James (or Jan) Morris describes his story of the decline and fall of the British Empire, the third in a trilogy, as ""an...



James (or Jan) Morris describes his story of the decline and fall of the British Empire, the third in a trilogy, as ""an aesthetic view,"" but that is only to say that he sees with the jeweler's eye of a novelist, discovering the large in the small. His subject is the Empire as a mode of existence--enlisting, for example, every form of expertise (""after the gun came the butterfly net""). And, always, the conjunction of time, place, and person, for it cannot be accidental that the heterogeneous, far-flung British Empire intrigues Morris the perpetual traveler. So we ascend the Nile with Kitchener to tiny, dismal Fashoda (""a few conical huts. . . a group of palls. . . a soggy garden"") for a discreet, decisive confrontation with the French; or, pause in the brutal, disillusioning Boer War for a wounded evacuee's half-conscious cry: ""Can you see the two white lights yet, Bill?"" But, although Morris picks and proportions his subjects accordingly, the panoramic view precedes the vignette, and the non-British reader will be particularly grateful to have, for instance, the three British WW I offensives against the Turks clearly delineated. The Empire has held, even grown, but after Gallipoli and all that slaughter, ""glory was discredited in the hearts of the people. . . and 'Tipperary,' with which they had marched so guilelessly to their early battles, was tacitly dropped from the Army's musical repertoire."" This, of course, is only the first third of the tale: the inter-war disintegration and the post-WW II dissolution are still to come. Here, Morris ferrets out signs of colonial independence in ""self-made"" Toronto and ""raffish"" Jo'burg; reflects on enduring British specialties (like dams) and symbolic innovations (like the wireless); expands on the opportunities the Empire offered to extraordinary (but not average) women. . . until, finally, the Commonwealth is rationalized and even ""the fantasy of the Crown"" fades. A memorable book, surely, imbued with the brio, the ambition, the curiosity, the sadness, and the nobility of the Empire that spawned it.

Pub Date: Aug. 30, 1978


Page Count: -

Publisher: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich

Review Posted Online: N/A

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 1978