Review: “Freedom’s Empire” by Laura Doyle

Jeanette Anesi-Brombach
ENG 7024: Rise of the Novel
Dr. Lisa Maruca
Nov. 14, 2017

Laura Doyle: “Freedom’s Empire”

In her 2008 scholarly work, “Freedom’s Empire: Race and the Rise of the Novel in Atlantic Modernity, 1640-1940,” Laura Doyle, a professor of English at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst since 1995, examines the relationship between race and freedom around, and even on, the Atlantic — and how the freedom plot is expressed throughout 300 years of English-language novels. Already, in the title of the book — which is an oxymoron pitting freedom against imperial control — Doyle hints at the complicated nature of this relationship and what is to come in her book.

Doyle, whose current scholarly research “[explores] the dynamic intercultural formation of literary texts,” according to her UMass biography, draws on an astounding number of literary and scholarly sources (the 578-page book includes more than 50 pages of footnotes as well as a 46-page bibliography) to frame her arguments. To help illustrate her assertions, she provides close readings of dozens of well-known texts, and through the multiple lenses of historicism, modernism, racism, colonialism, postcolonialism, imperialism, feminism, and transnationalism, she explores how race and the freedom plot are related and, indeed, interdependent in Atlantic modernity; how that relationship has changed over the course of 300 years; and how, now, with the world figuratively shrinking with the advent of same-day intercontinental travel and instantaneous communication worldwide, the question of whether race will even continue to be a driving force in English-language literature for much longer is up in the air.

Doyle’s work is organized chronologically (for the most part) into 16 chapters divided into five sections: “Race and Liberty in the Atlantic Economy,” “Founding Fictions of Liberty,” “Atlantic Gothic,” “Liberty as Race Epic,” and “Liberty’s Ruin in Atlantic Modernism.” While the first section, which contains chapters one through three, provides more of a historical background on the formation of Anglo-Atlantic native birthright — the foundation of white supremacy upon which she builds her arguments throughout the book — subsequent chapters include close readings and analyses of specific novels that also draw on contemporary scholarly works on Atlantic modernity.


In the introduction, Doyle states that the original concept of “race in English-language culture … develops in an emergently transatlantic England in the 1620s through 1640s as what can rightly be called a postcolonial discourse … of Anglo-Saxon rights” — rights that included “participatory government through the witenagemot, zealous protection of land and rights, and a populace of ‘freeborn’ men.” She traces the origin of this Anglo-Saxon culture to the “fierce Gothic Saxons who had displaced the Rome-weakened Britons” but who were then conquered by the Normans, who had invaded England in 1066 and “trampled, without utterly destroying, her Anglo-Saxon traditions” (3).

When the Stuart king James I began to claim divine right to rule in the early 1600s, the response was for members of English Parliament to claim “the ‘ancient’ right to participate in state decision making,” a discourse that was then “taken up in the later 1620s by a transatlantic coalition of merchants and Puritans who used it to challenge royal monopoly rules and justify religious and colonial dissent” (4). By the 1640s, where Doyle asserts the freedom plot first emerges in English-language literature, there was a widespread consensus that freedom was a God-given native birthright, and thus the racial identity of the free Anglo-Saxon is born.

Doyle also introduces the “swoon” moment in her introduction, which she defines as “the phoenix fall — involving a bodily ‘undoing’ or ‘ruin’” (4). She points to swooning moments in Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa and Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko as examples of when a “terrorizing or tyrannizing force” causes their momentary collapse (which may or may not include the actual act of fainting). This is also present in Richardson’s Pamela, when Pamela herself is mercilessly and repeatedly harassed by Mr. B until she swoons; oddly, though, her swoons save her from ruin when they frighten her attacker, which is not the most common result of the swoon, historically speaking. Through literary examples like these, Doyle repeatedly draws attention to the pivotal role of the swoon — which she says can also include violation from a “seducer, slaver, or swallowing sea storm” (6) — and its persistent presence in Atlantic novels.


