At Home with the Empire: Metropolitan Culture and the Imperial World.
While a monograph is organized and structured around a single thesis, edited collections of articles tend to be organized and structured around a single, overarching theme or question. The central question that is asked and answered by the authors who contribute to At Home with the Empire is "[w]hat was the impact of the British Empire on the metropole between the late eighteenth century and the present?" (p. 1). Editors Catherine Hall and Sonya O. Rose note that the authors of each chapter relate this question to personal experiences and everyday practices of persons living in the British metropole. They seek to illustrate how Empire was lived from the eighteenth century to the present (although the nineteenth century dominates most articles) "in church and chapel, by readers at home, as embodied in sexualities or forms of citizenship, as narrated in histories" (p. 3).
In the chapter "Metropolitan Desires and Colonial Connections: Reflections on Consumption and Empire," for example, Joanna de Groot looks at how the physical and social characteristics of items and ingredients that were produced in the Empire and consumed in the metropole shaped the lives of individuals and the interaction of classes in Britain. Focusing in particular on the place of tea and sugar in this relationship (but also considering a wide range of other items, including West African palm oil, Australian wool, Malasian rubber, New Zealand butter, and Kenyan coffee), de Groot notes that items produced in the Empire shaped household habits and social relationships as they "became everyday components of British lives" (p. 176).
This integration into the everyday had far-reaching implications for metropolitan culture. Items that were once considered luxuries and consumed only by the elite became increasingly available to the middle and lower classes. Work and social relationships changed as tea-breaks and tea-times became more a part of everyday lives. Self-perceptions, as well as attitudes and stereotypes about the Empire and its inhabitants, were shaped by advertisements designed to sell those items (or products that had no actual connection to the Empire). Trading, manufacturing, financing, merchandising, and distribution channels and systems were reorganized, created, and recreated to better meet changing consumption patterns. As de Groot concludes, "[c]onsumption placed 'British' homes in an imperial world" (pp. 189-190).
In the chapter "A Homogenous Society? Britain's Internal 'Others,' 1800-Present," Laura Tabili considers the forces that "rendered different 'internal others' visible and apparently problematical at various times over the past two centuries," and concludes that racial difference, immigration levels, and residential concentrations of specific populations by themselves cannot explain the construction of "others" within Britain. Indeed, between 1841 and 1931, over 95 per cent of people living in England and Wales were born in England and Wales (Table 1, p. 58). Tabili therefore argues that forces that were rooted in Empire, media attention, and political manipulation combined to shape the experiences of those who moved to and lived in the metropole, which, in turn, rendered "some rather than others threatening to or exploitable by institutional actors or ordinary Britons" (p. 53). Tabili effectively illustrates the interplay between metropole and non-metropole (be it the Continent or the Empire) in the construction and shaping of individual and group identities ("others") and national identities ("British"). In one of several examples, she notes that Germans had been long present and accepted as "insiders" in Britain; in the context of nineteenth-century European nation building and empire building, however, the late-nineteenth century increase in the migration of Germans to Britain rendered this group a visible "other" that represented within Britain the threat that Germany posed to the British Empire (and hence British identity).
This same interplay between metropole and Empire is the common thread that unites all of the chapters in this engaging and solid collection. The authors discuss and analyze the place of minorities, the processes and impact (on individuals and on groups) of othering, the meaning of citizenship and suffrage, the roles of and attitudes about women and about gender relations, the centrality of sexuality in contemporary portrayals of class, the impact of foreign missionaries carrying the elements of metropolitan culture to the Empire (and in turn bringing the Empire home to the metropole,) and the role of the imperial world in establishing perceptions of self in the metropole.
There are areas, however, which might have been improved upon. Several chapters hint at the negative impact on the Empire and its inhabitants of the imperial-metropole relationship (such as reinforcing racial stereotypes and the legitimization of marginalizing indigenous inhabitants); for the most part these issues are not expanded upon, which is unfortunate given the centrality of these forces in shaping the economic, political, and cultural experiences of people as they lived their lives. The work is also rather heavily weighted towards the analysis of the roles and place of women in the metropole and as impacted upon by Empire; greater discussion of men and of gender relations (which are present, just not in balance) would have further strengthened the work.
The publishers claim that this is a "pioneering volume" that "will be essential reading for scholars and students of modern Britain and its empire" (p. i). While it might not be essential, it is most definitely beneficial reading. Each chapter begins with a brief historiographical discussion or broad introduction to the topic at hand; these will be of immense benefit to readers who have little background in a particular issue. Furthermore, the chapters themselves cover such a wide range of topics that even those who are well-versed in the general study of the interconnection between metropole and Empire (or specific elements of that interconnection) are sure to find much within the book that will be of interest. The work is also capped by a solid bibliography that provides suggestions for further reading. This book, therefore, is recommended for advanced undergraduate students and above.
Grant MacEwan College
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|Publication:||Canadian Journal of History|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Dec 22, 2008|
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