discipline essay

‘Nothing But an Idea’

Literary studies, postcolonialism and
two recent representations of Thomas Wainewright

Thomas Griffiths Wainewright is a difficult character to comprehend. Painter, poisoner; convict, critic; forger, fop – he was each of these things, it seems, and yet none entirely. Who was the real Wainewright? Authors have long puzzled over this perplexing question, producing works of fiction and non-fiction that purport to pin the man down. Set in motion by Edward Bulwer Lytton – whose novel, Lucretia, appeared in 1846 while its subject was still alive – the wheel of literary speculation has been kept turning by the likes of Charles Dickens (‘Hunted Down’, 1870) and Oscar Wilde (‘Pen, Pencil and Poison’, 1891).

In this essay I examine two of the most recent works inspired by this complex, contradictory and contested figure: Hal Porter’s The Tilted Cross (1961) and Andrew Motion’s Wainewright the Poisoner (2000). I do so not to weigh into the debate about Wainewright’s ‘true’ identity, but rather to assess the extent to which these chronologically postcolonial representations of Wainewright embody postcolonial theory, in particular two ideas articulated by the critic, Homi K. Bhabha, those of ‘hybridity’ and ‘the interstice’. As I seek to show, the novels enact these ideas to a significant extent, and they do so in different ways: Porter’s novel by orientating its subject spatially, in a ‘vertical’ external setting, Motion’s by using a temporal orientation and a setting that is both ‘horizontal’ and internal.

My investigations do not end there. This essay also addresses identity of another kind: the character of my research itself. In the first half of this discussion, I delineate the defining features of my field (literary studies), examining the various options open to scholars like myself and exploring how the decisions we make serve to situate (or otherwise) our research in a certain field of study. I do so by drawing upon my experience of studying the Wainewright-related novels of Porter and Motion.

Like many areas of research, the field of literary studies encompasses a range of aims, topics and approaches. In this section of my essay, I seek to show that it is not the objects or subjects of the field that distinguish it from other areas of research – these characteristics are not confined to any one field, let alone to it – but rather its methods and methodologies.

All research is pursued for some purpose, and I conceived my present project with one overarching object in mind: to increase (my) knowledge. It is not surprising, then, that my research is situated in a university (and not, say, in a technical college), since it was for this kind of study – for ‘pure research’, as we think of it today – that the university as an institution was founded, the knowledge-oriented liberal arts having been the core of the university curriculum for several centuries (Stover). Now, though, universities are home to a range of educational activities and aspirations, including to what Martha Nussbaum calls the ‘cultivation of the useful and highly applied skills suited to profit-making’ (2). So, although the object of my research situates my study in a particular part of a university (one that most likely lies outside the more ‘vocational’ schools of, say, of business and health) it does not necessarily position it any more precisely than that. Incidentally, my pursuit of knowledge does not exclude my research from the field of literary studies either, since the aims of this field are now many and varied, despite them having once centred around three main objectives: disciplining the mind, teaching moral values and acting as a ‘conduit of national culture’ (Whitla 8-10). Clearly, then, the object of research cannot be considered a defining characteristic of the field of literary studies in itself.

In seeking to achieve my object, I have chosen (broadly speaking) to study people’s thoughts and feelings. This characteristic of my research immediately locates it in a wide field of study, since each academic discipline is usually associated with a certain kind of subject matter. The ‘sciences’, for example, focus on material things, while the ‘social sciences’ concentrate on people (particularly in groups) (Wierzbicka 34). By setting out to learn more about our inner lives – about ‘human culture’, as Helen Small puts it (24) – I have positioned my research in the realm of ‘the humanities’, although not necessarily in any particular field within this discipline, since other humanities scholars (historians, for example) study the same general subject.

More specifically, I have chosen to study the thoughts and feelings of two relatively recent (‘postcolonial’) English and Australian writers (in the form of their novels) regarding Tasmania’s (colonial) past (in the form of the figure of Thomas Wainewright). Do the specific subjects of my study – two works of fiction and a fictional character – serve to situate it in the field of literary studies? Not necessarily. Yes, literary scholars study novels and have done so for centuries, even if for much of that time only certain works – the ‘classics’ mostly – were deemed to be worthy of critical attention (Whitla 10). Recently, though, the so-called ‘literary canon’ has come under fire for its apparent elitism (Pugh and Johnson 221), and literary scholars now feel free to study not only novels of any genre but also literature of any form and medium (Whitla 11-12). Thus, my focus on two works of popular/literary fiction might mean that I am engaged in a literary study. It does not guarantee it, however, because literary scholars are not the only researchers to take literature as their subject; historians and sociologists, for example, do so too. The subject of research is not, therefore, a defining characteristic of the field of literary studies.