In the first chapter, “Atlantic Horizon, Interior Turn,” Doyle explores the Germanic origins of Anglo-Saxon England and its manifestation in the 17th century. The chapter “traces how what began as the Reformation ‘recovery’ of the ‘Anglo-Saxon roots’ of the ‘true church’ developed into the parliamentary claim to ancient native rights of governance and then, dramatically, in the context of new transatlantic circuits of power and the violence of civil war, became the kind of revolutionary, popular renarrating of a racial and free English identity epitomized in [John] Hare’s pamphlet” (29). She crafts an Anglo-Saxon identity rooted in liberty, and “as the notion of liberty began to challenge all hierarchies of property and power, nativism was redeployed to establish the proper limit of liberty’s reach and property’s distribution” (29, emphasis in original). She points to the Putney Debates, “a series of discussions between factions of the New Model Army and the Levellers concerning a new constitution for England,” as a pivotal moment when liberty became the goal of every Englishman (and it was “Englishman” because women had very little power and certainly very little freedom throughout most of the time period she studies — a topic that Doyle explores repeatedly, sometimes ad nauseam, in subsequent chapters). Doyle then expands the idea of liberty to include the fledgling American colonies, which “crucially served as its crucible and in some ways remained the root of its liberty and race ideologies” (32). Meanwhile, the merchants who transported goods (and people, both “free” and enslaved) back and forth across the Atlantic were creating a new class of wealthy transcontinental entrepreneurs who took control of the liberty narrative and cemented “the Anglo-Saxonist idea of freedom and the legacy of the Magna Carta” (43). Freedom was taking hold. As Anglo-European philosopher G.W.F. Hegel states, “‘the History of the World is nothing but the development of the Idea of Freedom’” (Hegel, Philosophy of History, qtd. in Doyle, 46).

The second chapter, “Liberty’s Historiography,” examines works by historian James Harrington and Mercy Otis Warren, among others, while still dwelling on Hegel’s liberty telos of history. Doyle also begins to introduce the 17th century novel as the creative vehicle through which history, and especially the liberty narrative, is told and dramatized. For Doyle, “novels and histories become partners in the project of narrativizing racial liberty, of institutionalizing it as a mode of story” (59). In this chapter, Doyle also explores ways in which race was used to threaten the liberty of the (white) colonizer, as when “the monarchy and its colonial bureaucracy … played the Native Americans and African Americans against the colonial leaders, who monopolized land and trading rights and resisted the monarchy’s taxes and trade restrictions” (62). However, following the Glorious Revolution in 1688, tensions eased and the American colonies “took up this well-established Saxonist rhetoric of liberty” (63). Doyle then moves on to James Harrington’s Oceana, which “helped to create the notion of a balanced monarchy as the true English legacy of liberty” (65), though, by the early 1700s, this “Gothic balance” was already “becoming a cliché” (66). Doyle also explores in this chapter historical works by Paul de Rapin-Thoyras, David Hume, Catharine Macaulay, David Ramsay, and Warren — historical works that “played a powerful role in forming British and later American communities around the Saxonist idea of liberty.”

Chapter three, “The Poetics of Liberty and the Racial Sublime,” begins to explore art and literature as the “flowering” of “a people’s growth toward liberty.” Doyle names James Thompson and Macaulay as two “among many eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Atlantic writers who cast liberty as the muse of ‘literature”” and points to the sublime as “liberty’s most rare and precious flowering — the highest expression of a free race” (79). This “literary nativism” that was “peculiarly free and original” emerged at the end of the 17th century, and the Gothic Saxon influence at the root of the liberty narrative gave rise to an “ancient-classical association between freedom and expressive culture” (80). Works devoted to the idea of liberty were abundant during this time — such as Thomas Cooke’s 1746 Hymn to Liberty and William Collins’ Ode to Liberty. Doyle also highlights the emergence of the racial sublime during this time, perhaps in response to England’s intense imperialism and “hyperextension” of its national identity. In literature, this manifested as the “classically sublime narrative sequence,” where “the speaker undergoes a crisis, or has a self-losing vision, by way of an encounter with an ancient, savage landscape or with a ghostly, often foreign or wandering Other, but then, in a subreption figured as sublime, refashions this encounter as the founding experience of a metaphysical self” (87). The swoon, as discussed earlier, plays in integral part in providing a transitional moment where the sublime may permeate and change the narrative. Meanwhile, in America, Doyle says a unique racial identity was forming that promoted the colonies as “the freest nation, thus best suited for art” (88). Ralph Waldo Emerson and Walt Whitman, among others, exemplify this Anglo-American racial sublime.


