Gillian Tindall

Kirkcaldy to Calcutta

The Inner Life of Empires: An Eighteenth-Century History


Princeton University Press 470pp £24.95 order from our bookshop

I want to like this book. Emma Rothschild has found a potentially wonderful subject, and the amount of digging she has done in different archives in Scotland, England, France and the United States, even as far as Hawaii, is impressive. Her starting point was earlier research she had done on Adam Smith for a book about the Enlightenment, and Smith is an intermittent but presiding figure in this one. Investigating a parliamentary election in Smith’s home town of Kirkcaldy, she came across a man named John Johnstone and, through him, unearthed the letter-book of one of his elder brothers, James. This trail led to eleven Johnstone siblings, born in Lowland Scotland in the 1720s and 1730s into a family of lawyers and factors with a ramshackle country seat but no money to support a landed lifestyle. Their energy and ambition were typical in that era of burgeoning trade and empire. The Johnstones made their way in Edinburgh, in London, in the East and West Indies, in the plantations of Virginia, in military and naval service, in speculation and in politics. Spouses, in-laws and long-standing family associates (sometimes the same people) swelled their numbers, as did children (legitimate or otherwise). It is the copious correspondence of this band, their reports to various company and state departments, their wills, annuities, bonds, mortgages and marriage settlements, their representations and protests to those in higher office, their own pronouncements in Parliament (three of them were eventually MPs), other people’s pronouncements on them, their subterfuges and alliances, and their epitaphs, that form the basis for this study of the times in which they lived.

Follow Literary Review on Twitter

  • Last Tweets

    • What a charming, candid blogpost from one of our dear contributing editors. ,
    • RT : The first guess from one of my 1st graders was “death” and such an awed, somber, reflective hush fell over the clas… ,
    • Merry Christmas from Literary Review! Hope your stockings were laden with books, and the tree bending under the weight of further books....,
    • Last minute Christmas gift required? We're offering discounts on all our subscriptions (20% no less!) with the cod… ,
    • In this issue's 'Silenced Voices', Lucy Popescu writes of Thailand's restrictive lese-majesty laws and their latest… ,
    • "Gunn was a disciple of the American formalist Yvor Winters, but Winters’s poetry could never give off such a scent… ,
    • Christmas gift hunting? Why not give the gift of being even better read? We're offering discounts on all our subscr… ,