Ohio University Press · Swallow Press ·

Melodramatic Imperial Writing
From the Sepoy Rebellion to Cecil Rhodes

By Neil Hultgren

“This book has obvious value for studies in imperialism, but because it looks at melodrama beyond plays, including novels, romances, poems, short stories, and journalism, it also has much to add to the conversation about melodrama as a Victorian mode.”

The Year’s Work in English Studies

“Neil Hultgren has produced a persuasive and accessible text focusing on two significant leitmotifs. First, he widens our understanding of the range of melodramatic writing, both temporally and spatially, by arguing for its broader literary and historical significance. Second, he focuses on melodrama’s relationship with British imperial writing of the late nineteenth century in a bid to resurrect it from its reputation as merely a conveyor of violent and jingoistic propaganda. Emphasizing three common themes in the melodramatic mode…and by moving beyond the early stage to include novels, short stories, and poems, he makes a persuasive case for its diversity and significance.”

Modern Language Review

“Hultgren’s documentation of the grafting of an antiquated stage-acting method onto disorienting historical events to produce enduring narratives of imperialism and colonialism will inform and captivate scholars of Victorian literature and world history.”


“Innovative and thoughtfully formulated … The study is divided into sections de- fined by particular modal factors that helped make ‘the British Empire understandable’—its plotting, its emotionality, and its notion of community. Hultgren has selected these three elements not for their influence, but because their textual manifestations provide particularly insightful examples of the ways in which Victorians imagined their imperialist activities through and as melodrama.”

English Literature in Translation

Melodrama is often seen as a blunt aesthetic tool tainted by its reliance on improbable situations, moral binaries, and overwhelming emotion, features that made it a likely ingredient of British imperial propaganda during the late nineteenth century. Yet, through its impact on many late-Victorian genres outside of the theater, melodrama developed a complicated relationship with British imperial discourse.

Melodramatic Imperial Writing positions melodrama as a vital aspect of works that underscored the contradictions and injustices of British imperialism. Beyond proving useful for authors constructing imperialist fantasies or supporting unjust policies, the melodramatic mode enabled writers to upset narratives of British imperial destiny and racial superiority.

Neil Hultgren explores a range of texts, from Dickens’s writing about the 1857 Sepoy Rebellion to W. E. Henley’s imperialist poetry and Olive Schreiner’s experimental fiction, in order to trace a new and complex history of British imperialism and the melodramatic mode in late-Victorian writing.

Neil Hultgren is an associate professor of English at California State University, Long Beach, where he teaches courses in British literature and Victorian studies. He has written on Wilkie Collins, H. Rider Haggard, and Oscar Wilde, and his articles have appeared in such venues as Literature Compass and Victorians Institute Journal.More info →

Table of Contents

  • Acknowledgments
  • Introduction
  • Part One: Melodrama as Plot
    • One: Imperial Melodrama after the Sepoy Rebellion
    • Two: Romance; or, Melodrama and the Adventure of History
  • Part Two: Melodrama as Aestheticized Feeling
    • Three: Imperialist Poetry, Aestheticism, and Melodrama’s Man of Action
    • Four: Stevenson’s Melodramatic Anthropology
  • Part Three: Melodrama as Distant Homeland
    • Five: Olive Schreiner and the Melodrama of the Karoo
    • Conclusion: Pirates and Spies
  • Notes
  • Bibliography
  • Index

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Retail price: $32.95, S.
Release date: September 2023
256 pages · 6 × 9 in.
Rights:  World

Retail price: $80.00, S.
Release date: March 2014
256 pages · 6 × 9 in.
Rights:  World

Release date: March 2014
256 pages
Rights:  World

Additional Praise for Melodramatic Imperial Writing

“Written with clarity and force, Melodramatic Imperial Writing recuperates the complex representational strategies of the melodramatic mode and convincingly shows how these strategies were deployed in a range of literary works to imagine the consequences and moral contours of the British Empire.”

Literature and History

“Captivating and illuminating, Hultgren’s discussion of the impact of the Sepoy Rebellion on British consciousness and on writers such as Charles Dickens and Wilkie Collins is particularly worthwhile. And those who deprive themselves of Hultgren's observations about Marie Corelli (one of Victoria's favorites)—whose Ardath: The Story of a Dead Self (‘a Christian dream vision in a pre-Babylonian civilization’) opposes Kipling‘s depiction of the ‘harsh material realities of the British Empire’—will miss an informative, comprehensive, and invigorating account indeed.”


“Neil Hultgren calls our attention to a conjunction that is, paradoxically, at once familiar and unnoticed: the conjunction of melodrama and representations of empire in the Victorian period. While much recent work has looked at the proliferation of imperial fiction over the last half of the nineteenth century, none has revealed what Melodramatic Imperial Writing shows us so clearly—that such fictions draw their energy and effectiveness from the conventions of melodrama. More than that: they owe much of their complexity as well as their continuing relevance for later readers to this same source.”

Stephen Arata, University of Virginia, author of Fictions of Loss in the Victorian Fin de Siècle

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