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Book Review


Hall, Catherine, and Sonya O. Rose. At Home with the Empire: Metropolitan Culture and the Imperial World (Cambridge, England, and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006; paperback edition, 2007). 347 pp, $29.99.

     For about thirty-five years, off and on, I have taught the history of the British Empire while trying to teach myself about it. When I put together my first course, the living British Empire had died, but its demise seemed too recent to study it with the detachment afforded the ancient Roman Empire. It was more fashionable to do area studies—notably, Africa and South Asia. Much of the available literature still either carried a triumphal tone, praising explorers and soldiers, or focused on the constitutional development of the white settler colonies: representative government, responsible government, Dominion status. Times have changed. Today the British Empire may well be the "hot" field within the declining realm of British historical studies. Unfortunately, or maybe fortunately, there is no agreement about what British Empire history entails. Some historians hurry past the white Dominions except for the story of the encounter with aboriginal populations (First Nations, to use Canadian terminology). Others insist on the importance of submerged nationalities in the British Isles, certainly Ireland and sometimes Scotland and Wales, as instances of "internal colonization," and also immigrants. Invoking the concept of "informal empire," economic historians include countries (or parts of them) that never lost their status as sovereign states in international law, as for instance, southern China, Argentina, the Ottoman Empire. A few historians look at the British Empire in comparative context, usually together with the French Empire. Most important, historians of the British Empire, influenced by today's globalization, have begun to break down the division between domestic British history and that of the Empire. Intertwined with this trend, cultural and feminist studies have reshaped both British history and British Empire history.

     The new collection of essays edited by Catherine Hall and Sonya O. Rose is part of this growing scholarly literature that seeks to end the rigid distinction between the colonizing country and its empire. It also is a clear example of the impact of feminist studies and of women scholars, overlapping categories. Of the thirteen contributors only two are male, and one of these men (a former editor of the journal Gender and History) co-authors an essay with the volume's co-editor. The Hall and Rose collection asks not whether empire had an impact at home but "how was empire lived across everyday practices—in church and chapel, by readers at home, as embodied in sexualities or forms of citizenship, as narrated in histories" and as "part of the given world that made [people in the British Isles] who they were." (3) Authors represented include well-known British Empire historians such as Antoinette Burton, Philippa Levine, and Clare Midgley as well as those better known for work in non-imperial British history and a few younger scholars. Representative essays include "the condition of women, women's writing and the Empire in nineteenth-century Britain, "religion and empire at home," and "citizenship and empire." The level of scholarship is high throughout the volume, too high for high school and undergraduate students but suitable for graduate students and teachers who wish to sample essays whose topics are attractive to them. Scholars will appreciate more than thirty pages of select bibliography.

     Instead of providing potted summaries of the essays in the collection I want to raise what I think for World History Connected is the relevant question: how can study of the British Empire, especially that of the British Empire viewed domestically, contribute to the study of world history? Modern world history spends much time on European imperialism. After the collapse of the Spanish Empire, if not earlier, the British Empire was the largest and most important overseas empire. As the British boasted, it was the empire over which the sun never set. Most world history textbooks pay little attention to the parts of the British Empire where white immigrants swamped indigenous populations, perhaps with the exception of the United States. Textbooks are more interested in India and Africa, but these are secondary topics for them when compared with China and Islam. Textbooks may find "informal empire" the most congenial approach to the British Empire as it fits well with our current enthusiasm for globalization. I fear that it will take another ten or twenty years before world history textbooks can absorb the new British Empire scholarship that blurs the distinction between the metropole and its colonies. Yes, it fits the approach that most world historians nominally endorse: world history as a perspective and not as an aggregation of parts of the world. Yet it risks indictment for the sin of Eurocentrism. Worst of all, it emphasizes a kind of social and cultural history that many world historians, who regard economics as what really matters, are likely to dismiss as "boutique" history. In other words, if you are interested in modern British and British Empire history, consider reading Hall and Rose for its first-rate essays. If you instead are interested in teaching next semester's introductory survey of modern world history, you probably should be practical and read something else.


David M. Fahey
Miami University


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