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What Did They Know of Empire?

Bernard Porter argues that, through most of the nineteenth century, most Britons knew little and cared less about the spread of the Empire.

The idea that British society was thoroughly infused with ‘imperialism’ in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries has gained broad currency in recent years. Influential here have been John MacKenzie’s works on the wide spread of imperial propaganda in the later part of this period, at least; and the late Edward Said’s exposure of the hidden imperial content of much of the ‘high’ culture of the earlier nineteenth century. Some have taken these findings much further to justify imperialist readings of just about every feature of modern British society before the 1960s. Travel, science, exhibitions, zoos, boys’ adventure stories, even nude paintings (Empire as rape), were all essentially imperialist activities. Modern film and TV adaptations of Victorian novels and documentaries about nineteenth and early twentieth-century subjects regularly interpolate imperial references, even when they do not appear in the original texts, on the ground, presumably, that the Victorians must have been thinking about their Empire even when they did not talk or write about it, rather like sex, and that this needs to be brought out for a modern audience. (An example is Sarah Curtis’s 1999 film version of Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park of 1814.) The impression given is that almost everyone was an imperialist of one kind or another. They must have been, seems to be the assumption behind this; the Empire was so vast and great and vital to them. It also must have needed their commitment; otherwise how could it have survived?

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