Groupe de Recherches Anglo-Américaines de Tours

Editor-in-chief Trevor Harris

Book Review Editor Molly O'Brien Castro

(Literature, Civilization, Cultural Studies, Gender Studies, Linguistics)
GRAAT: Pronounce [greit]
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GRAAT: Getting to the bone
A peer-reviewed journal of Anglophone Studies


Michael J. Franklin, Orientalist Jones. Sir William Jones, Poet, Lawyer, and Linguist, 1746-1794 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011). UK £35 (hardback), 408 pages, ISBN 978-0-19-953200-1 –Pierre Dubois, Université François Rabelais, Tours.


Sir William Jones was one of those outstanding, larger-than-life characters the Age of Enlightenment seems to have been apt to produce. A lawyer by training and profession, he was not only a poet, but also one of, if not the greatest Orientalist of his time, whose linguistic theories were to prove ground-breaking. He also appears to have been a radical intellectual, whose moral and political ideas encapsulated the philosophy of tolerance, humanity and equality that accompanied the American and French revolutions and the rise of Romanticism. One of the particular interests of Michael Franklin’s well-informed, sympathetic and gripping biography of William Jones is the lesson in “universal toleration” imparted by the latter’s life and works: “the wisdom and visionary projects of an eighteenth-century polymath still have much to say to a twenty-first-century world,” Franklin rightly notes [viii].


Franklin chooses to open his book with William Jones’s first arrival in India in 1783, when, aged 36 and just married, he was appointed judge of his Majesty’s supreme court of judicature at Fort William in Bengal. The reader is thus introduced to the man at the height of his intellectual powers as he finally discovers the country the culture of which he had become one of the greatest specialists. The double portrait thus given of Jones and his wife, Anna, who appear to have been greatly devoted to each other, is endearing. Detailed information is garnered from letters and parts of Anna’s manuscript journal in the British Library which give an almost day-to-day account of their life in India. Franklin then goes back to the beginning of Jones’s life and shows his gradual rise to excellence and reputation.


William Jones was only three when his father, so-called ‘Longitude’ Jones (portrayed by William Hogarth in 1740) died. He was a Welsh mathematician and sailor, a member of The Royal Society, and a friend of Newton, Halley and Johnson. He wrote a New Compendium of the Whole Art of Navigation in 1702. Having lost his father, Jones was the product of a loving, secure, woman-centred, intellectually rigorous environment, between his mother and sister Mary. The family had strong Whig connections. The young Jones went through a thorough diet of classical reading so that he was eventually to become the master of no fewer than 28 languages!


Influenced by Antoine Galland (1646-1715), the French translator of Les mille et une nuits (Paris, 1704-17), Jones was to become the greatest Orientalist of his time. He matriculated at University College, Oxford, in 1764. Like Galland, he relied upon native informants to understand Oriental narratives. What is interesting in his approach is his attempt at undermining cultural prejudice and “establishing a humane relativism” [6]. For Jones, the meaning of learning was “to produce good actions, not empty disputes,” and he had a clear-sighted “lust” for the “emancipatory power of knowledge” [8]. In 1771, he published his Grammar of the Persian Language and the first translation into English of a Persian poem, which—Franklin explains—can be seen as the moment when ‘Romantic Orientalism’ was born, since Jones’s translation was not literal but made with creative and transformative strategies to link Persian and English cultures. In the preface, Jones attacked western philistinism and Eurocentric prejudice.


If Jones liked the pleasures of life and learning, he was determined to become famous (he wanted “Glory,” he admitted in a letter) and teaching clever children as he perforce did was not enough for him. He was called to the bar in 1774. He was by then an elected member of the Royal Societies of London and Copenhagen and one accepted in the circles of both the literati and glitterati of the day—incidentally, Franklin’s biography of Jones reads as a fascinating gallery of contemporary portraits, such as that of John Montagu , 4 th Earl of Sandwich, 1 st Lord of the Admiralty and one of the Founders of the Concert of Ancient Music, who was an awesome figure, “a remarkable symbiosis of connoisseur, profligate, musician, and scientist” [127]. Jones’s reputation was soon high as both an Orientalist and a lawyer. As a barrister and Commissioner for Bankrupts, he started going round the Oxford circuit of 9 counties and the Carmarthen circuit of 5 Welsh ones. He enjoyed the camaraderie of the circuit and was renowned for his ‘clubbability.’ He founded the society The Druids of Cardigan for he thought that as long as its language survived, Wales would thrive as a nation.


When Jones heard of the vacancy caused by the death of Stephen Charles Lemaistre at the Supreme Court of Bengal in 1777, he was resolute to obtain the post. However, his radicalism long delayed his appointment in India: he had “done quite enough on his own account to hamper his Indian prospects,” in particular through his opposition to ‘pressing-gangs’ and the practice of ‘impressment’ to recruit sailors, which he considered tantamount to enslavement. Franklin argues convincingly that the Discourse on the Impressing of Mariners; wherein Judge Foster’s Argument is Considered and Answered, published anonymously in 1778, may have been written by Jones himself. Jones was a defender of ‘British liberty.’ In India, as judge, he would later advocate improvement in prison design. He was deeply suspicious of all kind of unconstitutional authority and when riots erupted in London he published his Inquiry into the Legal Mode of Suppressing Riots, with a Constitutional Plan of Future Defence (1780), in which he advocated the setting up of a civilian militia—as did the Scottish philosopher Adam Ferguson at about the same time, incidentally.


