The first half of the twentieth century saw the continued commercial success of popular fiction focused on Britain’s imperial presence in India. These novels, often termed “adventure romances” and written mainly by women writers, were consistent bestsellers that appeared in numerous reprints and popular editions. Although the content of these works has been the subject of increased scholarly interest in recent years, particularly what they tell us about Anglo-Indian cultural relations in the final decades of the British Raj, there has been little scholarship on how these works relate to book history and print culture. By looking at the illustrated covers to such books, we can begin to appreciate just how much visual concepts of race were generated and regenerated through images that entered thousands of British homes.
Consequently, these Anglo-Indian romances helped to shape (and to distort) the British reading public’s image of India. As Britain experienced two world wars and unprecedented socio-political change throughout the first half of the twentieth century, these images suggest that the cultural view of Indians remained very much the same and did not progress with the times. These dust jackets thus provide visual reminders of these colonial tensions and how publishers capitalized on British anxieties as a gradually weakening imperial power. Given the rapid production of such popular works, readers were frequently inundated with idealized images of the heroic, infallible British male, the beautiful yet vulnerable British woman, and the perceived dark, unpredictable Indian. What is interesting to note, however, is that these images rarely had anything to do with what was actually written between the covers. With this idea in mind, we can begin to appreciate just how much publishers and artists influenced popular conceptions – or, to put it more accurately, misconceptions – of racial difference in this genre and how these books became specific sites of cultural meaning.
As most of these popular novels were not illustrated (and cheaper reprints rarely had frontispiece illustrations), the dust jacket was the only opportunity the publisher had to communicate an image of the characters or subject matter to the reader. Chatto and Windus was one of the first major publishers to recognize the financial value of reprinting their most popular books as more affordable cheap editions in order to reach an even wider reading public. They often chose paper covers with bright designs and commissioned illustrators to convey some exciting or dramatic moment within the narrative in order to attract more customers. To this end, Charles Rosner states that the jacket’s “main purpose is to act as a piece of publicity” (v). He goes on to say that “the competition is fierce” for fiction dust jackets, because they must attract the attention of numerous readers who are undecided about which books to choose for their entertainment (xviii). These jackets thus have to capture the whole essence of the book in one captivating visual image.
In the 1930s, Hutchinson, for example, saw an opportunity to distinguish themselves at the other end of the literary spectrum from the serious fiction under plain covers being published by Allen Lane’s Penguin Books. Lane had famously declared his competition’s popular fiction covers “breastsellers” and “bosoms and bottoms.” In proud defiance of this view, Hutchinson launched a series of romance novels called “Hutchinson’s Popular Pocket Library.”
These had vibrant illustrated covers that caught the eye and announced to the reading public that the books were unabashedly down-market and disposable. But even more importantly, they were affordable and could be bought without the financial hesitation that might be attached to the purchase of a hardcover. Throughout the 1930s and 40s, illustrated covers became synonymous with romance, adventure, and escapism.
These covers also became effective marketing tools, as publishers increasingly chose to list the number of impressions on the jacket itself. Many of these popular novels went through 20,000 or more impressions and multiple editions. In many cases, the number of impressions listed on the jacket cover was slightly more than the number listed on the title page, further signifying the jacket as an effective piece of promotion.
In addition to their significance as pieces of marketing, Anglo-Indian popular fiction dust jackets reflect wider social tensions and racial perceptions during the British Raj and allow us to better understand how these products of print culture functioned within the imperial network. As John MacKenzie claims in Imperialism and Popular Culture (1986), “the historians who have written about imperialism have been principally concerned with its political, strategic, and economic dimensions, with the official mind rather than the popular psychology. Thus the centrifugal effects of imperialism have come in for much more attention than the centripetal, and a vacuum has been left in consideration of its role in British social history” (2).
In Propaganda and Empire (1984), MacKenzie argues that though the British public as a whole was not that knowledgeable about the details of their wide-reaching empire, an imperial mindset functioned in Great Britain as a kind of status symbol that set them apart from the rest of the world (2). He goes on to say that “Empire had the power to regenerate not only the ‘backward’ world, but also the British themselves, to raise them from the gloom and apprehension of the later nineteenth century…by creating a national purpose with a high moral content” (2). As books became cheaper and more readily available across class lines in the 1890s and into the beginning decades of the twentieth century, publishers began to recognize the cultural power of such dust jacket images. As Mackenzie says, “Even if books were not read, their owners could scarcely miss the stirring titles and equally exciting cover illustrations which depicted an heroic and expansionist age, in which fellow countrymen generally overwhelmed or converted people of other non-Western cultures” (18). In these years, racial boundaries became even more set, as the British celebrated the colonial hero as part of the ruling white race and stressed this distinction and superiority through repeated images of what they labeled “lesser” people and cultures in the regions they colonized.
