King Solomon’s Mines by H. Rider Haggard (Dover, $3). I was once an old-fashioned British schoolboy, of perhaps the last generation to be brought up on the novels of empire. King Solomon’s Mines, published in 1885, had it all: Oppression, slavery, the hidden world of a lost civilization, and tribes living by social codes that are abruptly disrupted by British treasure-hunters.
Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad (Dover, $1.50). The ultimate chronicle of occupation and the effect on the colonialist of untrammeled power. For the ivory collector Kurtz, wrestling with his demons up the mighty Congo River, it spurs delusions and madness.
I, Claudius by Robert Graves (Vintage, $16). For my generation, this was first a television dramatization, which drove us to the novel because it seemed to tell, through the prism of the Roman Empire, the story of the rise and fall of our own.
A Passage to India by E.M. Forster (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $14). The heart of Britain’s second, post-American empire was India. Forster’s 1924 novel was ahead of its time, depicting the claim of a young Englishwoman that she has been assaulted by a male Indian friend. It brings out issues of race through a frame as intimate and understated as a Jane Austen tale.
Staying On by Paul Scott (Univ. of Chicago, $17). Paul Scott’s 1977 novel gives us a post-imperial India where the English are eclipsed and reduced to museum pieces. Here, the main characters are colonial retirees living in a hotel annex whose brassy proprietress represents the confident new India. Like all these writers, Scott nevertheless has sympathy for the British protagonists, with their “civilizing mission.”
The Siege of Krishnapur by J.G. Farrell (New York Review Books, $16). This is a remarkable story that takes on an iconic imperial event, the Indian rebellion of 1857. It shows the emergence of Indian power and the breakdown of a British class structure under literal siege by rebels. The British Empire lasted another 100 years beyond the event described here. But the story foresees this, as British power turns burlesque. Truly an end-of-empire novel.
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