[Thanks to James Heffernan, founder and editor-in-chief of Review 19 for sharing this review with readers of the Victorian Web. — Katherine Miller Weber]

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omen in British India has been historian Antoinette Burton's main topic, but she is also widely known for her reflections on imperial historiography. Divided between theoretical and practical halves, her new book contains fifteen essays published between 1994 and 2008, plus a previously unpublished introduction and coda, a forward by Mrinalini Sinha, and an afterword by C. A. Bayly. The theoretical essays show how many histories both of England and of the British Empire tell "the island story" of a small, seagoing nation that managed to conquer and rule much of the world while being scarcely affected at home by its empire-building. The island story, Burton stresses, has always been about British, mostly English, men making careers for themselves and, almost by accident, progress for England and the Empire. In the fifth essay, for example, Burton shows how the mass media version of the island story evokes nationalist pride and nostalgia, but also how even a sophisticated, academic approach, reflected in a 1999 report from the North American Conference of British Studies, does very similar work.

Burton is among the "new imperial" historians who appreciate and utilize insights drawn from cultural, feminist, and postcolonial studies. In her introduction, she recounts her experience as a graduate student working with faculty who were often "utterly unconvinced of either the legitimacy of women's history or the possibility of postcolonial studies." When she encountered Gayatri Spivak's essay "The Rani of Sirmur," she reports, it "went off like a bomb in my head" (4). Edward Said's Orientalism had a similar effect, although she found his inattention to gender issues problematic. But Spivak's essay was particularly enabling for Burton because it stresses the agency of Indian women in the history of the Raj.

Traditional, usually male historians, Burton contends, often fetishize "hard data" while often also treating the history of the Empire as somehow separate from that of England. The traditionalists, including many of the contributors to the new Oxford History of the British Empire, behave as though they have a privileged access to reality, while practitioners of newfangled "studies" supposedly spin cobwebs of "theory." But traditionalists underestimate what the Empire did to metropolitan culture. Rejecting claims that its impact was negligible, Burton joins Catherine Hall, Kathleen Wilson, John Mackenzie, and other recent historians who make exactly the opposite case. The "Studies in Imperialism" series edited by Mackenzie, she notes, has richly demonstrated the pervasiveness of influences from the colonies on the metropole, even while some of its contributors—Mackenzie for one—also look askance at theory and at cultural, feminist, and postcolonial studies.

In demeaning postcolonial studies, which they tend to reduce to Said's Orientalism, old-fangled historians are, to say the least, short-sighted. Until the 1970s, the "great man" approach to imperial history excluded gender issues and women, with a few exceptions such as Queen Victoria. To some historians, feminism seemed only another form of bothersome theory-spinning. The weak connections between imperial history and cultural studies are perhaps harder to understand, partly because of the contributions to both areas by some members of the Marxist historians group, including Victor Kiernan and Eric Hobsbawm. Some historians find culture just as muddy or incomprehensible as they find "theory," whatever that usually singular noun means. Typically, as Burton notes, traditional historians reject theory in favor of empiricism, which can lead to the worship of facts and documents that E. H. Carr long ago skewered in What Is History? As Carr pointed out, "the facts" do not "speak for themselves." Just as typically, traditionalists align culture with literature and other dubiously reliable sources for writing history, Burton herself worries that "too much of the weight of critical attention has fallen on the literary dimensions of the colonial encounter" (179). But in its original incarnation in the 1960s, cultural studies at the Birimingham Centre was not focused on literature. Marxist and sociological in orientation, its early emphasis was on ideological critique. Though Burton does not say so (she mentions Marx just once), she herself is engaged in a version of ideological critique, with traditional, male-oriented, top-down imperial history as its main target.

