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Books About the British Empire

Ever since I first learnt about it in junior school, I have been fascinated by the British Empire, and the effects of colonialism on different populations around the world.  Whilst reading as an adult, I have always been drawn to books which explore these themes, but in order to try and expand my reading on the topic, I thought it might be a nice idea to make a list of ten books about the British Empire which I’d like to read.  (For an explanation of the British Empire, and a list of further reading, this Goodreads list is wonderful.)

 

1. The Painted Veil by W. Somerset Maugham 99664
‘Set in England and Hong Kong in the 1920s, The Painted Veil is the story of the beautiful, but love-starved Kitty Fane.  When her husband discovers her adulterous affair, he forces her to accompany him to the heart of a cholera epidemic. Stripped of the British society of her youth and the small but effective society she fought so hard to attain in Hong Kong, she is compelled by her awakening conscience to reassess her life and learn how to love.  The Painted Veil is a beautifully written affirmation of the human capacity to grow, to change, and to forgive.

 

2. A House for Mr Biswas by V.S. Naipaul
‘Mohun Biswas has spent his 46 years of life striving for independence. Shuttled from one residence to another after the drowning of his father, he yearns for a place he can call home. He marries into the Tulsi family, on whom he becomes dependent, but rebels and takes on a succession of occupations in a struggle to weaken their hold over him.’

 

305573. Shooting an Elephant by George Orwell
Shooting an Elephant is Orwell’s searing and painfully honest account of his experience as a police officer in imperial Burma; killing an escaped elephant in front of a crowd ‘solely to avoid looking a fool’. The other masterly essays in this collection include classics such as “My Country Right or Left”, “How the Poor Die” and “Such, Such were the Joys”, his memoir of the horrors of public school, as well as discussions of Shakespeare, sleeping rough, boys’ weeklies and a spirited defence of English cooking. Opinionated, uncompromising, provocative and hugely entertaining, all show Orwell’s unique ability to get to the heart of any subject.’

 

4. Old Filth by Jane Gardam
‘Long ago, Old Filth was a Raj orphan – one of the many young children sent ‘Home’ from the East to be fostered and educated in England. Jane Gardam’s novel tells his story, from his birth in what was then Malaya to the extremities of his old age. In so doing, she not only encapsulates a whole period from the glory days of British Empire, through the Second World War, to the present and beyond, but also illuminates the complexities of the character known variously as Eddie, the Judge, Fevvers, Filth, Master of the Inner Temple, Teddy and Sir Edward Feathers.’

 

5. A High Wind in Jamaica by Richard Hughes 188458
‘A classic adventure novel and one of the most startling, highly praised stories in English literature – a brilliant chronicle of two sensitive children’s violent voyage from innocence to experience.  After a terrible hurricane levels their Jamaican estate, the Bas-Thorntons decide to send their children back to the safety and comfort of England. On the way their ship is set upon by pirates, and the children are accidentally transferred to the pirate vessel. Jonsen, the well-meaning pirate captain, doesn’t know how to dispose of his new cargo, while the children adjust with surprising ease to their new life. As this strange company drifts around the Caribbean, events turn more frightening and the pirates find themselves increasingly incriminated by the children’s fates. The most shocking betrayal, however, will take place only after the return to civilisation.  The swift, almost hallucinatory action of Hughes’s novel, together with its provocative insight into the psychology of children, made it a best seller when it was first published in 1929 and has since established it as a classic of twentieth-century literature – an unequaled exploration of the nature, and limits, of innocence.’

 

6. Master Georgie by Beryl Bainbridge
‘A misadventure in a brothel links the destiny of the enigmatic George Hardy, a surgeon and amateur photographer, to a foundling who becomes his obsessively devoted maid, a wily street boy who takes advantage of his sexual ambiguity, and his alternately philosophical and libidinous brother-in-law in this terse, searing novel that takes them from the comfortable parlors of Victorian Liverpool to the horrific battlefields of the Crimean War.’

