Richard D Fulton and Peter H Hoffenberg, eds, Oceania and the Victorian Imagination: Where All Things Are Possible

Richard D Fulton and Peter H Hoffenberg, eds, Oceania and the Victorian Imagination: Where All Things Are Possible (Oxford: Routledge 2013) 220 pp. £34.99 Pb, £100.00 Hb. ISBN: 978-1138249417

In their thoughtful introduction to this wide-ranging volume of essays, Richard Fulton and Peter Hoffenberg set the stage for the blurry boundaries of Pacific Islands in Victorian thought. From colonial exhibits at world’s fairs to fictional accounts of oceanic travel, the authors consider this somewhat tenuous space—sometimes realistic, oftentimes constructed—as ‘a new theatre’ for Victorian writers, readers, and artists to ‘unveil their new self-fashioning’ (5). The twelve essays, grouped into three sections, examine a wealth of sources across a massive geographical area to uncover how ‘Oceania’ came to occupy, shape, and transform nineteenth-century British minds, both at home and abroad.

‘Oceania,’ throughout the volume, refers to the geographically distant, environmentally diverse islands—some of them imaginary—distributed across the massive Pacific Ocean. While some essays reference Samoa, Hawaii and even antipodean settler colonies, others focus on H G Wells’s fictional Island of Dr. Moreau, Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island, and R M Ballantyne’s Coral Island. In juxtaposing real and fictional islands, the editors argue for a blurriness, of sorts, between how Victorian travelers actually experienced these distant lands and how they represented them back in Britain. Representations of tropical islands have, of course, been well considered in historiographies of imperial Britain and in Victorian literary studies. Scholars have carefully considered how and why British naturalists, missionaries, businessmen, families, and even prisoners traveled across the Pacific Ocean, drawing sometimes contradictory conclusions about how individual and social encounters shaped British culture while, in turn, transforming indigenous communities and landscapes in oftentimes devastating ways. Bridging literature and cultural history, this set of essays seeks to unpack one node of that complex network of interactions: how islands scattered across the Pacific figured—as the volume’s title suggests—as places where all things were possible for Victorian audiences.

Despite claiming to bring oftentimes disparate oceanic imaginings across different media into direct conversation, the volume is arranged along typical disciplinary lines. Part 1, ‘Travel, Exhibitions and Photography,’ tends towards historical and art historical representations of Pacific islands and islanders. Carla Manfredi and Anna Johnston unpack aesthetic and affective constructions of travel in Robert Louis Stevenson’s photographic journals and in travel writing promoting settler colonies, respectively. Perhaps most intriguing, though, are the two following essays, which interact most directly with indigenous agency in oceanic representation. Paired together, Mandy Treagus’s glimpse at Samoan Islanders displayed at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair and Peter Hoffenberg’s consideration of Hawaiian Islanders’ roles in international exhibitions point towards the myriad ways in which such imperial imaginings could break down. Displayed alongside industrial sensations and natural curiosities, islanders failed to consistently 'perform' as apparently desired—indeed, deeper consideration of the ways in which indigenous communities and individuals pushed back against Victorian imaginings would enrich the volume as a whole.

Parts 2 and 3, ‘Fiction and the Pacific’ and ‘Childhood and Children’ turn more explicitly to representations of the Pacific in books, short stories, and fantastical tales. Here, some of the essays offer new insights into familiar fictional islands. The final four essays, focused primarily on children’s literature, offer a novel perspective on histories of island representations by playing on the infantilization trope well established in colonial history. If imperial travelers saw their Pacific subjects as childlike—either through the lens of the ‘noble savage’ or the ‘primitive Other,’ how did Victorian children themselves encounter such islands of the imagination?

Richard Fulton offers an enticingly pure way into the paradox, hinging on the assumption that most mid-Victorian children only accessed Pacific islands through literature, ephemera, and illustrations—through inherently constructed sources. What he calls the ‘South Seas’, then, was an absolute ‘imagined world’ for children, and, quite possibly, their families (151). The other authors in this section follow this assumption, exploring a range of sources, from textbooks to adventure fiction, in deconstructing how representations of the Pacific wound their way through young imperial subjects’ minds. By taking up recent historiographical trends into considering children as worthwhile subjects of study, the authors are able to employ a number of uncommon sources in building a compelling narrative; read alongside preceding essays that focus on photographs, illustrations, and exhibits, the volume functions as a model in how to read beyond the printed word.

In attempting to bring a range of source material and geography together into a single volume, historical specificity and focus is, understandably, lost. Although Fulton and Hoffenberg acknowledge their lack of engagement with ‘colonial and post-colonial discourse theory’ and emphasize, rather, their primary concern with the Victorian gaze, the volume’s ambitious goals tend to ignore indigenous voices and very real political consequences in favour of ‘imaginary’ visualizations (5). A massive and diverse geographic region is collapsed into an apparently singular construct, and the authors even, at times, obscure the varied effects of gender, race, class, and sexuality on Victorian readers, writers, and travelers. The volume excels, though, in its inclusive consideration of source material, and highlights recent trends toward multidisciplinarity in understanding Victorian literary and scientific culture. The essays provide a valuable introduction to travel writing and provoke a number of questions about how, where, and why the Victorians interacted with Pacific islands, whether real or imaginary.

Elaine Ayers. Princeton University