This is the third in Morris' trilogy on the British Empire, with Heaven's Command (1973) charting the birth and rise of the empire, Pax Brittanica (1968) its apogee in 1897, and Farewell the Trumpets (1978) the 20th century decline, an "imperial retreat from glory".
Though she says "I have not been concerned so much with wat the British Empire *meant*, as what it felt like" the lucky reader is treated to both meaning and feeling. I think this is a brilliant book, and I can re-read it at intervals: the jokes! the footnotes! the titillating snippets of obscure information! the irony, the empathy, the glorious writing. What a joy.
this is not an elegy - but not an accusation, either. It is a mood piece, at times melancholy, at times hardboiled and direct. Much of the time it is suffused with gentle irony, and then suddenly you are jolted by a trenchant sentence, as in summarizing Delamere's and Lugard's ideas of empire: "the Kenya Africans would be serfs; the Nigerians, exhibits in a folk museum." It is pithy and to the point. it is also tinged with an affectionate melancholy. In carefully sought-out detail, we get the spirit of empire, and the ridiculousness; beauty, dirt, blood and waste. There are fascinating vignettes of personalities like Smuts, Mary kingsley, Gino Watkins; of places like Calgary, Gallipoli, Magersfontein and Suez; we see Gandhi meet King George V.
I think it is a wonderful book. As Morris says, "it was time the Empire went, but it was sad to see it go." And she manages to make you feel the same, which is a pretty good accomplishment!