 

47025657. The King’s Rifle by Biyi Bandele-Thomas
‘It’s winter 1944 and the Second World War is entering its most crucial state. A few months ago fourteen-year-old Ali Banana was a blacksmith’s apprentice in his rural hometown in West Africa; now he’s trekking through the Burmese jungle. Led by the unforgettably charismatic Sergeant Damisa, the unit has been given orders to go behind enemy lines and wreak havoc. But Japanese snipers lurk behind every tree—and even if the unit manages to escape, infection and disease lie in wait. Homesick and weary, the men of D-Section Thunder Brigade refuse to give up.  Taut and immediate, The King’s Rifle is the first novel to depict the experiences of black African soldiers in the Second World War. This is a story of real life battles, of the men who made the legend of the Chindits, the unconventional, quick-strike division of the British Army in India. Brilliantly executed, this vividly realized account details the madness, sacrifice, and dark humor of that war’s most vicious battleground. It is also the moving story of a boy trying to live long enough to become a man.’

 

8. The Piano Teacher by Janice Y.K. Lee
‘Exotic Hong Kong takes center stage in this sumptuous novel, set in the 1940s and ’50s. It’s a city teeming with people, sights, sounds, and smells, and it’s home to a group of foreign nationals who enjoy the good life among the local moneyed set, in a tight-knit social enclave distanced from the culture at large. Comfortable, clever, and even a bit dazzling, they revel in their fancy dinners and fun parties. But their sheltered lives take an abrupt turn after the Japanese occupation, and though their reactions are varied — denial, resistance, submission — the toll it takes on all is soon laid bare.   Enter Claire Pendleton from London. Months after her husband is transferred to Hong Kong in 1951, she accepts a position as a piano teacher to the daughter of a wealthy couple, the Chens. Claire begins to see the appeal of the sweltering city and is soon taken in by the Chen’s driver, the curiously underutilized Will Truesdale. A handsome charmer with a mysterious limp, Will appears to be the perfect companion for Claire, who’s often left to her own devices. But a further examination leaves her with more questions than answers.  An intricately woven tale of lives changed by historical events, Lee’s debut brings this hothouse flower of a city alive with passion, and imagines characters both unforgettable and tragic.’

 

9. There Is Room for You by Charlotte Bacon 358848
‘Anna Singer, a charmingly independent young New Yorker, feels derailed after losing her father to a car accident and her husband to a younger woman. She books a trip to India, hoping that there she will be able to put her grief into perspective. Though this is her first visit, India has always tantalized her: her English mother, Rose, was raised in Calcutta during the twilight of the British Raj, but seldom spoke of her childhood. Then, as Anna departs, Rose gives her a manuscript in which she has recorded her Indian memories, torn between two cultures and belonging completely to neither.’

 

10. Staying On by Paul Scott
‘Tusker and Lily Smalley stayed on in India. Given the chance to return ‘home’ when Tusker, once a Colonel in the British Army, retired, they chose instead to remain in the small hill town of Pangkot, with its eccentric inhabitants and archaic rituals left over from the days of the Empire. Only the tyranny of their landlady, the imposing Mrs Bhoolabhoy, threatens to upset the quiet rhythm of their days.  Both funny and deeply moving, Staying On is a unique, engrossing portrait of the end of an empire and of a forty-year love affair.’

 

Have you read any of these?  Which are your favourite books which deal with the British Empire and colonialism?

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The Book Trail: From Virago to Persephone

I have chosen one of Muriel Spark’s books for this, the first of 2019’s, edition of The Book Trail.  As ever, I have used the ‘Readers Also Enjoyed’ tool on Goodreads in order to generate this list.

 

1. The Mandelbaum Gate by Muriel Spark 17593886
To rendezvous with her archeologist fiance in Jordan, Barbara Vaughn must first pass through the Mandelbaum Gate–which divides strife-torn Jerusalem. A half-jewish convert to Catholicism, an Englishwoman of strong and stubborn convictions, Barbara will not be dissuaded from her ill-timed pilgrimage despite a very real threat of bodily harm and the fearful admonishments of staid British diplomat Freddy Hamilton.

