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Todd Kuchta's Semi-Detached Empire contributes to the scholarship on the mutually constitutive discourses of domesticity and empire by taking up a middle term typically left out of the familiar opposition of country and city: the suburb. Arguing that "the rapid rise of suburbia and the slow but steady decline of empire" were "intimately linked and mutually articulated historical trajectories," Kuchta demonstrates how late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century commentators viewed "suburbanization as a botched colonial mission" that threatened "the health, welfare, and continued global dominance of Britain and its empire" (7). Drawing on a range of source materials, including popular fiction, contemporary news and magazine accounts as well as the novels of H. G. Wells, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Joseph Conrad, E. M. Forster, and George Orwell, Kuchta expertly illustrates how the suburbs were viewed simultaneously as places of decadence and civilization, seen either as an encroachment of the city into the rural heart of England or, less often, as a potentially redemptive space that might counter the irrationalities of both country and city with the virtues of planned living. In this way, suburban discourse partook of the same contradictory impulses informing the discourse of empire and, in Kuchta's account, helped to generate a critique that hastened empire's end.
Semi-Detached Empire is at its best when Kuchta traces the concrete historical links between these two social formations. Most notable is the fact that the suburban form seems to have originated in the colonies themselves, as the British sought living quarters within reach, but decidedly not part of, the cities they would rule. Similarly, the vast wealth generated in the colony often financed the construction of the suburbs, even as the development of these housing projects tended to occur during periods when capital was withdrawn from the colonies. Turn-of-the-century Britain, in Kuchta's account, was alternately investing in either the suburbs or the colonies. By the middle of the twentieth century, he argues, the rise of the suburb was tied to the empire's demise, its inhabitants the very image of the chastened subjectivity that resulted from—or perhaps caused—the collapse of England's empire.
Building his chapters upon specific instances of the common ground between suburban spaces and colonial formations, Kuchta illustrates the way the fears and anxieties associated with the growth of suburbia make themselves felt in a range of novels not typically considered under the rubric of suburban fiction. At the same time, he [End Page 798] impressively reframes the works of his principal authors, reading the folly of Conrad's Allmayer in light of suburban England's speculative housing, or re-imagining The War of the Worlds as a cautionary tale about the suburban invasion of the countryside. And just as Kuchta supplements his reading of fiction with historical and journalistic accounts, he also reads across the oeuvres of Wells, Forster, and Orwell, demonstrating the connections between their domestic and imperial fictions (or, in the case of Wells, nonfictions). Semi-Detached Empire is, then, entirely persuasive in showing how suburban discourse was always entangled with the discourse of empire, and it brims with local insight into all of its authors and texts. However, it can't quite establish the suburbs as the space from which anti-imperial critique emerges, proving instead the centrality of empire to nearly all public discourse in late Victorian and Edwardian culture.
For an example of this problem, we can turn to the chapter on War of the Worlds, a text that Kuchta claims "would have been unthinkable . . . if not for the rise of suburbia" (37). Seeking to overturn the dominant critical narrative of reverse colonization—where the Martian invasion is meant to shock the British into an affective understanding of the position of their imperial victims—Kuchta argues that the novel "is a reflection of what many Britons believed was happening to them: that suburbia was threatening to overtake the nation with a race that fused brutal colonizers and brutal savages" (38). Drawing...