In old-fangled versions of imperial history, the Empire was (supposedly) mainly the outcome of male British prowess (exploring, conquering, ruling, civilizing the savages) which also had little or no effect on Britain, except to provide it with "Anglo-Saxon" heroes and to enrich some of its citizens. An almost all-male club, with a sprinkling of "natives" as servants or porters or benignly-ruled subjects, the Empire was also mostly an all-white affair. In her fourth essay, "Déja Vu All Over Again" (the title is a quotation from Yogi Berra), Burton finds the old-style imperial history still alive in a work as recent as David Cannadine's Ornamentalism: How the British Saw Their Empire (2000). Giving only a nod to cultural, feminist, and postcolonial studies, Cannadine argues that the British and their colonial subjects "saw their Empire" pretty much as a matter of clothes, or at any rate of "hierarchy and status." While that was perhaps true of the ruling classes in both the metropole and the colonies, Cannadine doesn't debunk their view. On the contrary, he contends that the emphasis on pomp and circumstance was what made the Empire so successful for so long. In Burton's view, however, Cannadine's version of imperial historiography resembles a 2001 exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum, "The Victorian Vision: Inventing New Britain," which had little or nothing to say about Ireland, slavery, or "contemporary debates about race, postcolonial citizenship, and post-imperial identity" (70). Alluding to recent racial tensions and riots in England, Burton remarks that Cannadine (like the V&A exhibition) "fiddles while Bradford burns, perhaps" (75).

I found the "theory into practice" essays in part two of Burton's volume particularly interesting because most of them treat specific aspects of Victorian encounters with India and Indians previously unfamiliar to me. Burton's analysis of Mary Carpenter's role in "colonial reform" in India, as reflected especially in her Six Months in India (1866), is superb, and so is the next essay, "Contesting the Zenana: The Mission to Make 'Lady Doctors for India.'" Equally fine is Burton's account of the child bride Rukhmabai, who eventually traveled to England and became a "lady doctor." Likewise, her examination of Dadhabai Naoroji, who was elected to parliament in 1892, sheds light on late-Victorian democracy and ideas about race. When Prime Minister Salisbury labeled Naoroji a "black man," even though he was a light-skinned Parsi who had lived in England for several decades, the newspaper uproar helped Naoroji get elected. Salisbury himself, some commentators noted, was closer to being a "black man" than Naoroji. "For all the public discussions of the variations of non-white skin color" aroused by Salisbury's remarks, Burton writes, "it was the instability of whiteness, not of blackness, that became the issue..." (219).

In chapter thirteen, Burton revisits "Raj nostalgia" as exemplified by Tom Stoppard's 1995 play India Ink. Despite her concern that academic work on imperialism overemphasizes literature, Burton is an effective literary critic as well as historian. Stoppard's play, she contends, "represents a return to and, ultimately, a disavowal of the end of empire, rehearsing for us the role that imperialist nostalgia continued to play in the late-twentieth-century..." (256). In the ensuing chapter, Burton revisits some of the theoretical issues raised in the first half of the book, and in her Coda she redefines the historical impact of British imperialism; in the context of America's "new imperialism" and of capitalist globalization, she notes, "accounts of British imperial supremacy" like Niall Ferguson's "are flying off the shelves" (275). Politically, calls like Ferguson's for America to "take up the white man's burden" have been the most influential result of Whiggish, whitewashed accounts of both empires, which have supposedly morphed into what Michael Ignatieff calls "empire lite" (try using that phrase in Iraq or Afghanistan!).

Like most of the essays in the first half of the volume, the essays in the second half are astute, well-honed pieces of research and analysis. The few criticisms I have of Empire in Question concern its length. The essays in the first half repeatedly stress the limitations of traditional, male-dominated imperial history. Moreover, this half ends with an account of teaching courses on "gendered colonialism," written in collaboration with Jean Allman, who also team-taught a couple of the courses with Burton. Summaries of course syllabi and book lists may be helpful to readers teaching similar courses, but they do not make a readable essay. I also found the essay on Jane Eyre in the second, practical section extraneous and not particularly illuminating — and so it will seem, I suspect, to readers whose main discipline is literary history. Like me, they may be surprised to find that Burton says little about St. John Rivers's proposal to Jane or his "heroic" career as a missionary in India.

Despite these minor problems, Burton's new book should be read by everyone interested in the history of the British Empire over the last two centuries. Burton has been a leader, as Bayly comments in his afterword, in destabilizing the Whiggish, white man's model of imperial history. Her book importantly challenges the ways in which historians and the publics they influence continue to think about imperialism (both British and American) as well as about globalization, race, gender, and the practice and teaching of history.


Burton, Antoinette. Empire in Question: Reading, Writing, and Teaching British Imperialism. Duke, 2011. xxi + 392 pp.

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Last modified 9 July 2014