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Reviewed by:
  • Civilising Subjects: Metropole and Colony in the English Imagination 1830–1867 by Catherine Hall
  • Susan Thorne
Civilising Subjects: Metropole and Colony in the English Imagination 1830–1867. By Catherine Hall. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2002.[1]

Transnational in scope, Civilising Subjects has been reviewed by historians with wide-ranging geographical specializations. Its narrative moves from Britain to Australia to Jamaica, and its ramifications have been engaged by reviewers from elsewhere in the British empire as well. [2] In his blurb for the paperback edition, Roy Porter suggests that “Civilising Subjects does for colonial history what E. P. Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class did for social history.” High praise indeed from one of British social history’s most influential and original practitioners. Civilising Subjects is a paradigm-shifting intervention, on the order of Thompson’s magnum opus. But in what field does it intervene?

Hall is, in fact, a social historian by training; to confine Civilising Subjects’ intervention to colonial history is to miss Hall’s central argument that social relations in Britain were shaped by the foreign as well as domestic engagements of British actors on the local metropolitan ground. In her title and in her text, Hall clearly identifies her subject to be British colonial consciousness, the self-image of those who lived and worked in the Empire as well as the British public that supported their efforts. The case studies around which Civilising Subjects is organized argue in persuasive empirical detail that British history happened on a transnational stage, that even local social relations were shaped by developments in the colonies, that the most domestic corners of the Victorian past, including the history of the family itself, cannot be fully understood without taking the empire into account.

This question about the field in which Hall intervenes also speaks to critics who have faulted Hall for marginalizing the voices of the colonized. Colonized people actually figure prominently in her narrative, but their appearance is limited to those occasions on which their agency set limits on the actions or influenced the ideas of the “civilizing subjects” who ruled them. That their history involved a lot more than their influence on British people, culture, and ideas, is an important if obvious point. However, those aspects of the history of the colonized to which her British subjects were impervious fall outside Hall’s mandate. She rightly leaves the history of the colonized in the able hands of area specialists, whose scholarship she gratefully mines. To attempt to tell these stories herself would not only have loosened the focus of this carefully argued book; it would also have been an act of professional hubris in my view, an imperious move on the part of a British historian to colonize a historiography not her own by training or inspiration. In fact, it is precisely by focusing her analytical sights so consistently on the subjectivity of British colonizers that Hall displays the first world’s debt to third world history, thereby reversing a long-standing imbalance of historiographical power.[3]

In the richness of its archival detail and in its carefully historicized portrayal of the transnational foundations of Victorian social experience, Civilising Subjects takes us well beyond the now conventional assertion that the empire struck back. Previous studies of imperialism’s influence on the British public have relied primarily on textual analyses of colonial referents in British literature in the late Victorian and Edwardian periods.[4] Civilising Subjects, by contrast, focuses on the period before the “scramble” for colonies at the nineteeth century’s close; and it locates imperial propaganda in the specific socio-political contexts in which it was disseminated and consumed. Following Thompson’s lead, Hall recognizes that social identities, of race and gender as well as class, are formed in relationships that always happen on the local ground. The locale on which Hall focuses lies in the industrial heartland of the British Empire: the English Midlands, in and around Birmingham. Here Hall takes on one of Great Britain’s most stereotypically insular locales. Birmingham has been explicitly characterized by more traditionally minded imperial historians as untouched by the imperial experience.[5] Hall convincingly...

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