In chapter four, “Entering Atlantic History: Oroonoko, Imoinda, and Behn,” Doyle analyzes Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko, or the Royal Slave and stresses its importance as “the first English novel” — a work that situates “the national story within the colonial one” and is “the first English-language story of African-Atlantic save captivity” (97-98). Writing during the Glorious Revolution, Behn’s novel “seeks to explore the liberty conundrum where these formations meet, and it shrewdly locates the Atlantic as the appropriate setting for doing so. On the Atlantic, Behn forges romance, national history, colonial history, and historical memoir into a narrative of modern subjectivity shaped by the question of free consent, the trope of race, and the drama of rape” (98). Doyle writes that Behn’s novel is especially compelling because it “borrows” a new narrative structure “from emerging colonial and national historical form” in the “interpolated stories of exotic adventure in Surinam combined with the high, tragic romance of noble lovers from Africa, as well as the brutal depiction of a colonial slave revolt” (100). In her extensive analysis of Oroonoko, Doyle writes that “Behn initiates a pattern in which the Anglo-colonial woman becomes the figure through whom Atlantic conflicts are negotiated and the African-Atlantic story is absorbed” (102), which is evident in how Behn’s narrator “works symbolically to renarrate the story of England’s revolutionary past” (103). The Dutch usurpation of Surinam, Doyle writes, “not only alludes to the very contemporary threat in the late 1680s of invasion and usurpation of the Stuart throne by the Dutch-Protestant Pretender but it also develops as the culmination of a series of power crises.” Oroonoko himself “represents England’s proud connection to power won through conquering — the Norman-Tory, Roman-associated version of England’s claim to ancient identity” (103). Eventually, however, Oroonoko is sold into slavery and falls from nobility, and though Behn allows him to retain his “noble attributes,” eventually she associates him more and more with “the ‘blacks’ as distinct from ‘the Whites,’” (105). Doyle also explores Behn’s treatment of Imoinda, who is “an equivocally racialized woman — noble, African, and aristocratic yet humble, black and enslaved” (107). Doyle’s “swoon moment” is also present in Oroonoko when Oroonoko and Imoinda first see each other after crossing the ocean and “enter this new order of things” (Atlantic modernity). Finally, Doyle draws attention to the elephant in the room: The fact that this story, about a fall from nobility into slavery and Atlantic modernity, is narrated not by the main characters but by a white woman. Doyle writes:

“Apparently she operates as an empowered representative of the Anglo-Atlantic society who can ‘assure’ Oroonoko of his liberty. Liberty is hers to convey — though not to ‘the rest of the Negroes,’ only to these sentimental lovers. The narrator’s gender determines this mediating role. … As with her history writing, it is her femininity, her very marginality, that gives her the ‘liberty’ to speak where others cannot” (113).

Eventually, the narrator turns on Oroonoko and takes the side of the white “‘country who feared him,’” thereby completing “the transformation by which genteel English daughter becomes dominant white, and by which noble African becomes enslaved black” (114).

