Imperial Optics
Empire Histories, Interpretive Methods
I promised to show you a map you say but this is a mural
then yes let it be these are small distinctions
where do we see it from is the question.
—Adrienne Rich, Atlas of the Di≈cult World (1991)
The sentiment of empire is innate in every Briton.
—William Ewart Gladstone, ‘‘England’s Mission’’ (1878)
The trouble with the Engenglish is that their hiss hiss history happened
overseas, so they dodo don’t know what it means.
—Salman Rushdie, The Satanic Verses (1988)
For the better part of two decades, I have taught an upper-level under-
graduate history course, ‘‘Victorian Britain,’’ with a syllabus that has
featured—or operated under the sign of—the quotes by William Ewart
Gladstone and Salman Rushdie. Their juxtaposition is emblematic of the
version of ‘‘Victorian Britain’’ I have staged in the course, laying primary
documents from the period alongside historiographical interpretations
that derive largely, if not exclusively, from a postcolonially inflected impe-
rial history: one that takes ‘‘imperial culture at home’’ as both object of
inquiry and vantage point. So we have read conventional, ‘‘domestic’’
high politics alongside imperial events and phenomena; parliamentary
speeches alongside various forms of literary expression and print culture;
war diaries alongside accounts of imperial museum spectacle. And while
Edward Said is not on the syllabus, it does feature a number of secondary
works that reflect modern British history writing ‘‘after the imperial turn’’
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