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The Banality of Empire: On the Ordinary Lives of Brits in India


At Public Books, Katherine Anderson, a scholar of Victorian literature and culture, reviews The British in India: A Social History of the Raj (2018) by historian David Gilmour. As Anderson explains, Gilmour’s aim in the book is to show the individual lives of ordinary British subjects living in India during the period of imperialism. To this end, he spends little time discussing the brutal machinery of British rule in India, prefering slice-of-life portraits instead. But in her review, Anderson argues that the “ordinary lives” of Brits living in India during this period cannot be so easily separated from the realm of politics. Here’s an excerpt:

Though Gilmour refuses to present an analytical argument, a refusal he characterizes as avoiding the “political” in favor of prioritizing the facts of the social archive itself, he still presents an argument: one rooted in emotion. There’s nothing troubling about our persistent attachment to 19th-century narratives of white lives at the height of Britain’s imperial power, his tome implies. Nostalgia for this cozy, familiar, somehow comforting (for white people, at least) past world, and the 640 pages it takes to detail it, is well worth our time and energy. In a way, Gilmour morphs into an academic Julian Fellowes. Reading this book is the social historian’s version of binge-watching—and wallowing in— Downton Abbey , or perhaps more precisely, the first season of fellow Masterpiece presentation Indian Summers.

Overall, The British in India reads not so much as a successful call for more rigorous public engagement with the nuances of empire’s history as it does a retreat back into the arrogant position of a scholar who has never felt it particularly necessary to justify his interest in the everyday lives and literature of white people (racist or not), to the exclusion of all else. His admonishment for postcolonial scholars to spend “more time in the archives” raises the question of which archives he sees as valuable, given the scarcity of Indian voices in his social history.

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