Set in Authority

344 pages,
ISBN: 1551110806

Post Your Opinion
A Passage to Ghoom
by Michael Peterman

This edition of Sara Jeannette Duncan's Set in Authority (1906), the novel she wrote immediately after The Imperialist (1904), is, quite simply, a joy to read and explore. While leading Duncan authorities like Thomas Tausky and Misao Dean have called attention over the past few years to the novel's many qualities, Set in Authority has not been re-issued anywhere since 1919. Clearly, it takes an edition like this-scholarly in its purpose, rich in background material and explanatory notes, and offering fascinating new contextual material-to create an interested audience. Thus presented, it emerges like a substantial nugget nearly buried in the terrain of the past, reminding readers that there are gaps in our awareness of literary history, not only in Canada but in England as well.
Set in Authority is, first off, an important addition to the body of available texts by turn-of-the-century Canadian authors. More broadly, it is also a well-informed and compelling argument for Duncan's importance in the evolution of Anglo-Indian fiction. Prefaced by Germaine Warkentin's informative and richly detailed introduction, the edition makes a persuasive case for Duncan as a novelist of international consequence; indeed (and I am tempted to take matters further than Warkentin here), it provides strong evidence that the Brantford-born-and-bred Duncan is one of the most unjustly overlooked novelists of her generation in the English-speaking world. After all, who in England or America, even now, would take the time to consider her in the fullness that her oeuvre deserves?
Canadian literary scholars, of course, are well aware of Duncan's strengths and have made much of The Imperialist since it became available in McClelland & Stewart's New Canadian Library edition over thirty years ago. To date, however, too few Canadianists, myself included, have read much beyond The Imperialist and Duncan's two other "Canadian" books, A Social Departure (1890) and Cousin Cinderella (1908). Some may have read her stories in The Pool in the Desert (1903, reprinted 1984), which has been available in a Penguin trade paperback, and some may have looked at A Daughter of To-day (1894, reprinted 1988), in which she dramatizes the problems facing the woman as artist in her time. For many, however, her range of subject-matter (suggested by the wide range of national identities she ably depicted) and her light, marketable touch as a comedic observer of manners have served to limit recognition of her acute sense of irony, her attentiveness to the semiotics of manners, and the political insightfulness and seriousness she brought to her best fiction.
In Set in Authority, Duncan turns her comedic yet unshrinking gaze upon English rule and its effect on Anglo-Indian relations at the turn of the century. Its subject is the politics of imperial control during the decade when the cry for Home Rule in India was crystallizing. Duncan's shrewd and cool attention to the pressures inherent in English imperialism, pressures felt by both the controller and the controlled, makes it in Warkentin's words, "The Imperialist's darker twin". In the latter novel, she could at least project a bright future for a fledgeling Canada, as the former colony learned how to recognize its strengths and focus its aspirations. Set in Authority, by contrast, orchestrates a social and bureaucratic danse macabre that is grimly passive, and in which deception and self-deception characterize an uncomfortable perpetuation of imperial authority upon a people who still appear to accept it.
Though Duncan has been largely ignored in previous studies of the Anglo-Indian tradition (Warkentin lists eight such studies from 1934 to 1992, six of which utterly exclude her) and overlooked as an influence upon E. M. Forster, who visited Duncan and her husband in India in 1912, she wrote nine Anglo-Indian books. Collectively, for Warkentin, they make "the largest and most coherent body of her work, and in the end its most mature, apart from The Imperialist." She sees Set in Authority as "the culmination of Duncan's development as a novelist of Anglo-Indian society", notwithstanding the strengths of The Burnt Offering (1909), and she detects in it "that condition of modern solitude which the ending of The Imperialist only hints at, but which is here represented in all its bleakness." Warkentin's reading of that "condition of modern solitude" is one of the strengths of her introduction.
What makes Set in Authority so remarkable? Here's a quick list: Duncan's astute control of plot and structure (though few contemporary readers will be much impressed by the too neat dependence upon the double identity of the novel's putative villain); her command of setting and scene in the drawing rooms of fashionable London and at various levels of social organization in India; her mastery of dialogue (at so many social levels); her fine application of satire and irony; and her breadth of insight into the behaviour and motives of the colonial bureaucrats, professionals, and their kind who administer the rural "station" of Pilaghur in the fictitious province of Ghoom. As a record of the novel's success, Warkentin provides an appendix of seven English reviews (among the eleven she includes); each offers high praise of Duncan's achievement. Most notably, E. B. Osborn in The Outlook applauded her masterful and "complete vivisection of the whole [colonial] system" in India, calling it "the novel of the year".
