Joan Pong Linton. The Romance of the New World: Gender and the Literary Formations of English Colonialism. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1998. 268pp. ISBN 0 521 59454 5 Cloth.
Allen Carey-Webb
Western Michigan University

Carey-Webb, Allen. "Review of The Romance of the New World." Early Modern Literary Studies 5.3 (January, 2000): 12.1-10 <URL:

  1. Focusing on the last quarter of the sixteenth and the first quarter of the seventeenth centuries, this book examines both the making of English identity in the New World and the effects of colonial experience on the English imagination. Drawing on a wide range of primary materials from plays, poetry, epics, historical and colonial documents, letters, contemporary essays, advertising literature, street pamphlets, etc., Pong Linton investigates the mixing of romance and imperial vision as they affect English voyagers and colonists on the one hand and English writers and thinkers on the other. Noting in her introduction that during the period romance plots moved away from the fruitless dalliance of courtly lovers toward a new emphasis on marriage, she finds English colonialism progressing from the image of questing knights to that of merchants and established husbandmen. She connects this progression to political and cultural differences between the Jacobean and Elizabethan periods. Marriage as the fulfillment of this evolving romance plot thus serves in the New World to justify English cultivation of virgin land, education of the natives, and the English colonial plantation.

  2. The romance opposition of court and adventure found in Gascoigne's Green Knight and Spenser's Faerie Queene can also be seen in the story of the English adventurers Drake, Hawkins, Frobisher, and Grenville, all commoners elevated to knighthood by Elizabeth for fulfilling their New World quests. These early English voyagers were understood in the period (by the English if not the Spanish) as figures of classic romantic adventure, Jasons seeking the golden fleece in the New World. Pong Linton argues that "The special relationship between the queen and her knighted pirates formed part of the chivalric fiction already present in Elizabethan politics" (45). These exploring knights developed a vocabulary of wonder, where magical illusion became miraculous vision as they described the New World, often in terms of a potential erotic bride. In contrast, Elizabeth became the image of the Protestant virgin of reform protecting the empire against the Pope and Spain. Pong Linton points out, however, that even during the period questions were raised about this emerging colonial discourse. If the translation of Bartolome de Las Casas into English in 1583 cast aspersions on Spanish and catholic colonialism, Thomas Lodge's A Margarite of America (1596) likewise presented a critique of English Protestant religious rhetoric used to justify English adventurism and plunder.

  3. In her third chapter Pong Linton presents a fascinating exploration of the influence of the incipient cloth industry on English gender relations and expanding colonial activity. Cloth production as an emerging form of capitalist production displaced female domestic workers who now become cloth consumers, a point Pong Linton makes in part through her analysis of Thomas Deloney's Jack of Newberry (1597) a sort of "Horatio Alger" story of a weaving apprentice working his way up to successful master. It is not surprising that seeking markets for cloth in the New World was proposed by Hakluyt in A Discourse of Western Planting (1584) since he, like Deloney, was supported by the Clothworkers of London. If the clothing of European explorers was frequently thought to lead New World natives to see the Europeans as "gods," the project of "clothing the savages" simultaneously supported the biblical mission of saving souls, drawing together a Christian and commercial frame of reference.

  4. In Jamestown colonization turned out to be more difficult than the English had imagined and, as it turned out, the Indians saved the starving colonists by sharing food. To reverse these relations of power, Pong Linton argues that an ideology develops to identify Indians, like women, as "lovers of trifles" easily convinced to trade their land and possessions for the shine and glitter of trinkets and beads of the self-possessed masculine merchant. Pong Linton believes that this "magical consumerism" may have been exaggerated by the English colonists, who only poorly understood how they themselves may have been manipulated for the indigenous people's own purposes. Nonetheless, the myth of the allure of magical trifles allows the colonist to project his desire and take the natives into his symbolic order. Pong Linton argues that the changing of women from producers to consumers was challenged in England, for instance in Jane Anger Her Protection of Women.

