the Victorians’ driving interest in exploration and expansion is perhaps one of the best-known scholarly truisms about the age and its literature. While the British Empire was rapidly expanding and commercial competition began to stretch across the globe with a newly perceived urgency, Victorians at home throughout this expanding empire were at once fascinated and anxious in reading about the wider world. Armchair explorers might have confined themselves to a vicarious enjoyment of the gold-nuggets that seem to lay scattered throughout the expanding settler world, of adventures in an excitingly exoticised “bush,” and of shipwrecks and dubious impostors who sometimes seemed to return from the middle of nowhere. Readers could even indulge in a smugly self-congratulatory sense of amusement when witnessing the satirised ignorance of Flora Finching in Charles Dickens's Little Dorrit (1857), when she famously evokes semi-colonial China as such
a country to live in for so long a time, and with so many lanterns and umbrellas too how very dark and wet the climate ought to be and no doubt actually is, and the sums of money that must be made by those two trades where everybody carries them and hangs them everywhere, the little shoes too and the feet screwed back in infancy is quite surprising, what a traveller you are! (152; ch. 13)
With its bizarre juxtaposition of exotic references and vague gesticulations towards imperial commerce's impact at home, Flora's confusion is first and foremost funny, and readers were clearly meant to recognise it as such. In the same vein, adventure tales set in far-off islands in the Pacific or in new settlements in Australia and Aotearoa/New Zealand certainly continued to feature the enticingly wild and exotic. Yet increasingly, popular fiction made it clear that we ought to know more about the world out there, and that this entailed a different sense of responsibility as well. It is tellingly the satirised, pompous characters who wildly joke about the hero's escapades “down under” in Anthony Trollope's John Caldigate (1879), while the novel instead shows that the widespread notion “that anything done in the wilds of Australia ought not ‘to count’ here, at home in England” (322; ch. 42) does no longer hold in a world that is clearly not only expanding, but contracting and narrowing in the process. But if these widely read Victorian triple-deckers show how aware readers were becoming of the British presence throughout the world – including such indisputably still mystified, exoticised places as China – and how this impacted on literature and culture “back home,” the way the Victorians thought about, imagined, and discussed their own shifting place in this changing world was markedly wide and varied. Public interest in sinology, for example, as reflected in the magazines of the time, or contradictory accounts by missionaries, military officers, and emigration societies, and how these discourses were worked into popular culture productions, all testify to an ambiguous, contested field. The depiction of settler societies in particular underwent enormous shifts in the course of the century. How the most persistent images of the expanding settler and commercial empire were generated and circulated in Victorian Britain can be gleaned from shipboard diaries, popular ballads, broadsides, as well as from more official accounts such as the manuals and pamphlets produced by emigration societies. A close analysis of this rarely discussed material, in turn, compels a reconsideration of the way literary works engaged with discourses on emigration, travel, and imperial adventure. In going beyond what we see merely reflected in Victorian canonical literature, this special issue on nineteenth-century representations of the region spanning, roughly, what we now consider the Pacific Rim allows us to get a wider perspective on what “the Victorians” made of the changing world around them.