But this new edition provides still greater pleasures of contextualization. Tipped off by a colleague, Warkentin includes newly available material that directly bears on the novel's subject-matter: the text of Duncan's gracefully mordant critique of the new Viceroy of India, Lord Curzon (1899-1905), Surprisingly, it has remained unidentified until now. Entitled "A Progressive Viceroy", and signed by "Civilis", the article appeared in The Contemporary Review in August 1900, six years before the novel. Its effects were immediately evident. It "gored" Curzon, who could not imagine who could have been clever enough to write such a piece about him; indeed, his spies could not unearth the author's identity. And it led to an elaborate defence of Curzon's ideas and governance (which Warkentin also includes), likely by one of his cronies, under the signature of "Calcutta". Warkentin discovered the authorship of the article in her examination of the papers of Duncan's literary agent, A. P. Watt and Company (which are now held by the University of North Carolina), and she makes a powerful case for the seriousness of the political game that Duncan had chosen to play, even if, as she sees it, the motives for Duncan's 1900 attack remain somewhat "murky".
Well-positioned in India by means of her marriage to Everard Cotes, Duncan had considerable first-hand knowledge of the administrative and bureaucratic workings of English rule and sufficiently close links to observe at first hand George Curzon, that "most superior person" (as a mocking rhyme called him), during his viceroyship. Beyond her empathy with Curzon's American-born wife, she was clearly troubled by the Viceroy's apparently bottomless self-esteem, intellectual pretentiousness, and autocratic tendencies, especially as they found expression in his leadership in India. Nominally a Liberal like him, she, as a Canadian, probably maintained a detachment from mistrust of certain aspects of English Liberalism, especially as they pertained to the uninformed exercise of viceregal power in delicate matters affecting so many aspects of local colonial life. As such, she presents a complex and satirical view of English power that focuses both on its execution in the field and on the ways it is discussed in the complacent drawing rooms of London and more passionately in the clubs and dining rooms of imaginary Pilaghur.
Set in Authority offers a chiselled diagnosis of the social attitudes that enforce and sustain imperialism, even as the weight and tradition of English authority are seen to balance precariously above the anti-imperialistic forces that will soon undermine it. I allude here to the range of outlooks we are allowed to witness and examine, the acuteness with which Duncan renders each of them, and the air of authority she brings to the many levels of her presentation. Basing the story upon a softened rendition of "the Rangoon assault case" of Curzon's viceroyship, Duncan chose to keep offstage both the newly appointed Viceroy (a Radical peer and bachelor named Lord Thane) and the rape-murder suspect (a British soldier apparently named Henry Morgan). Attention falls rather on those most affected by their actions, the imperial-colonial support cast, ranging from Lord Thane's mother (who is a popular London hostess) and her many friends, including Victoria Tring, the young woman who might become the Viceroy's wife, to those who inhabit the two Pilaghurs, the bureaucrats at the station and selected figures (from traders to language teachers to housekeepers) who provide glimpses into the real nature of Indian society.
Acting on the cherished liberal principle of equal justice for all, the Viceroy decides to overrule the lenient decision of an Indian judge, Sir Ahmed Hossein (himself a man torn between the land of his birth and the land of his education), and overlook the advice of his local administrators. Those in Pilaghur are thus faced with an immense problem in damage control and public relations. In the Viceroy's view, the soldier must die for his crimes. By way of that insistence upon an abstract principle of justice from on high, Duncan dramatizes the conscientiousness and fragility of British rule under duress. The narrative is thus driven by the various stages of Morgan's second trial. It builds in complexity until, on the eve of his scheduled execution, Morgan commits suicide. When it is later revealed that Gobind, the man he was thought to have murdered, is still very much alive, the folly of Thane's intervention becomes all the more clear.
It is particularly interesting to consider Duncan's point of view in relation to the drama she creates in Set in Authority. In the latter part of her introduction, Warkentin brings a post-colonial reading to the novel, emphasizing not only the conservatism of Duncan's liberalism (her firm belief that people in the colonial field know best how to govern is evident in the muted empathy with which she treats the political and personal problems faced by Eliot Arden, the Chief Commissioner of Pilaghur) but also her "genuine response to the changing historical situation with which, in the decade 1896-1906, Anglo-Indian society was confronted, as Indian agitation for home rule became a major public issue, and the Congress Party began its rise." While the main share of her attention falls on the administrators' small world in Pilaghur, the novel finds many vivid opportunities to glimpse various levels of Indian society and to suggest the resistance to English hegemony that lay in wait, patient and secret, hardly to be understood by the English but always on the alert. Set in Authority does not provide a sustained Indian point of view but it is alive with vivid reminders of that larger world. These glimpses speak powerfully to contemporary readers.
This edition of a long-overlooked novel is a triumph. The one egregious error-misspelling Duncan's middle name on the book's cover-must lie with the publishers, but Broadview Press deserves both praise and recognition for its decision to bring this important and thought-provoking novel back into circulation.

Michael Peterman is chairman of the English department at Trent University.


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