- Empire in Question: Reading, Writing, and Teaching British Imperialism by Antoinette Burton
Antoinette Burton’s latest volume, Empire in Question: Reading, Writing, and Teaching British Imperialism, is, in part, a mid-career reflection on her evolution as a scholar and teacher. The collection, in a way Burton’s academic “autobiography,” also serves as an important retrospective of new imperial history’s development into a vital approach to British historical studies. While both Burton and the field have solidified their places in contemporary historiography over the past two decades, this anthology of her most important essays reminds scholars of British imperial studies, postcolonial studies, and gender studies that such has not always been the case. The work of new imperial historians like Burton, alongside Catherine Hall, Ann Stoler, and Tony Ballantyne, has faced challenges from empiricists eager to maintain a divide between the metropole and the “periphery,” and between the historian and his or her work (p. 7). What Burton does in this volume is show how historians’ experiences are central to the questions they ask and the critiques they offer. And not taking for granted that new imperial historians have achieved their aims of decentering the metropole, Burton reminds us that there is still much work to do if we are to critique “the certainty of the nation as an analytical category, as a cherished idea, and as a guarantor of the sovereign Western self as well” (p. 3). [End Page 704]
This collection of essays is divided into two sections: new imperial historical theory and practice. Part 1, “Home and Away: Mapping Imperial Cultures,” revisits the debates surrounding concepts of the nation and the “periphery.” Just as Downton Abbey thrusts a nostalgic, seemingly empire-free Britain onto the television screens of Britons and Americans, reinforcing ideas of a homogenous island nation, Burton’s essays reveal the ongoing academic challenges to new imperial history as scholars of British history have lamented waning institutional focus on Britain. Burton demonstrates that Britain is alive and quite strong, both popularly and academically, but it remains too easy to sidestep the foundational role empire played in developing notions of Britain and Britishness. The essays included in this section, which focus on the utility and persistence of concepts of “nation” and “Britain,” reveal that while scholars of new imperial studies have made significant progress in analyzing networks of Britishness, there still remains a longing for, and popular celebration of, an archaic, aristocratic Britain.
In part 2, “Theory into Practice: Doing Critical Imperial History,” Burton’s essays remind us just how much the methodologies of new imperial history have enriched scholarly understandings of the often false distinctions between imperial and metropolitan identities. The essays included in this section of the book demonstrate the interconnectivity of imperial and domestic debates and show how the imperial “periphery” significantly shaped debates about race, gender, and identity in the metropole. For instance, in Burton’s examination of the London School of Medicine for Women she establishes how debates about the role of British women doctors in India reveal “how [metropolitan] gender categories were reconstituted by imperialism even as they helped to determine how the very concept of empire performed the kinds of ideological work it was capable of later in the nineteenth century” (p. 153). Using debates surrounding women’s emancipation, women’s virtue, and Victorian discourses of democracy in Britain, Burton shows the mutually constitutive ideological work of imperialism.
In the end, this volume asks scholars and students to consider what’s next for new imperial studies and British history. As global systems take center stage in historiography, Burton evaluates in an original essay the potential impact of a global approach to British imperial history, positing that “the global would … appear to represent a new horizon of possibility, the last frontier, perhaps even the highest stage of imperial history—one that makes doing British empire studies feel respectable, politically relevant, and even redemptive” (p. 276). But [End Page 705] this development in the historiography threatens to repeat...