Sunday, 5 November 2017

Pax Britannica - Jan Morris (for the 1968 club)

This is a substantial book – over 500 pages – and the second in a 3-part series exploring the ‘rise and fall’ of the British Empire. 

I haven't actually read either of the other two but probably will now I've read this one. It is beautifully written, the prose pulling you into the period with great enthusiasm

It's also a very ambiguous book. Morris moves rapidly and repeatedly between awe at the achievement and splendour and romance of the whole vast enterprise, to criticism of the details and arrogance that underpinned it. The way that perfectly good motives were bedded in bullish assumptions about Britain’s place in the world and our supposed ‘burden’ (and other motives, as is made clear, which were less moral and entirely profit based). Nor does she disguise the violence, both military and casual, that the British felt justified in using.

However, if you go into this book hoping for answers to vexed questions about whether the whole thing did more harm than good you won’t really get them. The job Morris has performed here is to record history – and it’s for the reader to draw their own conclusions.

It is a book of its time. Some of the ways in which different ‘races’ are described are, definitely, out of date. Not exactly offensive, but perhaps borderline. This includes the use of sweeping generalisations to describe whole populations. A kind of ‘lascars are like this, and this group of people are like this’ that I do actually remember from the 70s, but which feels very odd to me now in 2017. In a way this is actually a strength. Morris is able to give a flavour of how the colonists would have thought, because people were still thinking that way in '68.

From a literary perspective one of the more impressive achievements is the seemingly effortless way in which Morris moves between the detail and the broader sweep of history and back again, focussing in on parts of the Empire as case studies. Giving us not only places but the names and functions of individuals, humanising them and engaging our interest. But it’s noticeable that it's always the white individuals who are getting this treatment, and it's generally the white population's point of view that's shared with us. 

There is even a bit of this when talking about a) women and b) the working classes. Morris suggests (twice) that the hoi polloi loved the idea and pomp of Empire and the educated were more level-headed – but it struck me that it wasn’t the working class who were making the decisions that led to the Empire's existence, it wasn’t the working class, by and large, who benefited from it, and it wasn't the working class who wrote the jingoistic poetry that Morris quotes. 

Similarly, at one point there’s an implication that women went out into the Empire and spoiled the boys’ fun, and the thought did cross my mind that those women weren’t shipping themselves out – again each decision would have been made by a white well-off man, and the women would simply be making the best of it. 

In conclusion then: although the book is an impressive achievement (and even more so when you consider that it's one of three) it is very much a history of Empire from the point of view of the people who were in charge. Not blinking what they did, or the possibility that it was misguided, but also not seeking those alternative voices and giving them a chance to speak for themselves. 

Thanks again to Karen and Simon, who host this reading-the-year club every six months. 
The full list of other reviews is here

1 comment:

  1. This sounds fascinating! I've read Jan Morris's book on Oxford, and think I might have read the one on Venice too, but hadn't heard of this series.