- Empire in Question: Reading, Writing, and Teaching British Imperialism by Antoinette Burton
As mrinalini Sinha notes in the foreword to this collection of essays, their author, Antoinette Burton, is among a small number of scholars whose work’s impact “has been nothing short of transformative as regards the ways in which scholars study empires and imperialism” (xi). In such books as Burdens of History: British Feminists, Indian Women, and Imperial Culture, 1865–1915 (1995), At the Heart of the Empire: Indians and the Colonial Encounter in Late-Victorian Britain (1998), and After the Imperial Turn: Thinking with and through the Nation (2003), Burton has done much to break down the distinction between imperial and domestic histories, to undermine the assumption that cultural transmission proceeded outward from the British Isles to colonial peripheries, and to uncover the interplay between empire and nation. In Empire in Question, Burton assembles fourteen essays originally published between 1994 and 2008, bookending them with a reflective introduction and a final essay that examines the place of British imperialism within globalization. Taken collectively, these essays constitute an excellent introduction to Burton’s scholarship and, as such, to the development of the field of modern British history over the past two decades.
The book is divided into two sections, one more theoretical or political, the other more overtly historical—though, as Burton points out (and demonstrates), this distinction is somewhat artificial. The first section includes essays that situate the study of imperial history within the late twentieth-century and early twentieth-first-century political cultures of both Britain and America. The essays argue both for broadening the definition of what “counts” as an archive and for shedding the binary between empire and home that itself constitutes a nineteenth-century “technology of imperial rule” (28). The section is animated not only by Burton’s engagement with contemporary historiography and politics but also by her awareness of her own position as a teacher of British imperial history in a North American university; the final chapter in this section, co-authored with her colleague Jean Allman, includes a sample syllabus for a postgraduate seminar on gender and colonialism.
In the second section, several case studies demonstrate the decentred and transnational character of modern British imperial culture, as well as [End Page 215] the close connection between gender and empire. Some of the chapters, drawing on the research that produced Burton’s earlier monographs, show the role of maternal solicitousness toward Indian women in shaping the cause of late nineteenth-century British feminist reform “at home.” These include chapters illuminating Mary Carpenter’s Six Months in India (1868), the campaign against Indian women’s seclusion in the zenana, and the trial of the child bride Rukhmabai, who refused to accept her arranged marriage to a man she deemed her intellectual inferior. Other chapters closely contextualize Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre (1847)and Tom Stoppard’s Indian Ink (1995) as colonial and post-colonial texts, as well as the controversy over Lord Salisbury’s gaffe in calling a Liberal candidate for Parliament, Dadabhai Naoroji, a “black man.” The final chapter in this section cites the influence of New Zealand’s welfare reform on early twentieth-century British reforms as an example of the multidirectional transmission of imperial culture. These chapters highlight the complexity of the interactions between class, gender, and race, as well as the fact that “discourses are products of concrete, material social conditions and struggles, even as they also shape the terms through which such conditions are experienced, articulated, and circulated throughout culture” (239).
Whereas most of the chapters unite the domestic and the imperial into one mutually constitutive whole, the book’s stimulating final chapter, previously unpublished, takes issue with recent scholarship that treats Britain’s contribution to globalization as, in effect, a new kind of British exceptionalism. Rather than seeing globalization as a product of British imperialism, Burton argues, we should see it, even at the zenith of British expansion, as a decentred process in which the British Empire...