Chapter five, “Rape as Entry into Liberty: Haywood and Richardson,” first explores how Richardson “created the mode of the psychological novel” using rape as his vehicle. Doyle proposes “that the turn inward and to rape arose from a web of political and religious Atlantic conditions” and ultimately “expresses rather than causes the crisis of consent, the inward turn, and the increasing instability of the cultural self” (117-18, emphasis in original). Doyle theorizes that in the fiction of Richardson and Eliza Haywood, “the Atlantic is nowhere to be seen; and yet these two authors are innovative fashioners of the interior selves and conflicts over consent spawned by Atlantic modernity” (118). Richardson’s Clarissa is Doyle’s example of the quintessential “interiorized liberty drama placing rape and its swooning aftermath at the center.” In other words, Clarissa’s rape allegorizes and embodies a political story of Atlantic modernity — of a colony being forcefully entered (raped) by the colonizer, of a temporary loss of freedom, of a swoon (impending revolution), and, eventually, of a reclaimed liberty (actual revolution). Doyle shows how this rape-as-colonization theme is a common one throughout the time period in which Richardson and Haywood were actively writing, pointing to others like Thomas Paine’s Common Sense, which casts “The English kings” as “the invading rapists who threaten to violate … the continent’s ‘mistress’” — Paine casts revolutionary America “as a violated woman” (120). Doyle also explores how Haywood uses rape and the swoon, as in Fantomina, as an empowering and liberating moment for her female characters — where “rape is a story of liberty and race” (121). While Fantomina is raped toward the beginning of her tale, she then “cultivates an inside and an outside so as to block full invasion of her ‘interior,’” and Haywood sets to work exploring her character’s interiority as well as how Fantomina manipulates Bauplaisir in order to take back the power from the man who initially raped her. In Doyle’s feminist readings of Clarissa and Fantomina, she shows how the rape plot aligns with the threats associated with colonialism and the fears that came along with Atlantic modernity.

Continuing with the theme of aligning desire and ruin with the transatlantic crossing, Doyle, in Chapter 6, “Transatlantic Seductions: Defoe, Rowson, Brown, and Wilson,” explores how African-Atlantic writers like Olaudah Equiano and Harriet Wilson “are cast across the water from family or ancestors” and “suffer exile from community,” “face poverty,” and “endure bodily trauma” in the process. Yet she aligns them with the Anglo-Atlantic writers of Daniel Defoe, Susanna Rowson, and Charles Brockdon Brown in that all their stories “arise from a transatlantic economy made viable by the combined activities, gains, and losses of all of them — of the soldiers, sailors, emigrants, ex-convicts, slaves, ex-slaves, slavetraders, wives, mistresses, maids, and prodigal mercantile sons” (145). However, the position from which the characters (which, in Equiano’s autobiographical case, is the first person) experience this Atlantic modernity is drastically different and dependent on a myriad of factors, perhaps the most obvious being gender and race. Doyle also explores how Defoe, in Roxana, pointedly illustrates exactly how women lose liberty by marrying: “The very Nature of the Marriage-Contract was, in short, nothing but giving up Liberty, Estate, Authority, and every-thing, to the Man, and the Woman was indeed a meer [sic] Woman ever after, that is to say, a Slave.” Doyle explores the transatlantic/swoon/incest plot further in Susanna Rowson’s pair of novels, Charlotte Temple and Lucy Temple, which span multiple generations and include several transatlantic crossings. Ultimately, Charlotte is seduced, ruined, and eventually killed by “America — its colonial wars and its distance from a native home” (161). Meanwhile, “Rowson’s … multigenerational ‘roots’ structure” extends to ten generations of “liberty seekers” in Reuben and Rachel (161), laying the groundwork for future historical fiction. Doyle also analyzes William Hill Brown’s novel The Power of Sympathy, which “combines the incest plot with a black/white racial encounter that belies the displacement entailed in this happy and sisterly republican vision” (166), as well as Harriet Wilson’s Our Nig, which “offers a meta-story of the Atlantic narrative practices that disappeared the African-Atlantic ‘I’ in the first place” (173). In Our Nig, Wilson’s story often parallels her own life events, and her work “contributes to the emergence of an enabling maternal discourse in black women’s writing.” Meanwhile, the recurring themes of brother/sister inheritance conflicts (with occasional incestuous plots) appear regularly in novels by Defoe, Richardson, and many, many others at this time — a political subplot that shapes novels for centuries.

