The Decline and Fall of the British Empire, 1781–1997
by Piers Brendon
Knopf, 786 pp., $37.50
Piers Brendon has written a splendid popular history of the British Empire, illustrating yet again the continuing nostalgia for and ambivalence about the glory days of the United Kingdom, when it ruled a quarter of the globe: fifty-eight countries, four hundred million people, fourteen million square miles. One way to obtain a quick calibration of where Brendon’s The Decline and Fall of the British Empire, 1781–1997 fits among acclaimed British assessors of empire is to compare the reviews in English periodicals quoted on the back of his book with those on the back of Lawrence James’s The Rise and Fall of the British Empire, published in 1994 and reprinted five times in paperback.
James wrote a “superb history of a mammoth subject” (The Times); it was “outstanding…. An intelligible introduction to a grand subject” (The Spectator Books of the Year); and
James’ epic is not only a first-rate narrative, but also a penetrating portrait of the British…. Having largely, if often inadvertently, selfishly or ham-fistedly, engineered the world we live in, we need the courage now to face up to our record as coolly and intelligently as Lawrence James has done.
(Times Literary Supplement)
For Brendon the praise has been equally enthusiastic, but with a different lilt:
Brilliant…. An enthralling mini-series of colonial adventure…. [Brendon’s] book is stuffed with…myriad spectacular examples of human vanity, folly, depravity and greed—and is all the better for it.
[A] sumptuous chronicle of the British empire…. A glittering panoply of decadence, folly, farce and devastation.
A narrative masterpiece. The settings are exotic, the cast of thousands full of the most eccentric, egotistical, paranoid, swashbuckling players you are likely to meet in any history…. An endlessly engrossing and disturbing stream of anecdotes and vignettes that Brendon tells with extraordinary flair and sympathy, warts and all.
(The Sunday Telegraph)
“Warts and all” about sums it up. Brendon is indeed a brilliant narrator, but whereas James’s “epic” has a heroic cast to it, with perhaps a dying fall, Brendon’s conclusion seems to be that the empire was a colossal piece of luck and was doomed from the start:
The British Empire had a small human and geographical base, remote from its overseas possessions. In the late eighteenth century it gained fortuitous [sic] industrial, commercial and naval advantages that rivals were bound to erode.
He may well be closer to the current zeitgeist; Niall Ferguson, in his Empire: How Britain Made the Modern World, quotes an eminent historian, whom he says encapsulated the conventional wisdom, asking on BBC-TV: “How did a people who thought themselves free end up subjugating so much of the world?… How did an empire of the free become an empire of slaves?” Brendon, for his part, detects a different drummer, “the unhealthy neo-imperialist climate of today,” in which the seamy side of the empire is apt to be played down, though his British reviews gainsay that. As a result, he sets out …