How culturally hegemonic was the project of Empire for the British? A new book tries to answer.
“As everyone knows (everyone, at least, whose knowledge is derived from paperback history books and the BBC), Britain in the 19th and early 20th centuries was an imperial power with an imperialist culture. The British were taught imperial history at schools, they read imperial news in the newspapers, they devoured novels with imperialist themes, and so on. The upper classes were educated to run the Empire; the lower classes, to take pride in it.
There is now an entire academic industry devoted to tracing this all-pervading imperialism through every aspect of 19th-century life: masculinity, tea-drinking, zoo-keeping, you name it. So confident are modern writers in the omnipresence of imperialism that specific references to the Empire are not in fact required: thus one modern art critic has identified an imperialist theme in Constable’s painting Hadleigh Castle on the grounds that the Thames Estuary (shown in the background) ‘represents’ British expansion into the rest of the world.
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Bernard Porter, Emeritus Professor of History at the University of Newcastle, takes Seeley’s remark as the starting-point for a wide-ranging investigation of what the British really thought about their Empire. And to anyone brought up on the paperback-BBC view, the evidence he has accumulated will be truly startling.”