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'Reading at the Royal Colonial Institute’

Palmer, BL (2011) 'Reading at the Royal Colonial Institute’ In: A Return to the Common Reader: Print Culture and the Novel, 1850-1900. Ashgate, 133 - 149. ISBN 978-1409400271

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Abstract

The non-government organisation now known as the Royal Commonwealth Society began its existence as the Colonial Society in 1868. With a charter from Queen Victoria it became the Royal Colonial Institute (hereafter RCI) in 1870. Presided over by the Prince of Wales and comprised of a range of high-profile men involved in trade and politics its membership reached 3000 by the late 1880s. James Anthony Froude, the historian and author of Oceana, or England and her Colonies (1886), the writer Anthony Trollope, and the journalist Justin McCarthy were amongst those who gave papers at regular meetings. Baden-Powell, Gladstone and Tennyson attended meetings and dinners, as did prominent imperialists such as J.R. Seeley, author of The Expansion of England (1883). The institute aimed to promote union between Britain and its colonies through education and debate. Its objects were to provide a place of meeting for all Gentlemen connected to the Colonies and British India and others taking an interest in Colonial and Indian affairs; to establish a Reading Room and Library, in which recent and authentic intelligence upon Colonial and Indian subjects will be constantly available… to afford opportunities for the reading of Papers, and for holding Discussions upon Colonial and Indian subjects generally; and to undertake scientific, literary, and statistical investigations in connection with the British Empire. The Institute did not manage all of this but it did create a meeting place, in which papers were read and meetings attended, which also housed a library and reading room. The creation of a colonial library was the RCI’s most important educative project. The collection began slowly but by 1900 they had over 43,000 periodicals, pamphlets and volumes pertaining to the Colonies and India. It continued to grow throughout the twentieth century and was sold in 1993 to Cambridge University which now holds the vast collection. Many of these publications are official historical records like Blue Books, and Staff and Civil Lists. But the RCI’s first librarian, James Boosé, also made sure that in its earliest days the Fellows of the RCI had access to a wide range of literary and periodical productions from across the Empire. This article asks questions about who read the texts in this library in the last decades of the Victorian period and how they were read. I assert that the RCI aimed to select those books that would reinforce its own mission for its readers, that is, those books that reinforced the greatness of Empire, the civilizing power of the coloniser and the ‘otherness’ of colonised peoples. However, I go onto argue that the library’s collection also offered some strategies of resistance to such imperial characterisations. There were texts in the library that did not fit with this glorifying attitude and some readers whose reading selections, habits and experiences cut across imperialist ideology. This article pieces together evidence from the RCI archive including minutes of the library committee meeting, suggestions books, catalogues and shelving guides in an attempt to re-construct reading practices that shed light on the transmission and resistance of imperialist ideologies. Of necessity this piece will utilise the notions of the implied reader and of ‘reading communities’ put forward by Stanley Fish. It will though, attempt to delineate the relationship between the implied reader and the actual historical reader as closely as possible with the archival resources available.

Item Type: Book Section
Uncontrolled Keywords: readership, nineteenth century, colonialism, library, Royal Colonial Institute
Related URLs:
Divisions: Faculty of Arts and Human Sciences > English and Languages > English
Depositing User: Symplectic Elements
Date Deposited: 04 Dec 2012 19:22
Last Modified: 23 Sep 2013 19:50
URI: http://epubs.surrey.ac.uk/id/eprint/735560

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