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February 2015: ‘Orientalist Jones’: Sir William Jones, Poet, Lawyer, and Linguist, 1746-1794

Reviewed by: Filomena Viviana Tagliaferri

Michael J. Franklin, Oxford University Press, 2011. 408 pp. £35 (hardback).

‘Orientalist’ Jones is only one of the numerous appellations that are given to Sir William Jones by Michael J. Franklin in his book ‘Orientalist Jones’: Sir William Jones, Poet, Lawyer, and Linguist, 1746-1794 (Oxford, 2011). The work develops a deep and complex discourse of one of the most eminent figures of English Enlightenment. These aspects emerge in each chapter by focusing on the principal epithets the author attributes to his character. ‘Persian’, ‘Druid’, ‘Republican’, ‘Indo-Persian’ ‘Joneses’ are emphasised in the chapter titles, but other adjectives, some truly unexpected, are associated with his name in the body of the text. The multifaceted representation of Jones is a particular strong point. For example, the strongest of these attributes, ‘Incendiary’ Jones, gives the reader as sense of the political vein expressed in his pamphlets.

The book follows a circular pattern. It begins with the journey of Jones and his wife Anna to India and it ends with his death, also on the subcontinent. The central chapters investigate the formation of Jones character, the role of this mother his education, the profound influence of his Welsh origins. The argument then dwells on his career as a lawyer and the network of political/patronage relationships woven by him in London. This section gives depth to the resumption of the figure of the author in his role as Orientalist that dominates the final part of the work. In fact, Franklin tends to dispose all the experiences of Jones in a perspective that emphasize how they have contributed to make him, one of the most eminent thinkers of his time, an unrivalled and pioneering cultural mediator.

Franklin manages to make the figure of Jones not only a bridge between the West and the East, but also as a connection between Enlightenment and Romanticism. The value of the experiment in his approach to the ‘Orient’ is followed by a domestication of it that facilitated Romantic revolution (pp. 73-86). As not only translator but also as man, his experience is put in parallel with one of the first and greatest European Orientalists, Antoine Gallaland. Following his example, he also aligned himself with to ‘popular Orientalism’, undertaking a ‘translation of the Asian “Other” [that] involved delicate politico-cultural negotiations with the European “Self’’’ (p. 85).

The barrister training on the Carmarthen circuit a not only highlights the frank impatience of Jones for aristocratic arrogance, but also ‘to come to terms with his own hybridity’ (p. 118). Once he discovered the Welsh ‘Otherness’ of himself, his flexibility with regard to cultural mediation was highly facilitated. In dealing with the patronage system and the poetic of liberty of Jones we find constantly emphasized his inability to stomach aristocratic presumption. He proudly stated ‘I acknowledge no man as my superior, who is not so in virtue or knowledge, and if this be pride, I am not free from it’ (p. 151). Despite his ‘pride’, due to the complexities of his social, professional, and political role, he was forced to be involved in a constant negotiation with a very intricate network of patronage. London’s environment is analysed through the lens of a realistic intellectual who was not provided with an inherited fortune, a dependant position that made him diplomatic but never servile.

The analysis of Jones’s role of cultural mediator is the best executed and the most interesting and relevant of the book. The mediation process passed through Jones’s active commitment in the theoretical field of Indology as founder of the Asiatick Society, in 1784, and his literary work in the translation of Kālidāsa’s Śakuntalā. The most significant aspect of the members of the Society was they were ‘not ivory-towered academics lingering in the remotely textualised India, but eminently practical men for whom the subcontinent was very much a dynamic reality’ (p. 216). The role and pride of the real experience of another world can be traced also in the rendering of Sacontalà’s character. She was India, the India experienced and elaborated by Jones as man, poet and linguist and presented by him to imperial Europe, ready to be fascinated by the allegory of the colonized land as female body (p. 256).

The two final chapters are mainly centred on the ability of Jones to live and understand a plural context, as the Indian one was. His estimate of the traditional medicine system and of the Hindus indigenous system of jurisprudence reveal a high esteem of the culture of the colony where he had been assigned. This appreciation reaches very high levels of admiration in the case of Sanskrit. ‘Linguistic’ and ‘learners’ Joneses here found a real passion for ‘so beautiful sister of Latin and Greek’ (p. 37). In only six months, he found the basis of Indo-European comparative grammar and instituting a modern comparative linguistics radically adjusting Europe’s self-understanding, stating the superiority of Sanskrit to Latin and Greek. His predilection for this language was so strong to make him said ‘I will know it perfectly or die in the attempt’ (p. 238).

The analysis presented in this work is very rich and deep. It allows the reader numerous ways to interpret such a multi-dimensioned character; plural in his profession and in his interests. On the other hand, if we have access to different points of view in approaching Jones, the fragmentation of his figure can be a disturbing element in the final re-composition of his personality. Another element that can weigh down the reading is the profusion of information in the chapters dealing with the British environment. The narrative fluidity with which the author exposes his solid erudition can make the reader lost in a maze of irrelevant information. On the whole, however, one should emphasize the elegance and charm of a style that supports a strong and well-structured analysis, depicting one of the most important figures of the British intellectual scene of the eighteenth century.

 

 

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