Chapter seven, “Middle-Passage Plots: Defoe, Equiano, Melville,” Doyle illustrates how Defoe “made visceral and literal the oceanic symbology of Atlantic self-loss” in Robinson Crusoe, and “in doing so he brought to the surface a current of fear circulating in the Anglo-Atlantic social world” (183). Additionally, from his inherent position of white Anglo-Saxon English male privilege, Defoe’s Crusoe profits by stepping on the backs of women and slaves (even those to whom he owes several life debts, apparently) only to sell them out (as in the case of Xury and Friday, who repeatedly save the title character’s life) so he may govern and achieve his manifest destiny in the new world order. Doyle draws parallels between Robinson Crusoe and Oroonoko in that they are Atlantic race narratives that explore slavery, though from two very different, very racialized points of view. Crusoe’s story is that of “a ventriloquist of the African’s more radically displaced position” (193), which is in stark contrast to Equiano’s first-person slave narrative (and Rowson semi-autobiographical role in her novels). Doyle also analyzes Herman Melville’s Billy Budd, pointing out how he “quietly creates an allegory of liberty’s alibi — the rational order of the law — under which seethes a homoerotic battle steeped in race antagonisms” (202). Ultimately, Doyle’s longwinded analyses of these novels serves to illustrate how,

“like Billy Budd, like Haywood’s Fantomina, and like Rowson’s Charlotte, the African will suffer a fall for his erotically enabling role in modernity. But his story will go untold. Billy’s will become a can(n)onical novel” (210-11).

Doyle then foreshadows that the homoerotic undercurrent, while mostly suppressed, will soon begin to emerge.


Chapter eight, “At Liberty’s Limits,” the texts Doyle chooses to analyze show how Gothic novels of the time “transmute the brutal facts of colonization into the wandering figure burdened with a tale of complicity, the sound of distant guns ‘removing’ Indians, the ghostly voice of a biloquist, or satanic compacts sealed in South America” (215). Doyle focuses on several gothic texts in this chapter — including The Castle of Otronto, The Monk, Wieland, and Of One Blood — wherein “the brother’s possession of a sister (for instance by imprisonment, sexual ruin, or satanic magic) dramatizes the possessive drive of the Atlantic’s racial republics.” As Doyle writes, the plot of a female’s ruin at the hands of her own relatives is alive and well in the Gothic fiction of Atlantic modernity. Doyle stresses that these women are possessed — physically, economically, sexually. Doyle first analyzes Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto, where Manfred is complicit in the ruin (accidental death) of his beloved daughter at his own hands in a fit of jealous passion after he conspires to divorce his wife and wed his dead son’s bride-to-be, whom he raised as his own adoptive daughter. The elements of incest (with his adoptive daughter, Isabella), possession (both of Isabella’s body as well as of the castle and lands he deceived to usurp), and sexual ruin (he chases down and attempts to rape Isabella) are all present in Otranto. Doyle stresses that, though the scene may be ancient, the plot of this, and other, gothic novels is certainly modern. She also analyzes Matthew G. Lewis’ The Monk, which contains the aforementioned plots as well as satanic magic, coming to the conclusion that “Atlantic travel and its accompanying sexual transgression and ambition poison the native Anglo-European” (229).

Chapter nine, “Saxon Dissociation in Brockden Brown,” inches toward the end of the long 18th century and delves into what is happening on the American side of the Atlantic in Charles Brockden Brown’s 1798 novel Wieland. The transatlantic, multigenerational story begins with Wieland in Germany “who falls from nobility but rediscovers an ancient Saxon literary legacy.” The story extends through several generations and “culminates in a series of deadly catastrophes,” including “the murderous standoff between the third-generation, republican brother and sister” (232). Again, there is a swoon and a reawakening, incestuous undertones, and a struggle for power between siblings, though the female protagonist, Clara, “resists being sacrificed within the new fraternal order” (250). In the end, however, Clara’s path to happiness is through marriage (and Brockden Brown’s path to success is by profiting off “the woman’s story of ruin, for her dissociative story emblematizes the history of a nation understood to be reborn from a Gothic struggle over a legacy of freedom” (253).

