On 12 July 1912, John Trevor took a series of photographs of the art critic and portraitist William Rothenstein with the Bengali poet and novelist Rabindranath Tagore. The photographs, one of which is reproduced in Boehmer’s book, show the two men sitting on a strikingly modern plain white sofa, in the carefully curated sitting room of Rothenstein’s Hampstead home. As Boehmer says, ‘[t]here is certainly nothing shadowy, fussy, or “Victorian” about the interior’ (225). Tagore was deliberate in plugging himself into the networks of European modernism and the following year he was to become the first non-white non-European to win the Nobel Prize for Literature. In the photograph Rothenstein sits a little forward of Tagore on the sofa, and gestures towards him, as if presenting an astonishing discovery, or announcing a performance about to begin. Tagore, by contrast, sits square and impassive staring straight into the camera lens. The image has something of the Victorian ‘spirit photograph’ to it, as if Tagore has manifested as an apparition from another dimension onto the negative plate. Boehmer suggests that this is one of the moments that ‘the understanding of the modern as something pertaining exclusively to the west changed fundamentally’ (193). But Indian Arrivals also reveals the tensions and misunderstandings that attended the processes of Anglo-Indian cultural encounter on British soil. Indian Arrivals opens with an experiential history of the journey from India, as British-bound ships slowed down at the mouth of that ‘magnificent ditch’, the Suez Canal, which had opened in 1869 and had considerably shortened and cheapened the passage to and from India. The networks of Boehmer’s title are part literary and intellectual, and part technological. In the ‘Passage to India’ section of his Leaves of Grass (1871) Walt Whitman sang of ‘[t]he seas inlaid with eloquent gentle wires’,1 and the role of the telegraph cable, the newspaper, the steam liner, the Suez Canal, and the British army is clear in Boehmer’s version of cultural exchange, a history in which ‘eloquent gentle wires’ were also military technologies, and which ends with 1.4 million Sepoy soldiers sent from India to fight for the British Empire in the First World War, many of whom were killed and wounded. The English war poet, Wilfred Owen, died in the same war with a fragment of Tagore’s verse in his pocket. The exchange does not seem commensurate, but Boehmer’s study sets out to show the influence of Indian art and philosophy on late Victorian and Edwardian writers and thinkers in Britain. Elleke Boehmer is a scholar at Oxford University and Oxford emerges in her narrative as one of the central European nodes of an Indian network. In London, Asian Bloomsbury has long been acknowledged: a statue of Mahatma Gandhi sits cross-legged on a plinth in Tavistock Square and there is an oddly severed bronze head of Tagore in Gordon Square, while blue plaques mark the houses in which they lived in London. Gandhi studied law at University College London and Tagore arrived in 1912 to meet other poets such as W. B. Yeats, Robert Bridges and Ezra Pound and to publicize his own works in translation. Boehmer makes suggestive connections between ‘Indian Oxford’, where the Indian Institute was opened in 1884 by Vice Chancellor Benjamin Jowett, and the ‘Aestheticist Oxford’ of John Ruskin, Walter Pater and Oscar Wilde, pointing to the often-unnoticed confluences between the two. The Oxford philologist and orientalist, Professor Friedrich Max Müller offered hospitality to many visiting Indian scholars in his home at 12 Norham Gardens in leafy north Oxford. The Indian lawyer, Cornelia Sorabji, who studied at Somerville between 1889 and 1892, was a frequent visitor there. Cambridge University was perhaps less Vedantic than Oxford in Boehmer’s period, but she shows that it too was a conduit for the complex flow and counter-flow of British and Indian ideas. Edward Carpenter had come into contact with Buddhism and Hinduism as a student at Christ’s College Cambridge in the late 1860s, beginning with his reading of the Bhagavad-gita, a text that his friend and fellow student Arunachalam had recommended. He went on to read Walt Whitman’s poetry in the 1870s, which associated Indian ideas of the oneness of creation with a peculiarly American democratic vision. Carpenter developed his own politically radical argument that western civilization was a pollution which should be abandoned in his Civilization: Its Cause and Cure (1889). Gandhi picked up and read Carpenter’s book while he was a student in London and ingested his ideas which then re-emerged in his own Hind Swaraj (1910). The ‘Indian nightingale’ Sarojini Naidu spent a brief time at Girton College Cambridge, but the cold and windy fens did not suit her and she left before the end of the academic year to return to her poetry and to the company of W. B. Yeats and the poets of the Rhymers’ Club. She enjoyed her time at King’s College London’s Ladies’ Department much more than Cambridge, where she studied alongside the British poet Alice Meynell and befriended Edmund Gosse. Boehmer gives us little quotation from Naidu’s poetry, although she applauds its ‘deft sound patterns’ (139) and she notes