Even outside parliamentary politics, “the poetry of politics was very much on his agenda” [177]. This was encapsulated in his “Ode in Imitation of Athens” (1781) which advocated a renovation of England’s ‘free constitution’ by aesthetic means. It underwent several editions and was eventually distributed gratis in broadsheet. This democratic document was quoted at length in the Commons by Charles Grey and even republished in America. This was “poetry as process,” Franklin writes [178] that became “part of the emergent republican state” [179]. Jones had contacts with Wilkes, and had the reputation of being a radical Whig intellectual. His sympathy with Americans caused him to be nicknamed ‘American’ or ‘Republican’ Jones. He met Turgot and Marmontel and befriended Benjamin Franklin in Paris, and eventually wrote The Principles of Government against despotism in 1782, in which he advocated universal manhood suffrage, parliamentary reform, and co-operative association, which anticipates the works of Thomas Paine and William Godwin.


There is therefore some irony and paradox at such a radical eventually becoming a colonial administrator. No man is free from contradictions. Franklin underlines the slippage of Jones’s moral absolutes during his stay in Bengal. His position there was little different from that of Alwi of Anjouan, which he had condemned two years earlier. He now exculpated Calcutta’s practice of slavery—which he had strongly opposed—by making household slavery acceptable (he was a slave-owner himself) and eventually approved of whipping, following due legal process. However, he saw justice in an Orientalist administration founded upon an understanding of indigenous culture, language, and traditions. Jones’s aim was to institutionalize Warren Hasting’s 1772 plan or ‘system’ to govern Indians by their own laws. This he did through the Asiatik Society in which he read papers that established predominating areas of research in ancient Indian history; chronology, epigraphy and linguistics. Jones’s personal magnetism and polymathic intellect daunted and inspired all around him. He soon learnt Sanskrit to be able to arbitrate in cases where court pandits disagreed. This led him to introduce the paradigm-shifting notion of comparative grammar and modern comparative linguistics, through an emphasis on roots and linguistic structure rather than speculative etymology. This undermined the then accepted theory of the monogenesis of mankind descending from Noah’s sons. His speculations were a groundbreaking threat to existing systems of belief. It was a turning point in the history of inter-cultural understanding and multicultural inter-relatedness that had far-reaching cultural and ideological consequences. Jones’s work separated language from religion, which enabled linguistics to move towards science, following a movement of interpretation of man’s evolution (through that of the invention of language) that would culminate with Darwin’s Origin of Species (1859). Ultimately, Orientalist knowledge would be used to challenge European dominance in the following century.


While thus reinventing Orientalism, Jones was facilitating the Romantic revolution. Shelley was indebted to Jones’s mix of the sensuous and the didactic for Queen Mab (1813). Jones’s proto-Romantic genre experimentation presented Romantic poets with the requisite apparatus of a textualized Orient culled from a variety of authentic sources. He rejected Aristotelian mimetic concepts, establishing the lyric impulse as the primary and universal prototype for poetry and music, as appears in his “On the Arts, Commonly called Imitative,” one of the two essays appended to his Poems of 1772. He discovered and translated Śakuntalā, an Indian play that was to become extremely popular in Europe and was translated into 12 different languages. It is a mix of the sacred and the profane, and of both eroticism and the ‘modern’ cult of sensibility, which were already present in Indian philosophy and poetry. Franklin gives a detailed analysis of the literary characteristics of Śakuntalāand of Jones’s translation and adaptation which reveal his sensitivity to both Hindu culture and European sensibilities. Śakuntalā was admired by Goethe who talked of “the incomparable Jones.” Jones’s translations “revolutionized European conceptions of India” [285]. They presented Indian culture as both sophisticated and accessible to a Western audience. “As cultural mediator,” Franklin remarks elsewhere, “Jones locates similitude rather than difference, reinforcing the homologizing tendencies of the Enlightenment…” [59].


Franklin gives an interesting insight into the life of the circle of Englishmen in Calcutta to which Jones and his wife belonged. He explains in particular that music-making was an important focus of these expatriates who were all enthusiastic musicians and sometimes also amateur musicologists. Scholarly soprano Margaret Fowke—with whom Jones appears to have been quite taken—even accompanied Indian musicians on her harpsichord and Jones translated songs for her. Jones wrote his “On the Musical Modes of the Hindus” in 1792. Franklin—who tends to wax a little lyrical and to idealize the hero of his narrative—insists however on the perfect harmony between, and mutual fondness of Jones and his wife Anna. The latter was a ‘sentimental’ poet herself who published some of her poetry and had a keen interest in botany. She dutifully edited Jones’s works after his death. After they had stayed in India for over a decade, they decided that Anna had to go back to England ahead of her husband because of her bad health due to the Indian climate. By the time she reached Plymouth, however, William Jones had already died of inflammation in the liver a few days before, on 27 April 1794.


In the conclusion of his book, Franklin makes a link between Jones’s sensitive and intelligent perception of Bengal and the dreadful events in India at the beginning of the twenty-first century. Jones, he explains, “reshaped India’s self-perception, encouraging cultural renaissance in Bengal” [359]. Jones’s enduring fascination for Indian culture and language, “his intellectual investment in pluralism and his enlightened commitment to a syncretic East-West synthesis remain something of a beacon in a world where ‘intelligence’ is squandered upon missiles and where the shrines of Sūfi saints are targets of Taleban explosives, intolerant Saudi-sponsored Wahhabism, and all those seeking to destroy the diversity and plurality of Islam” [360].


All in all, this is an excellent biography of an extraordinary eighteenth-century intellectual. As Michael Franklin himself admits with humility, “to write on a polymath is to be constantly reminded of one’s own inadequacies.” What should the reviewer say of his own, then? Undoubtedly, the author has succeeded in giving a very lively portrait of a man with a fascinating personality, and the book offers the right balance between detailed and accurate factual information, a sensitive psychological interpretation of William Jones the man, and a clear exposition of the importance of his contribution to linguistics and Orientalism.


© 2012 Pierre Dubois & GRAAT












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