Felipe Fernandez-Armesto

They Mistook Kenya for the Home Counties

Ornamentalism: How the British Saw their Empire

By

AIIen Lane The Penguin Press 288pp £16.99 order from our bookshop

Empires are usually travesties of home. On every frontier you can sense the tension: on the one hand, the ‘frontier effect’ draws restless spirits, rebels, outcasts and escapees to open a new kind of society, unfenced or utopian. On the other, cultural baggage piles up: people crave the comforts and recreate the ways of home. Some metropolitan values triumph; others are blown away by winds of change. In sixteenth-century Mexico and Peru, some conquistadors dreamed of a genuinely New World — with a new Church and a new society, heralding a new age; others erected ‘New Spains’ which were passable simulacra of the old one. In seventeenth-century Ninguta, traditional Chinese hierarchies persisted alongside new rankings: mandarins’ daughters slid barefoot down the icy hill to the only well, while merchants greeted the military governor as they would a younger brother. To Kenya’s Happy Valley, English colonists carefully transposed their home-grown etiquette, then subverted it with transgressive adulteries. In some jungles, settlers wear dinner jackets; in others, they change into leopard-skin spots. Some go home, some go native. Some, when ‘pukka-sahib traditions cracked’, ‘took to pig-sticking in quite the wrong way.’ We wonder, with Noel Coward, ‘what happened’ to them.

Sign Up to our newsletter

Receive free articles, highlights from the archive, news, details of prizes, and much more.

Follow Literary Review on Twitter

  • Last Tweets

    • 'The physical courage he demonstrated as a young man [...] gave way to intellectual power; radical thought, gifted… ,
    • 'While Jane Austen didn’t perhaps achieve the full recognition that she deserved in her lifetime, even then she out… ,
    • 'All I have is a voice To undo the folded lie, The romantic lie in the brain Of the sensual man-in-the-street And t… ,
    • 'You are interested in a particular subject; basic research hardens this interest into an obsession, after which th… ,
    • 'Keynes predicted that future generations would enjoy such an improved standard of living that they might work just… ,
    • 'Various dislocations ... emerge, iceberg-like, out of a troubled sea of unconscious motivation and confront Eisenb… ,
    • Today is the first today of the – they've got some excellent events coming up over the next two weeks.… ,