Chapter 10, “Dispossession in Jacobs and Hopkins,” turns to the African-Atlantic gothic where “we see the trope of ‘possession’ from a different angle. In these texts, the world of tortures, swoons, dissociations, and dungeons mimetically represents the conditions of a bodily takeover and the unacknowledged foundations of Anglo modernity’s principle of ownership.” Doyle asserts that these African-Atlantic writers are victims of white possession, and their writing is merely “‘a commodity which they were forced to trade for their humanity’” (255). Doyle points to Harriet Jacobs and her autobiography Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, where “she narrates her journey across the ocean to England” and enjoys “‘pure, unadulterated freedom’” there (257). She eventually returns to America and is enslaved, though she resists in her own way being (sexually) possessed by her master, instead making a choice to lie with and become pregnant by another white man, thereby physically possessing a piece of that man and emotionally possessing a piece of her master, who becomes “‘possessed’” by “jealousy and rage” when he can no longer possess her reproductive organs (259). Doyle then analyzes Pauline Hopkins’ Of One Blood, which she argues “refuses to release such a vision [of epic racial Ethiopianism] from its shadowy gothic foundations even as it strategically pursues an epic revision of race identity” (262).


Sections four and five both dive into much more modern — and much more American — novels that are chronologically outside the scope of the long 18th century. Therefore, shorter summaries will be provided for the remaining six chapters.

Chapter 11, “Freedom by Removal in Sedgwick,” explores how omniscient narrators are being employed in order to provide more authorial freedom that would otherwise not exist. This, Doyle says, allows them to “stand aside and create continuity across the ruptures and violence of the Anglo-Atlantic legacy” (278). Doyle uses Catharine Maria Sedgwick’s Hope Leslie to explore American Indian racial plot lines from a detached space that allowed her to appropriate them into her liberty narrative.

Chapter 12, “‘A’ for Atlantic in Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter,” explores how Hester Prynne’s infamous red “A” for adultery could just as easily have stood for “Atlantic” or even “alone.” Like many “ruined” women, she makes the journey across the Atlantic from England, alone, only to experience sexual fall on U.S. shores. Hawthorne, whose real-life relatives founded the colony in which he sets his story, is not-so-subtly critiquing the haphazard way in which the puritan colony was governed — that is to say, Hawthorne was calling attention to the fact that, as Hawthorne scholar Michael Colacurcio says, “’the men who judge Hester Prynne do not appear to know what-the-fuck they are talking about’” (306). In his novel, he actually presents the governors and magistrates of the colony as being much better and more merciful than they actually were. He is attempting to rewrite the effects of colonization while calling out the “persecuting spirit” of the Puritanical colony (310). Doyle concludes: “It seems that, in writing the novel, Hawthorne completes his own Atlantic swoon, achieves a powerful if momentarily destabilizing sublimation of colonial facts, and fully arrives as an Anglo-American male citizen, a ‘native’ author” (315). Also worth noting is the presence of “Indian-Saxons” in the Scarlet Letter. Due to Hester’s “wild” nature and ability to live on the outskirts of society, literally, Hawthorne compares her with Native Americans, which “makes Hester the most successful colonist and the queenly ancestor of an Anglo-American literary community” (320).

In chapter 13, “Freedom’s Eastward Turn in Eliot’s Daniel Deronda,” Doyle writes about how George Eliot expands the Anglo-Atlantic race epic by heading east, toward the Mediterranean. The novel is divided into English and Jewish halves and serves largely to perpetuate the race narrative of a displaced/relocated people, which Doyle pointed out was present in earlier texts about eradicating or relocating Native Americans. Eliot was writing Daniel Deronda in the middle of a push for the emigration of the Jews to Jerusalem in order to solve the “Jewish problem” (341). “Eliot’s novel thus meditates on the yoking of freedom, empire, and subjection, and it furthermore takes up where Haywood and Defoe left off in probing the sexual contract’s entanglement in this Atlantic triangle of forces” (355-6).