I have chosen to pursue my object by seeking out the thoughts and feelings of my subjects in their fiction. I have done so largely because I believe that works of the imagination are revealing in unique and powerful ways. In reality, though, a range of practical approaches are open to me, just as they are to other researchers. Another scholar might choose to adopt a different research method; he or she might elect, for example, to reconstruct the world in which the subjects lived using historical methods, or to gather information directly, by conducting interviews with living subjects, using an anthropological approach. I am using literary criticism as the research method for my project. This approach involves the interpretation of literature and can include several related activities: literary scholarship, textual scholarship, response, explication and analysis (Whitla 20-21). Literary and textual scholarship – activities involved with establishing the background details and ‘actual’ text of a work (Whitla 20) – are arguably as much historical activities as they are literary ones. Explication and analysis, however, are a different matter. Both of these activities utilise specialised knowledge of the formal and aesthetic aspects of texts (Pugh and Johnson 224), knowledge normally possessed only by literary scholars. If it includes explication and analysis, then, method can be deemed a defining feature of the field of literary studies.

‘Theories of literature provide a toolkit for understanding and interpreting poems, novels, plays, and other cultural texts.’ (Pugh and Johnson 223) Researchers have a variety of theories or methodologies at their disposal. New Historicism and biographical studies are primarily historical approaches, while feminist, psychological, ethnic and minority studies are linked to other fields; formalist, genre, rhetorical, structuralist and deconstructionist studies, as well as New Criticism and reader-response criticism, are generally associated with literary studies (Stevens and Stewart 2-3). Each approach is linked to one or more areas of research. Some, like New Criticism and reader-response criticism, are specific to one field (literary studies, in this case); many, however, are not. I have chosen, for example, to view my subject from a postcolonial perspective, and yet this does not necessarily make my study a literary one, since, as Graham Huggan points out, postcolonial studies is a multidisciplinary field (‘Across’ 418). Methodology alone, therefore, can be considered a defining characteristic of the field of literary studies, but only when the approach in question is specific to the field. In summary, method and methodology can be defining features of the field of literary studies, but method and subject are not.

Postcolonial studies combines two streams of thought, one revolutionary, one revisionist (Huggan, ‘General’, 4). The revolutionary stream arose from struggle against European colonisation that took place in the early to mid-twentieth century in places like India and Algeria, and was informed by works such as Frantz Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks and Edward Said’s Orientalism, which were concerned with colonial power structures and the ways in which such structures are erected and reinforced. Said, for example, argues that colonial dominance is achieved and maintained ideologically, through the use of texts that arbitrarily characterise people as being either ‘western’ (i.e. superior) or ‘eastern’ (i.e. inferior) (Rangan and Chow 399). The revisionist stream of postcolonial theory draws heavily on the intellectual movement known as poststructuralism, and it addresses meaning and how it is made. Michel Foucault, a key figure in the movement, posited the notion that the meaning of a text lies outside the text itself, not in the form of the author or in their historical circumstances, but rather in the world of the reader/critic, who draws meaning from the ‘discourses’ in which they participate and help create (Goulimari 293-94).

In this essay I use a postcolonial theory articulated by the critic, Homi K. Bhabha, whose ideas are fundamentally revisionist in nature. Indeed, Bhabha has been criticised for not being ‘revolutionary’ or realistic enough (Huddart 7). Benita Parry, for instance, argues that his work ignores the inequalities that continue to plague the peoples of former colonies; inequalities rooted, she asserts, in real differences in race, class and gender (13-17). For his part, Arif Dirlik sees in Bhabha’s work ‘a reduction of social and political problems to psychological ones’ (n.6 366). Bhabha is notorious, too, for his gnomic style (McLeod 206), and his essential ideas are elusive, as if they were intended to be intuited rather than fully understood (Huddart 13-14). Fittingly, however, the poetic nature of his prose seems to ‘perform’ his ideas, widening the space between the literal and the figurative, and emphasising the role of reiterative reading in the making of meaning.

