The greatest books on the largest empire in history were written in a seventeen-year period, from 1959 to 1976. Some of these works, such as Eric Stokes's The English Utilitarians and India and R. E. Frykenberg's Guntur District, 1788-1848, tackled discrete aspects of the British Empire in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries to illuminate large and complex ideas; others, including A. P. Thornton's The Imperial Idea and Its Enemies, were sweeping in scope, as was the best of these books, and what I believe to be the best work of British historical scholarship in the twentieth century: Ronald Robinson and John Gallagher's Africa and the Victorians. Nearly all of them were written with verve and precision and were distinguished by a cool and elegant line of argument rare in works of scholarly history. Perhaps for this reason, or because they reached a public that, witnessing the final throes of "decolonization," was somewhat preoccupied with the subject, these books were read, or at least talked about, by far more people than is usual for such academic works. But since then the study of British imperial history—with some notable exceptions—has become, like so many other fields of historical scholarship, narrower in scope and more concerned with fitting, or forcing, contemporary "progressive" concerns onto the past. It has also attracted more than its share of godawful writers. Reading the British reviews of David Cannadine's Ornamentalism (published in the UK last spring), one of the most widely touted scholarly interpretations of British history in a decade (and showing every sign of being treated as an important and influential book in the United States), I hoped this trend would be reversed.
In the United States, Cannadine is probably the most popular serious historian of Britain. A professor at the University of London, formerly at Columbia, he is a smooth and often cheeky writer who has for more than two decades assessed and interpreted British history in the pages of The New York Review of Books, The New Republic, and The New York Times. No British academic historian today, of course, enjoys the popularity among educated American readers that J. H. Plumb, A.J.P. Taylor, and Hugh Trevor-Roper had in the 1960s and 1970s. But Cannadine comes closest, perhaps because his highly regarded books examine in a sophisticated and often ironic way topics—aristocracy, royalty, and Winston Churchill among them—that appeal to a romantic American anglophilia. His latest book looks at a big subject and interprets it in a manner that both contradicts the prevailing wisdom in academe and is bound to pluck at those anglophilic heartstrings. Not for Cannadine the fashionable notion that the British Empire was, in his words, "primarily concerned with the production of derogatory stereotypes of other, alien, subordinated societies." Rather, he sees that empire—albeit in his characteristically arch manner, and using methods and a vocabulary academically au courant—in terms very similar to those of that great romantic imperialist Churchill, who loved the empire for its "glitter, pomp and iced champagne."