The British Empire Library

Empire and the English Character: The Illusion of Authority

by Kathryn Tidrick

Courtesy of OSPA

Review by A.H.M. Kirk-Greene (Nigeria 1950-66, lecturer in Modern History of Africa, Oxford University)
This is eminently a book for 'us', and non-specialist readers need not be put off by the faet that nearly 15% of the text is given over to over 900 notes and some 30 pages of bibliography. It is an original, thoughtful and fascinating attempt to answer the not-so-original question of why it was the English (no Celtic fringe here: "the ideas were English in origin") came to think of themselves as an imperial race whose responsibility and genius it was to conquer and so to 'civilize'. In a sentence, what were the leit-motifs of Britain's self-perceived role?

For Kathryn Tidrick (she is a psychologist by training), the answer lies in "the play of character within the context of empire once empire was an established fact", that is to say not so much 'why imperial expansion? but rather 'how colonial rule?' Her time-scale is from the 1840s to the 1940s. Her method is to take individuals and to build the development of ideas around them: the Lawrence brothers and the Punjab creed; Cecil Rhodes and F. C. Selous as adventurers, Clifford as an administrator; Delamere in Kenya, and that "special breed of men" who administered the Masai; Lugard and Temple, Furse and the public schools on the meaning of indirect rule, and Hailey, Cohen and Creech-Jones on the end of empire. Throughout she makes attractive allusions to the writers of imperial fiction: John Buchan and Rider Haggard (no Edgar Wallace), Karen Blixen and Elspeth Huxley, Rudyard Kipling, and Sir Hugh Clifford's remarkable if often autobiographical output as a novelist. It is a long time since I read such a hugely enjoyable, informed and reflective book about the British at the cutting edge of empire.

While I remain grateful to the OSPA member who first put us on to this book as being very much 'our' kind of reading, if the experience of your Association in obtaining a copy is anything to go by, a word of caveat emptor warning to potential purchasers will be in order. It took four letters and five telephone calls over six months to elicit even an acknowledgement of the request for a review copy. When this arrived, 201 days later, it was so disgracefully damaged, smellingly coffee-stained and unacceptably thumb-marked that only the belief that the contents were important enough to bring to our readers' attention without a further half-year elapsing prevented its immediate return to 'Mr. Tauris' for him to assess the standards of his marketing department. That said, good luck to lucky readers!

British Empire Book
Kathryn Tidrick
Tauris Parke


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