The Mysterious Women of G W M Reynolds and their Indian Sisters: A Study in Cross-cultural Transformations of the Female Figure in Popular Culture
My engagement with the novels of George William MacArthur Reynolds began from the recipients’ side of a cross cultural exchange. I came to know of Reynolds as a secondary source—as the original of a very popular nineteenth century Bengali novel titled Haridaser Guptakatha (The secrets of Haridas) that I was reading as part of preliminary study for my PhD thesis which I later entitled Cultural Hybridity: A Study of Translations and Adaptations of G W M Reynolds in 19th Century Bengal. The original of the Bengali novel was a novel called Joseph Wilmot;or the memoirs of a man servant (1854) by Reynolds. The change of the title of my thesis was necessitated by the very interesting discovery of Reynolds’ contribution to a rich world of literature in 19th century Bengali where nameless, unpedigreed texts were born, consumed and became distant memories in quick succession, except for a handful, that survived into the 20th century—of which the previously mentioned text is one. I found that Reynolds was an influence to reckon with in this burgeoning world of often abortive literary attempts. Known chiefly as the author of the mammoth The Mysteries of London which ran continuously from 1844-1846 as penny serials, he was the most translated and read British/European novelist in India at one point of time but always under the disapproving eye of the discerning reader and authors. The elite opinion regarding Reynolds’ literary merit, across political and geographical divides, did not differ much. Yet his popularity with the masses not only in England but in India where he was widely translated, tells a different story. Ignoring the controlling frown of the arbiters of literary taste, the populace enjoyed Reynolds with complete abandon through translations/adaptations and other modes of imitation.
Study of the reception of literary genres in an alien culture always makes for a fascinating and challenging task. My doctoral research on reception of Reynolds in 19th century Bengal revealed the complex mechanism behind the assimilation of a particular kind of narrative into a culture which had been used to a different one, yet embraced it, albeit temporarily, with enthusiasm. What actually triggers off this enthusiasm—the point of identification or dissimilarity—is a difficult one to answer. Reynolds as I later detected, came to constitute a more pervasive influence, extending to other cultural expressions including popular Hindi films of a certain time.
The objective of my present project (The Mysterious Women of Reynolds and Their Indian Sisters: Study of Cross-Cultural Transformation of the Female Figure in Popular Indian Culture) is a comparative study of the portrayal of female figures in Reynolds’ novels, which chiefly consisted of stereotypes of the Victorian age, but also had the potential of titillating the reader by erotic description and occasionally surprising by the show of a certain ambiguity regarding gender roles, and their Indian representations. Interesting transformations were taking place in these adaptations/translations too, revealing the intricacies involved in reception in practice.
My interest in Reynolds as the engenderer of a narrative genre coincided with the revaluation of Reynolds, the chronicler of urban mysteries, and re-judgement of his political stance, by scholars such as Louis James, Anne Humphreys , Michael Shirley, Richard Maxwell, and Ian Haywood among others. I have been much enlightened by the contribution of Priya Joshi, who pioneered the study of the influence of Reynolds in colonial India.
Sucheta Bhattacharya is CRASSH Charles Wallace India Trust Fellow, Easter 2012.
Dr Sucheta Bhattacharya is currently an Associate Professor in the Department of Comparative Literature at Jadavpur University, Kolkata, India. Previously she has worked as a Senior Lecturer and Associate Professor at Serampore College at the University of Calcutta. She was awarded her PhD at Jadavpur University in 2008.
Her major publications include G W M Reynolds Rewritten in 19 Century Bengal in G W M Reynolds: 19th Century Fiction, Politics and the Press. Ed Anne Humphreys and Louis James (Ashgate Publications, 2008) and In Defence of Intersemiotic Translation in the Jadavpur Journal of Comparative Literature, Special Issue on translation 2010.