that Naidu’s frequent representations of dance as performance in her poetry might be standing in for the poet’s sense of her own performance of Indianness. Although she regrets Naidu’s ‘relative lack of maturation as a poet’ (169), she also points out that her poems, which seem to be made of spun sound and colour, pre-date the work of the Imagists by 15 years or so. Oxford was surely significant as a place of elite imperial exchange, but London offered more opportunities for different kinds of meetings and exchanges, and here Indian/British contact was more multidirectional. Boehmer writes of the similarities between the nineteenth-century cities of Bombay, Calcutta and London and of the ‘complex seriality that shaped their modernity’ (97). The newspapers chronicling city life also created ricochet effects between one another. When W. T. Stead was famously exposing the endemic sexual abuse of children in London, Malabari, editor of the Bombay-based Indian Spectator, was also campaigning for sexual reform in India. Boehmer is interested in the way Indians attempted to make Indian lives for themselves when they arrived in grey foggy London. We share Gandhi’s joy, for example, when, after subsisting on bread alone for weeks, he discovers a vegetarian restaurant in Farringdon Street. Although they are mentioned, Boehmer has less to say about the Lascars, or sailors from the East Indies, who constituted a more far more numerous immigrant group ‘arriving’ in the British ports than the poets or writers. In Dickens’s last novel, Jasper John is famously discovered in an opium den in London lying, ‘dressed, across a large unseemly bed’, with ‘a Chinaman, a Lascar, and a haggard woman’,2 reminding us that some scenes of cultural contiguity are wordless, lonely and unhappy. Social and religious reformer, Ram Mohan Roy, had died while on a visit to England in 1833. Boehmer quotes Wilhelm Halbfass on Roy: ‘in the act of presenting himself and his tradition to the foreigners, [the Indian] learns, as it were, to see himself with foreign eyes’ (92). Coming to England, the Indian arrivals looked back at India and saw it afresh. Ironically, they learnt nationalism from the very imperial ideology that denied India independence. They studied political developments in Egypt, Bengal, and Ireland. Boehmer writes of, ‘[t]he connectivity or call-and-response between India and Britain, here necessarily including Ireland’ (108). Ireland was important as another colony in dispute with the imperial centre, although Boehmer does not make much of the impact of the Fenian Dynamite Campaign of 1881 to 1885. Instead, she points to the gentler forms of W. B. Yeats’s Irish revivalist nationalism and its influence on Indian writers. She notes too the influence of the Italian Risorgimento struggles which had culminated with Italian Unification in 1870. Radical Indian Nationalist Veer Savarkar even translated Mazzini into Marathi. But things begin to darken in Boehmer’s fairly upbeat story of cosmopolitan and intellectual exchange with the assassination of India Office civil servant, Sir Curzon Wyllie in London in 1909 by Madan Lal Dhingra, an Indian nationalist extremist. The years running up to the First World War see a waning of intelligent interest in Indian culture in Britain and a rise of both racist and xenophobic feeling. Much that Boehmer celebrates in this dense, full and fascinating book is the internationalism of the generation who were young men during the European revolutions of 1848: men such as Benjamin Jowett and Max Müller. Oxford had long been interested in Indian thought and writing. Jowett had risen to the position of Vice Chancellor by 1884, but in the late 1840s, he and his group of friends at Balliol had studied Indian texts. When Ralph Waldo Emerson visited Oxford in March 1848 he had tea in the poet Arthur Hugh Clough’s rooms with James Froude and Francis Palgrave and they talked about Carlyle, the Bhagavad-gita, Swedenborg and Plato. The liberal faith of this generation that reform and progress would be the inevitable result of improved global communication was often expressed in technological terms. For example, Max Müller imagined ‘[a] world-wide circle through which henceforth, like an electric current, Oriental thought could run to the West and Western thought return to the East’ (105). But imperial ideology would lead inexorably to the First World War. One of the first acts of war by the British in 1914 was to cut Germany’s undersea telegraph cables. Boehmer’s thoughtful book returns us to the melancholy contemplation of the hopeful internationalism that was irrevocably lost with the commencement of that terrible war. Footnotes 1 Walt Whitman, ‘Passage to India’, in Leaves of Grass, ed. by Michael Moon (New York and London: W. W. Norton Company, 2002), pp. 345–53; this quotation is on pp. 345–6. 2 Charles Dickens, The Mystery of Edwin Drood. © 2018 Leeds Trinity University This article is published and distributed under the terms of the Oxford University Press, Standard Journals Publication Model (https://academic.oup.com/journals/pages/about_us/legal/notices)
Journal of Victorian Culture – Oxford University Press
Published: Jul 3, 2018
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