This essay argues that by the second half of the nineteenth century, British artists and writers succumbed to “colonial-hand envy,” marked by a desire to claim the authenticity of South Asian manual productions. This condition flourished in a climate that mourned the figurative amputations of English artisans, who had supposedly lost their hands to the standardization of the machine. The Indian hand offered access to traditional forms of craftsmanship that England was believed to have forsaken through industrialization. Contemporary critics fantasized about the effectiveness of the Indian hand if appropriated by the British corpus. They described this hand as a tool that could be detached from the rest of the Indian worker's body, which they defined through its general inefficacy. This model appealed to British novelists as well as artists, who fantasized about the more authentic forms of authorship that might emerge from a seizure of the Indian hand. I explore this fantasy in Flora Annie Steel's Anglo Indian novel The Potter's Thumb (1894), a text that simultaneously warns against the implications of creating a hybrid British and South Asian creative body. I conclude that her novel represents a late nineteenth-century struggle to define authorship as a form of production inspired by Eastern manual artistry, thus forcing us to reconceptualize the popular phrase “craft of writing” in transcultural as well as transgeneric terms.
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Aviva Briefel; The Potter's Thumb/The Writer's Hand: Manual Production and Victorian Colonial Narratives. Novel 1 August 2009; 42 (2): 253–260. doi: https://doi.org/10.1215/00295132-2009-012
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