In Chapter 10 of his seminal work, The Location of Culture, Bhabha analyses an excerpt from a history of the Indian Mutiny, attempting to show that meaning (such as it is) lies in the ‘temporal break in-between sign and symbol’, and in the space between the ‘disjunctive “present” [and] the “not-there” of discourse’ (205 and 207). Two key concepts emerge from this model of meaning-making: ‘hybridity’ and ‘the interstice’, the first of which builds on Said’s theory of oppositions, and the second of which relates more to meaning and its location, thereby invoking the ideas of Foucault (and Jacques Derrida) (Huddart 3-4 and 16-18). Bhabha suggests that identities are not single fixed entities defined in opposition to others, but rather complex evolving ideas played out in ‘in-between’ spaces where ‘domains of difference’ overlap and are displaced (1-2). As Goulimari observes, Bhabha’s hybrid figure can be interpreted as ‘deconstructing binary oppositions and their hierarchies (e.g. colonizer/ colonized) within the self’ (332).

In the remainder of this essay, I attempt to apply my (rudimentary) under-standing of Bhabha’s ideas to the two ‘postcolonial’ novels I have chosen to study. The major difference between The Tilted Cross and Wainewright the Poisoner is Wainewright’s presence in the narrative. Porter’s novel is written in third-person, and Wainewright-cum-Vaneleigh features relatively little in the story, having been relegated almost to the status of a secondary character. He is not introduced, for example, until the end of the first chapter. Motion’s Wainewright, however, is ostensibly the protagonist, the novel being written in the first-person and narrated by the ‘Wainewright’ himself. In this text, the setting is an interior one: Motion locates the reader in the mind of the fictional Wainewright and, at times, amongst his (the implied author’s) own thoughts and reflections. Unusually, Motion has chosen to ‘show his workings’, punctuating the fictional narrative with paratextual material: notes designed to ‘provide the necessary background to characters and events, develop themes, and sometimes give mini-essays on subjects that were important’ (Motion xviii).

In theory, then, the book is a hybrid text, part novel, part biography (Meyer 44), and yet, as the author himself admits, the character he has created in fiction is virtually the same character he would have created in a ‘more familiar sort of biography’ (xix). In practice, it is the ‘author’ that dominates the text, and not his protagonist; having drawn attention to his ventriloquism – explicitly, in the foreword (xvii) – Motion drowns out his subject, transforming the work into a kind of meta-text, one in which the reader is reminded of the artificiality of writing, and of its performative nature. As a result, the reader is impelled (and invited) to question the text more closely, to speculate on its meaning and on the disjunction between sign and symbol, between the Wainewright on the page and the meta-Wainewright, between the ‘disguises which [tell] more than a face’ (Motion 89). Here, then, is an example of the interstice of which Bhabha writes – an in-between space in which ‘new signs of identity’ are initiated (1), in this case an iteration of Thomas Wainewright, one who feels closer to the present day than Porter’s Vaneleigh. It is in the consciousness of the work’s true narrator – the implied author – that the identity of its subject crystallises.

Motion’s Wainewright, then, is a hybrid figure, a creation that not only encompasses its previous selves, through the homogenising effect created by the narrative style, but that also incorporates the implied author himself, thereby imbuing his identity with a contemporaneity and self-awareness that befits a true ‘postcolonial’ take on the subject. It is the narrative’s synchronous treatment of time – ‘a confusion of small moments all heaped together’ (Motion 248) – that serves to unify Wainewright’s disparate parts. ‘What is most energetic in me,’ he writes, ‘and what is most degenerate, are kissing cousins’ (184). Events, experiences, observations and ideas – whether those of ‘Wainewright’ or ‘Motion’ – are shown as belonging to one flat continuum, to a flowing river of time. Indeed, the novel even begins with a description of the Derwent, which ‘Wainewright’ can see from his window.

There is a clash of silver spear-points in the water. An immense warfare, silent from this distance – yet amidst the confusion it appears that the river must soon give way, and begin running backwards towards its source. (3-4) Wainewright the Poisoner succeeds in fusing the ‘fragments’ of Wainewright’s identity because Motion has approached his subject from an essentially post-colonial perspective, inasmuch as he, like Bhabha, is engaging in a ‘performative mode of critical revisionism’, one which is ‘rigorously self-aware and resolutely adversarial’ (Huggan, ‘General’, 10 and 11). If the novel succeeds in this respect, though, it perhaps fails in another. Therese-M Meyer argues that ‘there is no awareness in the novel (neither in the memoir nor in its paratexts) of the implications of this colonial past for the present’ (45).