 

2. The Summer House: A Trilogy by Alice Thomas Ellis
In The Summer House trilogy, three very different women, with three very distinct perspectives, narrate three very witty novels concerning one disastrous wedding in the offing.  The Clothes in the Wardrobe: Nineteen-year-old Margaret feels more trepidation than joy at the prospect of her marriage to forty-year-old Syl.  The Skeleton in the Cupboard: Syl’s mother, Mrs. Monro, doesn’t know quite what to make of her son’s life, but she knows Margaret should not marry him.  The Fly in the Ointment: And then there’s Lili, the free spirit who is determined that the wedding shall not happen, no matter the consequences.

 

174655123. A Long Way From Verona by Jane Gardam
Jessica Vye’s ‘violent experience’ colours her schooldays and her reaction to the world around her- a confining world of Order Marks, wartime restrictions, viyella dresses, nicely-restrained essays and dusty tea shops. For Jessica she has been told that she is ‘beyond all possible doubt’, a born writer. With her inability to conform, her absolute compulsion to tell the truth and her dedication to accurately noting her experiences, she knows this anyway. But what she doesn’t know is that the experiences that sustain and enrich her burgeoning talent will one day lead to a new- and entirely unexpected- reality.

 

4. Marianne Dreams by Catherine Storr
Ill and bored with having to stay in bed, Marianne picks up a pencil and starts doodling – a house, a garden, a boy at the window. That night she has an extraordinary dream. She is transported into her own picture, and as she explores further she soon realises she is not alone. The boy at the window is called Mark, and his every movement is guarded by the menacing stone watchers that surround the solitary house. Together, in their dreams, Marianne and Mark must save themselves…

 

5. Mistress Masham’s Repose by T.H. White 29124
‘Ten-year-old Maria, orphaned mistress of Malplaquet, discovers the secret of her deteriorating estate: on a deserted island at its far corner, in the temple long ago nicknamed Mistress Masham’s Repose, live an entire community of people—”The People,” as they call themselves—all only inches tall. With the help of her only friend—the absurdly erudite Professor—Maria soon learns that this settlement is no less than the kingdom of Lilliput (first seen in Gulliver’s Travels) in exile. Safely hidden for centuries, the Lilliputians are at first endangered by Maria’s well-meaning but clumsy attempts to make their lives easier, but their situation grows truly ominous when they are discovered by Maria’s greedy guardians, who look at The People and see only a bundle of money.’

 

6. The House in Norham Gardens by Penelope Lively
No.40 Norham Gardens, Oxford, is the home of Clare Mayfield, her two aged aunts and two lodgers. The house is a huge Victorian monstrosity, with rooms all full of old furniture, old papers, old clothes, memorabilia – it is like a living museum. Clare discovers in a junk room the vividly painted shield which her great-grandfather, an eminent anthropologist, had brought back from New Guinea. She becomes obsessed with its past and determined to find out more about its strange tribal origins. Dreams begin to haunt her – dreams of another country, another clture, another time, and of shadowy people whom she feels are watching her. Who are they, and what do they want?

 

5025367. They Knew Mr Knight by Dorothy Whipple
The Blakes are an ordinary family: Celia looks after the house and Thomas works at the family engineering business in Leicester. This book begins when he meets Mr Knight, a financier as crooked as any on the front pages of our newspapers nowadays; and tracks his and his family’s swift climb and fall.

 

8. Fidelity by Susan Glaspell
Set in Iowa in 1900 and in 1913, this dramatic and deeply moral novel uses complex but subtle use of flashback to describe a girl named Ruth Holland, bored with her life at home, falling in love with a married man and running off with him; when she comes back more than a decade later we are shown how her actions have affected those around her. Ruth had taken another woman’s husband and as such ‘Freeport’ society thinks she is ‘a human being who selfishly – basely – took her own happiness, leaving misery for others. She outraged society as completely as a woman could outrage it… One who defies it – deceives it – must be shut out from it.’  But, like Emma Bovary, Edna Pontellier in ‘The Awakening’ and Nora in ‘A Doll’s House’ Ruth has ‘a diffused longing for an enlarged experience… Her energies having been shut off from the way they had wanted to go, she was all the more zestful for new things from life…’ It is these that are explored in Fidelity.

 

Have you read any of these?  Which have piqued your interest?

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