- Colonial Lives Across the British Empire: Imperial Careering in the Long Nineteenth Century ed. by David Lambert and Alan Lester
Questions of scale and value are critical to debates in imperial history but they are rarely addressed head on. This collection examines lives and careers across the modern British empire because its contributors recognize not just how powerfully the focus on individuals can illuminate a variety of social, political and economic histories but how such an ostensibly “narrow” focus can shed light on the interconnected spaces of imperial geography as well. This agenda brings together recent work on biography and subjectivity on the one hand and the literature on space and place that has done much to shape contemporary apprehensions of empire — and it does so with fresh insight and a lot of intellectual energy as well. Though it will mainly be of interest to historians of the British empire, scholars of imperialism more general would do well to think about the methodological questions it raises for the production of new knowledges about colonial projects across the board.
The introduction by Lambert and Lester lays out the stakes of their intervention clearly and persuasively, synthesizing a variety of trends in imperial, colonial and postcolonial studies in terms that offer a much-needed panoptical view of those fields and the literatures that have fed them. Central to their concerns is how best to link life writing — or “life geographies” (2) — to questions of interdependence which undergirded imperial life in the context of modernity. So, for example, they draw attention to how and why networks serves as a useful metaphor for understanding how people and power circulated, yet they also offer a critique of work that tends toward seeing them as “reified and ossified infrastructures,” advocating instead a more flexible model, one which understands places “not so much as bounded entities, but rather [as] specific juxtapositions or constellations of multiple trajectories” (13). These and other insights are drawn heavily from geography and rely on the work of Doreen Massey in particular, reminding us of how limited the much-vaunted and often-critiqued interdisciplinarity of the new imperial history looks if we only view it from the point of view of literary criticism.
The editors map what they call “imperial careering” onto the fissiparous spaces of the British empire in order to demonstrate how their experiences “constituted meaningful connection” (2) and outline “the trans-imperial life path[s] by the traveling and dwelling of . . .colonial subjects” (27). Contributors fulfill this promise by excavating the highly mobile careers of figures like George Grey and John Pope Hennessey, who are among the better known colonial governors of the Victorian period. As Lambert and Philip Howell remark in their essay on Hennessey, his was not necessarily a “uniquely varied career” (230), but it does demonstrate that intracolonial connections were as powerful and influential as metropole-colony ones — an observation that encapsulates the new directions in which imperial history has moved in the last five years, in the context of academic preoccupations with transnationalism and globalization. Other subjects are less well known perhaps to scholars but the ins and outs of their professional lives reveal not simply the complex geographies of the official empire but the ways in which “trans-imperial forms of governance were produced” (25). These are invaluable insights, challenging as they do a core-periphery model of imperial history and suggesting how important it is to think horizontally as well as vertically about the politics of imperial travel and geopolitics more generally. Although there are several chapters on women — Mary Seacole and Harriet Martineau, for example — I would have liked to see race and gender and sexuality addressed in a sustained fashion as analytical categories throughout, especially where whiteness and masculinity are concerned. I hope this will not be read as a knee-jerk call for attention to these subjects but rather a sympathetic plea. When addressing such important methodological matters as scale and value across a variety of imperial contexts, questions of performance and...