Empire in Question

Reading, Writing, and Teaching British Imperialism

Empire in Question

Book Pages: 416 Illustrations: Published: May 2011

Author: Antoinette Burton

Contributor(s): Mrinalini Sinha, C. A. Bayly

Gender and Sexuality > Feminism and Women’s Studies, History > World History, Postcolonial and Colonial Studies

Featuring essays written by the influential historian Antoinette Burton since the mid-1990s, Empire in Question traces the development of a particular, contentious strand of modern British history, the “new imperial history,” through the eyes of a scholar who helped to shape the field. In her teaching and writing, Burton has insisted that the vectors of imperial power run in multiple directions, argued that race must be incorporated into history writing, and emphasized that gender and sexuality are critical dimensions of imperial history. Empire in Question includes Burton’s groundbreaking critiques of British historiography, as well as essays in which she brings theory to bear on topics from Jane Eyre to nostalgia for colonial India. Burton’s autobiographical introduction describes how her early encounters with feminist and postcolonial critique led to her convictions that we must ask who counts as a subject of imperial history, and that we should maintain a healthy skepticism regarding the claims to objectivity that shape much modern history writing. In the coda, she candidly reflects on shortcomings in her own thinking and in the new imperial history, and she argues that British history must be repositioned in relation to world history. Much of Burton’s writing emerged from her teaching; Empire in Question is meant to engage students and teachers in debates about how to think about British imperialism in light of contemporary events.


“Antoinette Burton’s collection of articles in the book, Empire in Question show her theoretical acumen and serve as theoretical harbinger for future aspiring imperial historians.... This book is a treasure trove of information on imperial history and a necessary text for aspiring imperial historians, graduate students, and for those nostalgic for the Empire. It can only be hoped that such rethinking and researching of this nature would happen in the other areas of history of India as well.” — Lavanya Vemsani, Itinerario

“Antoinette Burton’s interrogation of empire has made reading, writing and teaching British imperialism a more stimulating and rewarding enterprise.” — Gavin Rand, Journal of Victorian Culture Online

“Burton's new book should be read by everyone interested in the history of the British Empire over the last two centuries. Burton has been a leader, as Bayly comments in his afterword, in destabilizing the Whiggish, white man's model of imperial history. Her book importantly challenges the ways in which historians and the publics they influence continue to think about imperialism (both British and American) as well as about globalization, race, gender, and the practice and teaching of history.” — Patrick Brantlinger, Review 19

“The development of the ‘new imperial history’ is considered in this book by a scholar who helped to shape the field. Antoinette Burton has insisted that the vectors of imperial power run in many directions and that race must be incorporated into history writing, and argued that gender and sexuality are critical dimensions of imperial history. This collection of essays includes her groundbreaking critiques of British historiography, as well as essays in which she views topics from Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre to nostalgia for colonial India through the lens of theory, and a coda in which she candidly assesses shortcomings in her own thinking.” — Times Higher Education

“This is history with politics and scholarship bound up together, where anything can become the material of the historian if viewed with a discerning eye, where the present and the past are constantly in dialogue, constantly up for question.” — Yasmin Khan, History Workshop Journal

Empire in Question demonstrates the vitality of cultural studies in capturing the relational dynamics of gender and race and their entwined framing of the lived spaces of imperial rule.” — Manu Goswami, Journal of Modern History

 “[A]n important retrospective of new imperial history’s development into a vital approach to British historical studies…. Brought together as it is in this volume, Burton’s work demonstrates the challenges, but more so the vital importance, of continuing to push ourselves and British studies past these historiographical barriers to a fuller view of the multiplicity of peoples and places that shape historical and contemporary global systems.” — Nicole M. Mares, Journal of World History

“Burton’s contribution to British History and her role in the formulation of the New Imperial History…has intellectually reinvigorated British Studies”  — Charles V. Reed, Journal of the North Carolina Association of Historians

“Antoinette Burton’s body of work is central to the debates over national, imperial, and postcolonial histories. Empire in Question is a most welcome collection of her essays, and required reading for anyone in this field. It contains classics, less well-known pieces, and new work. Characteristically, it is full of questions and challenges, both to herself and to her readers. We see a critical and imaginative historian at work, fully engaged both with the times in which she lives, and the times she evokes for us in the past.” — Catherine Hall, Professor of Modern British Social and Cultural History, University College London

“No one has done more than Antoinette Burton to challenge the autonomies of national history, indeed the very ‘certainty of the nation as an analytical category’ itself. Inspired both by the archive’s possibilities and the promise of feminist and postcolonial critique, she turns the ever-seductive sufficiencies of British history radically inside out. While brilliantly showing how and why the histories of nation and empire have to be written together, Empire in Question also documents the continuing transformations of the discipline of history since the 1980s, speaking eloquently to specialists across many different fields.” — Geoff Eley, author of A Crooked Line: From Cultural History to the History of Society


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Author/Editor Bios Back to Top

Antoinette Burton is Professor of History and Catherine C. and Bruce A. Bastian Professor of Global and Transnational Studies at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. She has written and edited many books, including The Postcolonial Careers of Santha Rama Rau and After the Imperial Turn: Thinking with and through the Nation, both also published by Duke University Press.

Table of Contents Back to Top
Foreword / Mrinalini Sinha xi

Preface. A Note on the Logic of the Volume xvii

Acknowledgments xix

Introduction. Imperial Optics: Empire Histories, Interpretive Methods 1

Part I. Home and Away: Mapping Imperial Cultures

1. Rules of Thumb: British History and "Imperial Culture" in Nineteenth-Century and Twentieth-Century Britain (1994) 27

2. Who Needs the Nation? Interrogating "British" History (1997) 41

3. Thinking beyond the Boundaries: Empire, Feminism, and the Domains of History (2001) 56

4. Déjà Vu All over Again (2002) 68

5. When Was Britain? Nostalgia for the Nation at the End of the "American Century" (2003) 77

6. Archive Stories: Gender in the Making of Imperial and Colonial Histories (2004) 94

7. Gender, Colonialism, and Feminist Collaboration (2008, with Jean Allman) 106

Part II. Theory into Practice: Doing Critical Imperial History

8. Fearful Bodies into Disciplined Subjects: Pleasure, Romance, and the Family Drama of Colonial Reform in Mary Carpenter's Six Months in India (1995) 123

9. Contesting the Zenana: The Mission to Make "Lady Doctors for India," 1874–75 (1996) 151

10. Recapturing Jane Eyre: Reflections on Historicizing the Colonial Encounter in Victorian Britain (1996) 174

11. From Child Bride to "Hindoo Lady": Rukhmabai and the Debate on Sexual Respectability of Imperial Britain (1998) 184

12. Tongues United: Lord Salisbury's "Black Man" and the Boundaries of Imperial Democracy (2000) 214

13. India Inc.?: Nostalgia, Memory, and the Empire of Things (2001) 241

14. New Narratives of Imperial Politics in the Nineteenth Century (2006) 257

Coda. Empire of/and the World?: The Limits of British Imperialism

15. Getting Outside of the Global: Repositioning British Imperialism in World History 275

Afterword / C. A. Bayly 293

Notes 303

Index 381
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Paper ISBN: 978-0-8223-4902-0 / Cloth ISBN: 978-0-8223-4880-1
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