In chapter 14, “Trickster Epic in Hopkins’s Contending Forces,” Pauline Hopkins observes the “‘circumstances’ surrounding the ruinous race-narrative of each individual woman, and in this, her first novel, she identifies them implicitly: the Atlantic slave economy with a key origin in Bermuda (where the novel begins); the desire for transparency between interior and exterior in this duplicitous world in which slavery founds freedom; the brother/sister relation that decides the fate of the ‘fallen sister’; and the rape that persists, quite literally, for African American women, as the traumatic ordeal of entry into this ‘free’ Atlantic modernity” (370). This return of the English-language novel to its original situation in Atlantic modernity and the subsequent work to reclaim its victims (Mabelle/Sappho, for example) is accomplished by exposing African American interiority to the public, both in the novel and through the novel.


Chapter 15, “Queering Freedom’s Theft in Nella Larson,” looks at how “sometime around 1910 human character changed” (393). Doyle outlines how Helga Crane is facing numerous identity crises — that of race (she cannot seem to fit in permanently with either white or black people), of gender (she does not show interest in settling down and being possessed), and of sexuality (she develops an infatuation with Audrey Denney. Interestingly, when Doyle refers to the “queering” of something, she generally means homosexual, which is a departure from other literary analyses that take the term to mean more generally “queer” or strange. Indeed, in the works of Larson and Virginia Woolf, this forbidden desire is hinted at, alluded to, and even mentioned outright repeatedly.

The final chapter, “Woolf’s Queer Atlantic Oeuvre,” examines how Woolf’s work is “completely flooded with waves, water, wrecks, and drowning” and “repeatedly recasts the Atlantic story of liberty and ruin” (413). Doyle is also interested in how Woolf explores the encounter between self and “otherwise” as well as “how the sexual coercion at the heart of empire installs a hierarchy of labor” (414). Throughout Woolf’s novels, Doyle also notices how queer desire rises and falls as if with the tide (419), though the same currents “threaten the characters with sexual ruin,” so “Woolf casts this ruin as a drowning not of innocence or nativeness but of queer desires” (424-5). Interestingly, to avoid persecution for writing about queerness, she “uses a rhetoric of empire to gain this protection for herself” (436).

The conclusion skips ahead and draws attention to, of all things, a State of the Union speech by President George W. Bush from 2004. Doyle uses that speech, where he uses patriotic rhetoric impregnated with freedom to justify bringing military forces into the Middle East, as an example of how imperialism and many of the facets of Atlantic modernity are alive and well today. But Doyle questions whether freedom — liberty — is always a good thing for everyone:

“Freedom is often a necessary and appropriate term — in relation to situations of enslavement, imprisonment, and totalitarian control. But if it is social dignity, or economic justice, or an international politics of mutuality and sustainability that we seek, we misconstrue these when we call them freedom struggles. … That is, in privileging freedom above all we may work against ourselves, for historically the notion of freedom eschews interdependency; it reinscribes a heroic, heteronormative, colonial telos — which implicitly if unintentionally preserves the old racial romance of history” (448).

Ultimately, freedom is “joined at the root with race,” Doyle writes, though she also wonders if it is possible “that if we historicize our own moment and our own work as carefully as we historicize that of eighteenth-, nineteenth-, and twentieth-century authors, we will see evidence that race is reaching the limits of its enabling powers.” And, if inequality can be overcome and truly eradicated, and if there are no longer conquerors and the conquered, then what are we — “mere persons forever in encumbered relation? Persons finally naming it together and talking it over? Might that be better than freedom? Or maybe the best kind of freedom?” (454).


While it is evident that Laura Doyle is an expert in her particular field of study, the sheer magnitude of the book — its length as well as the incredible number of sources she cites and works she explores — is, at times, overwhelming. It is, in a word, dense. The academic language, which one reviewer and former history professor labels “academese” in her Goodreads review of the novel, at times bogs down and even buries the carefully crafted points she is trying to make. In short, unless one is a scholar in this field and has read all or most of the books and sources she focuses on, much of the work will be lost for lack of understanding.

Still, Doyle provides an excellent, if not overkill, analysis of the many forces at play in a time of imperialism, colonization, war, revolution, and progress — forces that have all shaped the English-language novel for three centuries and counting and are driven to this day by freedom and race in Atlantic modernity.

Source: Doyle, Laura. Freedom’s Empire: Race and the Rise of the Novel in Atlantic Modernity, 1640-1940. Duke University Press, 2008.

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