Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Joanna Lewis's "Empire of Sentiment"

Joanna Lewis is an Associate Professor in the Department of International History, London School of Economics and Political Science, having previously studied at the University of Cambridge after winning a Thomas and Elizabeth Williams Scholarship for students with a first class degree, and first-generation to attend university.

Here Lewis dreamcasts an adaptation of her new book, Empire of Sentiment: The Death of Livingstone and the Myth of Victorian Imperialism:
This book begins with the dramatic but slow, painful death of Dr David Livingstone, an old man by this time. A cantankerous Scotsman who at the best of times had a short fuse, his painful demise and sense of failure for not finding the origins of the Nile makes for a tragic end to his life. So I would pick Daniel Day Lewis to play this eccentric and at times deranged characterful Celt. No relation, Lewis would be amazing showing Livingstone’s dark side as well as his quirkiness and soft, sentimental side, as he slowly went mad with frustration.

Livingstone at this time was being carried around and tended to by a group of talented, devoted and eclectic group of African men and women. Also in the party were young boys and girls. Many had been slaves and were still in a form of enslavement. After he died, they discussed and debated what to do, before making the heroic decision to carry Livingstone’s body back to the coast, a dangerous journey that would take them over six months. Again, there were powerful characters, determined and courageous present although we don’t know enough about them unfortunately due to the lack of written records. Some of the men closest to him, were given passage back to London for the funeral. Many went on to play important roles teaching ex slaves back in Africa, translating for missionaries or assisting the next generation of explorers.

My dream list would be Denzel Washington, Forest Whitaker, Dan Cheadle, Idris Elba and Wesley Snipes, playing the role of the leaders of the various factions of Livingstone’s caravan of followers. For the women present, who get forgotten the most, I would beg Whoopi Goldberg, Hallie Berry, Vida Davie. For the younger slave girls and boys Tyler James Williams, Tyrel Jackson Williams, Keke Davies, Jada Pinkett Smith, and Yara Shahidi.

A number of powerful Victorian male figures in Britain campaigned to have Livingstone’s remains given a proper funeral and to keep the fight going against slavery in east Africa. These included the President of the Royal Geographical Society, the Dean of Westminster Abbey. I would have them played by Colin Firth and Jeremy Irons. Two important and slightly self-publicising figures were the slightly menacing figure of explorer Henry Morton Stanley and the Proprietor of the New York Herald Gordon Bennet. I would have them played by Russell Crowe and Robert Downey Jnr respectively.

Livingstone’s death inspired a generation of younger explorers and idealists to follow in his footsteps in the interior of central Africa. Many wanted to find his grave, push the frontiers of European knowledge, have an adventure or campaign against the slave trade. They all knew they were in grave danger of risking their lives. Some were on the spectrum as we would say now, loners or messianic Christians. Some never returned. In these roles, I would cast Ethan Hawke, Eddie Redmayne and Jake Gyllenhaal.

Finally, the story also includes white settlers in Central Africa. Hardened by life on the frontier, high death rates and poverty, these were a tough bunch of characters, racist in principle but reliant on African servants and labour which produced a unique set of tensions. For the patriarchs, slightly unhinged I would Leonardo DiCaprio, Matthew McConaughey; Sean Penn, Woody Harrelson. And for the equally, often tougher matriarchs, I would love to see Meryl Streep reprise her role in Out of Africa; Gillian Anderson doing another version of her brilliant Lady Edwina Mountbatten in the Partition of India film, Emma Stone and Melissa McCarthy.
Learn more about Empire of Sentiment at the Cambridge University Press website.

The Page 99 Test: Empire of Sentiment.

--Marshal Zeringue