In stark contrast to Motion’s novel, The Tilted Cross is an ‘exterior’ work of fiction, in that it situates the reader mostly outside the minds of its characters, in a space imbued with predominantly vertical qualities. These qualities that invoke a kind of ‘great chain of being’, a hierarchical system in which every living thing, be it ‘goth or god’ (180), has its place, and every place its living things. At the bottom of the ladder, on ‘the world’s icy margin’ (152), sits Hobart Town, a ‘sewer’ (111) caught ‘between cold mountain and cold cove’ (13), above which there looms ‘constellations that did not know their names’ (92). In Porter’s novel, then, identity is associated with the outer world, with society, people and place, and not, as in Motion’s novel, with an inner realm, with psychology, history and time. There is, The Tilted Cross suggests, no such thing as an essential identity, since character is a creation of a system and of the discourses this system imposes upon its inhabitants. Hence, upper-classes figures such as Rose Knight and Asnetha Sleep are deemed by society to be good despite having behaved badly, while the lowly Christ-like Queely Sheill is found guilty although he is innocent (234). Vaneleigh himself voices this view.

The laws of the land, and the laws of society, have, together, the effect of rubbing down smooth nearly all those prominent points of the disposition, those landmarks of the mind, which separate one individual from another. (197-98) Thus, the characters in Porter’s novel (including Vaneleigh himself) are shown to have composite personalities, identities foisted upon them by a societal discourse, one of a molten ‘chain of being’, in which there is ‘fluidity rather than strict schematization’ (Hergenhan 137). This is a clear embodiment of ‘the interstice’, of a passage which, as Bhabha puts it, ‘opens up the possibility of a cultural hybridity that entertains difference without an assumed or imposed hierarchy’ (4). This discourse is intensified by the ‘grotesqueness’ of the setting, ‘Hobart Town’, an in-between place where few of the characters are at home. Even there, in the so-called ‘new’ world, humankind is, like a convict, ‘hobbled by a long chain’ (245), constrained by a system of thought that ends up unseating the very idea of truth, causing ‘a god [to go] falling, falling, falling from his plinth’ (218).

I began this essay by delineating the defining features of the field of literary studies, and by demonstrating that the field can be distinguished by its methods and methodologies rather than its objects or subjects. I then outlined my theoretical approach to the subject of my essay, introducing two ‘postcolonial’ ideas of Homi K. Bhabha (‘hybridity’ and ‘the interstice’), which I used to examine two recent Thomas Wainewright-related novels: The Tilted Cross and Wainewright the Poisoner. In so doing, I sought to show that the two texts attempt to solve the problem posed by Wainewright’s identity in different ways, the first by orientating its subject spatially, in an ‘vertical’ external setting, the second by orientating its subject temporally, in a setting that is both ‘horizontal’ and internal. I argued, moreover, that despite these differences the two texts achieve the same outcome and arrive at the same conclusion, presenting the reader with a ‘postcolonial’ Wainewright: a hybrid figure whose identity is an amalgam of its binary oppositions, and which has arisen from the interstitial spaces that separate sign and symbol, past and present, goth and god. For the novels suggest that individuals, like words, have no single or essential identity, meaning being a product of discourse, discourse being a product of psyche and society. Ultimately, Motion’s Wainewright and Porter’s Vaneleigh pose the same question. ‘Do we (really) individually exist?’ they ask. ‘Or is matter nothing but an idea?’ (Motion 18; Porter 266).


Works Cited

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Dirlik, Arif. ‘The Postcolonial Aura: Third World Criticism in the Age of Global Capitalism.’ Critical Inquiry, vol. 20, no. 2, 1994, pp. 328-56.

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Hergenhan, Laurie. Unnatural Lives: Studies in Australian Convict Fiction. University of Queensland Press, 1993.

Huddart, David. Homi K. Bhabha. Routledge, 2006.

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—. ‘General Introduction.’ The Oxford Handbook of Postcolonial Studies, edited by Graham Huggan, Oxford University Press, 2013, pp. 1-26.

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Stevens, Bonnie Klomp, and Larry L. Stewart. A Guide to Literary Criticism and Research. 3rd ed., Harcourt Brace, 1996.

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