The following excerpts are adapted from “Preface” and “And What Shall I do in Illyria?” by Vesna Goldsworthy, Inventing Ruritania: The Imperialism of the Imagination (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998).
The Balkan Peninsula is undoubtedly part of the European mainland, yet the adjective 'Balkan' can imply the opposite of European. In the region itself the Balkans are always thought to be elsewhere, to the south-east of wherever one is, until, on the shores of the Bosphorus, one catches sight of Asia across the water.
The Balkan worlds of popular imagination are peopled by British creations. Bram Stoker's Transylvania and Anthony Hope's Ruritania are arguably the best-known brand names produced in this imaginative takeover of the Balkans, which was as important for the booming publishing industry at the tum of the century, and later for the film industry, as the diamond and gold fields of South Africa were for imperial trade.
Historically, British (and later American) economic interests in the Balkans tended to be comparatively small. British imports from the five Balkan states (Albania, Bulgaria, Greece, Romania, and Yugoslavia) amounted, for example, to only 0.66% of total UK imports in 1929 and 1.22% in 1938; while exports were 1.45% of the total in 1929 and 1.51% in 1938. Yet it was in the same period that the most abiding images of the region were created through the indirect colonisation and exploitation of Balkan settings by the British and American entertainment industries. This process has much more to do with the needs and the power of these industries than with any real interest in the area. Indeed, the Balkans could continue to supply the raw resources—to act as an exotic backdrop in travelogues and tales of romance, adventure, and political intrigue—for so long precisely because, until the 1990s, direct involvement in the region by the English-speaking countries was so slight. While British, and later American, rivalry with Russia meant that the Balkans, as an area of potential Russian expansionism, could not be ignored, there were few economic concerns and no expatriate communities at stake.
When not a theatre of war, the area seemed to inhabit the misty edges of perception. 'Trieste, Sarajevo, Montenegro, Sofia ...names which conjure up a part of Europe still exotic, relatively untraveled, a melting pot of East and West, of old and new,' proclaimed a dust-jacket of a British travel book published in 1990.' 'This was a time-capsule world: a dim stage upon which people raged, spilled blood, experienced visions and ecstasies. Yet their expressions remained fixed and distant, like dusty statuary,' wrote an American traveler in 1993.
“’AND WHAT SHALL I DO IN ILLYRIA?’: ENGLISH LITERATURE AND THE BALKANS”:
In the field of literature and its by-products in film and television, however, Britain's impact on the way the Balkans are seen and imagined throughout the world far outweighs the achievements of its rivals. Accounts of British experiences of the Balkan world (from those of Byron to those of Rebecca West and Lawrence Durrell) and, in particular, British imaginings of it (from those of Shakespeare to Anthony Hope's The Prisoner of Zenda, Bram Stoker's Dracula, and John Buchan's and Graham Greene's adventure stories) helped shape the imaginary geography of the peninsula to the extent that images created by British writers represent for many people the best known 'faces' of the Balkans. As shared points of reference, these images continue to be evoked by politicians, journalists, historians, lobbyists, and advertisers.
While volumes of Orientalist and subaltern studies explore representations of areas of Western domination over the Eastern world, the Balkan Peninsula provides a unique instance in modern times of Eastern colonisation of an area of Europe. Instead of descriptions of an 'exotic' Other, we encounter perceptions of Balkan identity in an ambivalent oscillation between 'European ness ' and 'Oriental difference'. Historically, it also coincides with the emergence of the first popular newspapers, the development of a vast market for the popular novels demanded by an increasingly literate and affluent nation, the consequent growth of genre fiction, and the origins and development of the film industry. All of these imposed strains on the sources of raw materials available to the entertainment industry as a whole.
The process of literary colonization, in its stages and its consequences, is not unlike real colonization. It begins with travel writers, explorers and adventurers undertaking reconnaissance missions into an unknown area. They are gradually followed by novelists, playwrights and poets who, in their quest for new plots and settings, rely just as frequently on research through atlases and timetables as on direct experience. By this stage the capacity of the new land to feed the ever hungry mother country—and to make nabobs of those with the wits and ruthlessness to exploit it—is well established. Once 'mapped,' new territories are further appropriated by the writers of popular fiction, who delineate the final shape of the imaginary map and secure their stakes as surely as European colonists secured newly surveyed parcels of land in America, Australia, or New Zealand. Their need to visit or know the area they describe is, at this stage, relatively remote, and the 'authenticity' they aim to achieve is one which fulfills the desires and fantasies of the reader. At this point they and their collaborators in the film industry can begin the full commercial exploitation of the appropriated territory.
Except for British reinterpretations of Greek myths and classical literature, Balkan settings make their first, rare appearances in British literature to signify all-purpose semi-mythical remoteness, an imaginative 'end of the known world,' an area distant but still recognizable in many respects, as in Shakespeare's use of Illyria in Twelfth Night. The Balkan settings became more firmly delineated and moved into an imaginative focus when poets such as Byron and Shelley rediscovered the Balkans for Romanticism. From the time when, as Marilyn Butler argues, 'the favorite location of English poetry in the second decade of the nineteenth century becomes the Eastern Mediterranean and the Middle East,’ British writing about the Balkans exerted considerable influence on the perceptions of the area not only in Britain but throughout the world.
The most indelible images of the Balkans were disseminated through popular literature, the burgeoning of which represented a late but powerful addition to the Industrial Revolution in which Britain led the world. The authors of such novels frequently stressed their lack of any direct experience of or even interest in the area. The impact of popular genres was spread in the twentieth century by the film and television industries, with their insatiable requirements for exotic settings. Such moving pictures, with the baton increasingly being passed to the United States, reproduced and transmitted British-made images of Balkanness through dozens of Ruritanian romances, vampire stories and Orient Express murder mysteries, familiar even to those who would not be able to find any of the locations on the map of Europe.
Back to top ↑