"Creole Constitutions: Subjecthood and the Early Novel in the British Caribbean."

Author: ORCID icon orcid.org/0000-0001-6100-3692
Guarnieri, Carol, English - Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Virginia
Wall, Cynthia, Department of English, University of Virginia

“Creole Constitutions: Subjecthood and the Early Novel in the British Caribbean” engages with a collection of novels from the long eighteenth century that depict British subjects in the colonial Caribbean. The philosophe Abbé Raynal, halfway through the eighteenth century, characterized the Caribbean island colonies as “the principal cause of the rapid movement which stirs the Universe.” With my project, I contribute to recent efforts to realign literary and historical scholarship on the eighteenth century in relation to the enormous importance of the colonial Caribbean and its legacy.
I argue that novelistic treatments of the Caribbean colonies reflect and refract the fraught imperial legal status of the sovereign’s subjects overseas. Seventeenth- and eighteenth-century imperial subjecthood was a pluralistic and variable condition, inhering not in the rights-bearing individual of classic liberalism but in a relationship to the sovereign that manifested in different legal categories with mutable privileges and protections. British imperial legal space, writes Lauren Benton, had a “peculiar and enduring lumpiness.” This lumpy state of affairs caused a great deal of contestation about the extent to which the king’s subjects who go or are born in to one of Britain’s colonial territories are able to enjoy what become known as cherished English liberties.
My project links the way that political selfhood coalesces around the legal structures of the eighteenth-century British empire to the way that character emerges from the narrative structures of the early Caribbean novel. Despite multiple recent challenges to the longstanding perception of the English novel as “subjective, individualistic, realistic,” dominant Anglo-American cultural narratives still equate the novel with sociopolitical Western individualism and economic liberalism. In this view, the novel both reflects and calls into being a subject that is private, autonomous, and intentional. The framework of imperial subjecthood, however, offers the literary critic a new way to think about fictional character in the novel. My project maps the various ways in which early novel characters reflect the perpetual messiness of imperial legal status. These novel subjects, like subjects of the sovereign, come into being not as fully-formed, self-governing political beings, but in an enmeshment of public contexts, juridical processes, and jurisdictional relationships.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
Early Caribbean, Novel, 18th-century, subjecthood, Atlantic World
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