In January or February 1858, half-a-year after the Indian sepoys in the native regiments rebelled against British colonial rule, Wilkie Collins contributed to Household Words "A Sermon for Sepoys" (text), an article in the form of an Eastern parable. According to Lillian Nayder,

It is unclear whether Collins volunteered to write on the mutiny or whether Dickens asked him to do so; in either case, the subject was not new to him. Only two months before, in his portion of the 1857 Christmas Number, Collins had represented the imprisonment and escape of English colonists from "native" pirates, in a story loosely based on the mutiny and intended by Dickens to celebrate British "heroics" in India. [Nayder 166]

The first and third sections of The Perils of Certain English Prisoners, written by Charles Dickens, certainly reflect the great writer's disgust at the treatment of English civilians by the rebels at Cawnpore and Lucknow, India. Dickens's narrator's strident tone and characterisation of Christian King George, the half-breed rebel leader and turncoat, amounts to flagrant racism. On the other hand, "The Prison in the Woods," the second part of the three-chapter novella, reflects Collins's more sensitive attitude towards matters of ethnicity and empire.

In "A Sermon for Sepoys," rather than vilifying the rebels as Dickens had done in the 1857 Christmas Number, or implying that the Indians are barbarous and uncivilized, Collins takes readers back to the reign of the famous Shah Jehan or Jahan (1592-1666), the gifted Moslem administrator and patron of the arts who oversaw the construction of the Peacock Throne, the Taj Mahal (a tomb for his wife, the empress Mimtaz Mahal), the Pearl Mosque, and the splendid gardens at Delhi, Lahore, and Kashmir, as well as of the 98-mile Ravi Canal. Collins's Indians are neither violent nor superstitious, but deeply religious and philosophical. According to Nayder, in this narrative essay "Collins not only believes the mutineers can be reformed; he feels that reformers should look to oriental rather than western ideals in accomplishing this goal" (167). To accept Nayder's interpretation completely, however, one must regard as ironic rather than literal Collins's closing references to the rebellious Sepoys as "Betrayers" and "Assassins."

Related Materials

Reference

Collins, Wilkie. "A Sermon for Sepoys". Household Words: A Weekly Journal No. 414 (27 February 1858): 244-247.

Nayder, Lillian. Unequal Partners: Charles Dickens, Wilkie Collins, and Victorian Authorship. Ithaca & London: Cornell U. P., 2002.


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Last modified 21 June 2004