  5. Continuing to explore several interesting conjunctures between romance, gender, and colonial ideology, in her fifth chapter Pong Linton reads Spenser's story of the character Serena (from book VI of the Faerie Queene) straying beyond the bounds of civilization where she is captured, stripped, displayed and almost eaten by cannibals, to demonstrate the contrast between a lustful male nation of savages and the moral English knight, Calepine. Pong Linton also shows that tobacco, the first successful export from the English colonies, became a kind of "Circean drug," "something [that] imported and inhaled signifies an otherness within that undoes the boundaries between civilized and savage." (118) As tobacco-farming colonists became successful merchants they were able to pay for the passage to Virginia of English women willing to serve as domestic labourers and wives. Pong Linton's rich conception of romance takes in captured damsels, civilization-undoing magic, and mercantile exchange of women.

  6. Pong Linton is fascinated by the way the English retell and reinscribe classical stories to inform their own expanding empire. She presents an extensive reading of Shakespeare's Troilus and Cressida (1602), connecting the romance's construction of inconsistency, of desertions of women in foreign lands who have aided knights in their quests, to colonists promoting Virginia, possessing her land, making quick profits, and returning home. If Englishmen and Greeks both experience disputing factions, if their projects are significantly more difficult than previously imagined, there comes a moment of disillusion in the romance, a questioning of whether potential gains are worth the cost. Pong Linton finds that it is in this moment of the disillusion that, in the New World, the romance narrative breaks down and the English resort to a fearful violence.

  7. In her final chapter Pong Linton turns to that most analyzed of all colonial literary narratives, Shakespeare's The Tempest, which she describes as "a fantasy of origins, a preconstruction of colonial politics narrated through the plot of a family romance" (156). Pong Linton's focus on the ideology of the romance narrative helps us to recognize Prospero within the evolving romance tradition, that of English colonist and husbandman whose magic dazzles indigenous (and English) perception. If Prospero fails in his efforts to educate Caliban in Christian civility, Pong Linton finds an interesting parallel between Caliban's attempted rape and the education he receives. While Miranda and Prospero try to imprint their language and culture on Caliban, Caliban seeks to imprint himself on her and "populate the islands with Calibans." Moreover, as Caliban attempts to convince Stephano to destroy the magician's books and take possession of a woman of unparalleled beauty, he frames his rebellion in the language of romance, thus grasping the key to Prospero's power. As a humanist conception of Christian education opposes witchcraft, in the play New World Indian priests and English female witches come together in the figure of Sycorax. Caliban as rapist threatens the romance of Prospero's colonial husbandry, and the failure of Caliban's education can be seen as a failure to erase a repressed legacy of female-gendered memory.

  8. From her discussion of The Tempest Pong Linton returns to the Virginia Colony. She wonders about the civilizing process undergone by Pocahontas (rechristened by the colonists "Rebecca") and her marriage to John Rolfe, and she questions whether or not this process was as successful as contemporary Englishmen believed. As with Prospero, the Indians, of course, eventually turned against the English settlers, some of whom had captured and tried to educate Indian children in Christianity. As in The Tempest resistant natives were soon considered "rapists" and the English settlers responded with an aggressive military policy.

  9. Pong Linton cannot resist concluding her book with a few comments on our contemporary representations of Pocahontas who has become "fully ventriloquized by dominant colonial and cultural interests" and whose image "sustains a mirage of intercultural and interracial harmony that substitutes for a critical understanding of America's colonial history" (186).

  10. The strength of this work is in its central thesis, that there are rich intertextual overlaps between English romance narratives and English colonial texts and ideology. This is a thesis perhaps familiar in the Spanish context, but in regard to English colonial narrative, it is a significant addition. Throughout her study Pong Linton's analysis is subtle, detailed, and convincing. Eschewing theoretical debate, she respects the texts she works with and allows her argument to emerge from them. I admit I am fascinated by her conjunction of political economy and romance traditions. Her juxtaposition of literary works, such as The Merchant of Venice or Troilus and Cressida, with New World materials and paradigms is fascinating and complex. Extending the previous scholarship of Stephen Greenblatt, Peter Hulme, and others, Pong Linton details a gendered analysis of colonial discourse and demonstrates, more effectively than her forebears, the interrelation of domestic and colonial textuality.

Responses to this piece intended for the Readers' Forum may be sent to the Editor at L.M.Hopkins@shu.ac.uk.

© 1999-, Lisa Hopkins (Editor, EMLS).