In some ways, the rich ideas which Yelin calls up in the early chapters are not borne out in the relatively simplified, implicitly moralistic later chapters.  Her book shares the difficulty that critics have had with Stead, Lessing, and Gordimer, which is partly the result of their not-yetness, the provisional, conditional, future perfect tense of their stories.  Yelin’s conclusion recognizes this difficulty, suggesting that these novels

 . . . perform nationality, inventing it out of available materials.  Adapting historical circumstances, expressing the desire to belong to a community or to resist such belonging, rewriting cultural texts, often critically, these writers explore heterogeneous national identities produced by complex processes of political commitment and cultural transmission and translation.  Their novels negotiate identity while circumventing the impasses of identity politics. (171)

Stead, Lessing, and Gordimer write "from the margins of empire," inventing the postcolonial from within the colonial, inventing nonracialism from within their white privilege. Their national family romances politicize the personal and personalize the political, depicting the family as the nexus or transfer point in the formation of national idenity. Their project, to write the daughters of empire into the postcolonial, anti-imperial nation, is fraught with contradictions and risks, yet it is in the contradictions that rich, complex, risky fiction is generated. As Yelin suggests, the English or European novel may be an imperfect vehicle for writing the non-English, non-European nation, but the imperatives of post-colonial, anti-patriarchal nationality have certainly nourished the novel, challenging it to evolve into a form in which oppositional identities can be imagined and enacted. Stead, Lessing, and Gordimer are transitional figures in the process, writing the future perfect novel that will have been.

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