As the British increased their presence in India, the subcontinent was quickly appropriated for fictional interpretations. The growth of the British Raj thus coincided perfectly with the growth of popular adventure and romance literature, with its exotic locales, and the spread of cheaper publishing methods which produced reading materials for the mass market. India suited many authors because it could be a place of adventure and danger, while its exotic atmosphere could also form the basis of tales of love and romance. According to Philip Darby in The Fiction of Imperialism (1998), “Overwhelmingly this body of writing takes personal relationships as its point of reference – which is to say that political issues are broached through the depiction of personal feelings and behaviour” (79). Darby discusses how novelists were key to the wider representation of the Empire and colonial rule in India, saying, “The picture-books of empire provide part of the explanation with their representations of British power…The novelists take it further…For the British there was the sense of vulnerability and a determination to shore up the foundations of power, and hence strict limits to the extent the two peoples could relate” (82). British novelists typically emphasized stability over reform and “social distance between ruler and ruled” (Darby 90) and to achieve this distance, “the fiction of the period [consistently] marginalized and depersonalized the colonial subject” (90).
However, scholars have tended to overlook the extent to which contemporary images from popular fiction from these crucial years of empire provide another avenue for examining cultural perceptions of British power and interactions between Indians and the British. The images on Anglo-Indian fiction dust jackets thus became a type of “popular imperialism” and were integral in upholding and forwarding the myth of British racial and cultural dominance throughout the first half of the twentieth century. The perseverance of these jacket images stems from a growing interest in the British Empire in India and, to build on Darby’s discussion, I would argue that the overwhelming negative portrayal of native Indians comes largely from the Indian Uprising of 1857, where, for the first time, India took hold of the public imagination as images showing the violence from the Uprising dominated press coverage in Great Britain and negative portrayals of Indians were spread across the front pages of British newspapers.
“Massacre in the Boats Off Cawnpore.” The History of the Indian Mutiny. Originally published in London and New York (London Printing & Publishing Co.), 1858-1859.
These images were often fictional in their own rights, as rumor and misinformation (the many supposed “first-hand” accounts) about events surrounding the Uprising quickly spread back to Britain and were published without being verified, where they were just as quickly believed as “fact” by an outraged reading public. This type of colonial “fiction,” however, did not end with the Uprising; it only changed form. The social tensions between the Indians and British were renewed after the Amritsar massacre in 1919 and continued throughout the inter-war years as India’s nationalist movement gained strength. In Anglo-Indian popular fiction narratives and their accompanying dust jacket images, the British were trying to forward an even greater cultural fiction of their continued dominance as a colonial power.
Looking at several examples of Anglo-Indian fiction dust jackets, there are certain visual motifs and underlying racial and gender messages that become apparent.
First and foremost is the centrality of the British person (or persons) on the cover. This often takes the form of the British male as conquering hero, or a British couple who take pride of place over native Indians or the Indian environment, which becomes a dark, ill-defined background.
The Indian is almost always secondary, in the shadows, or menacing in the background. These images mirror frequent animalistic descriptions of Indian characters within the narratives themselves. Although in several novels, particularly those written by Anglo-Indian women, the British male protagonists are depicted as flawed or even criminal, the dust jacket images seldom show the British male in anything but a positive light.
British women, however, are usually denied the heroic image granted to British men. This, again, reflects socio-cultural perceptions of women’s secondary place within the empire and contemporary anxieties about the safety of British women in India. Women are depicted as scared, endangered, pursued, or otherwise confused about what is happening to them in India. When not in eminent danger, women are almost always depicted as separate from their Indian surroundings. They are in evening dresses and look like they are in London, not India. In very rare instances, women are seen actively participating in the life of the British Raj (such as hunting tigers).
Indian women, on the other hand, are depicted as erotic, sexual objects and are frequently seen seducing British men or in otherwise subservient poses. In certain examples, the aggressive violence of the Indian male character is replaced on the cover by the aggressive, dangerous sexually of the Indian female character. These cover images are concerned with the British potentially falling victim to both forces. Indian and British women are seldom shown together, as if the cultural potential of women joining forces to improve their status could not be imagined and had no place in popular fiction.
The sexualized white woman is never on the cover of the book (the equivalent of being kept behind closed doors), but is shown instead in the frontispiece image, unlike the sexualized and erotic Indian woman. This implies that the gaze was sanctioned (and even encouraged) when it looked at the foreign, colonized female subject, but not the British colonizer.
Gradually, by the 1940s, these offensive images of Indians began to decrease as society moved closer to an independent India.
For instance, A.E.W. Mason’s The Drum centers on the son of an Indian rajah whose drum signal saves his father’s kingdom from being overthrown by a wicked uncle.
And finally I want to return to Maud Diver’s Lilamani trilogy, the final book being titled, fittingly, The Dream Prevails.
The character seen here is the granddaughter of the two people pictured on a previous dust jacket image. As a biracial character, her attractive face is a stark contrast to earlier negative depictions of Indians and hints at the slight cultural shifts that were occurring in the last decade of Britain’s rule over India. The centrality of one individual character also points to more well-rounded narratives involving increasingly complex protagonists, both Indian and British.
By 1950, India was independent, and Great Britain and her current and former colonies had survived the devastation of a Second World War. The Anglo-Indian popular fiction novels which had been so popular in the pre-independence, pre-war years were now on the decline. Yet, as print culture artifacts, they stand as a visual testament to years of complicated relations between the Indians and English. Just as with the narratives they enclose, these jackets present important examples of the lasting influence of imperialist propaganda, the relationship between colonizer and colonized, and the social construction of race. Ultimately, these dust jackets, in their own small way, represent Great Britain’s attempt to hold on to a colony that was gradually regaining its own identity, and eventually its independence.