Sunday, July 10, 2011

Book Review: "The Inner Life of Empires"

After reading several extremely complimentary reviews of Emma Rothschild's The Inner Life of Empires (Princeton University Press, 2011) I ordered up a copy and waited in anticipation for it to arrive so I could dig in. I enjoy very much the concept of microhistorical perspective, and Rothschild's effort, to focus on the far-flung brothers and sisters of a single family, the Scottish-born Johnstones, seemed likely to work well.

The Johnstones saw it all: four of the brothers ended up in the House of Commons, several traveled to various reaches of the empire (India, the Caribbean, North America), there were complicated inheritance suits and legal cases of grave import, and a not-insignificant body of correspondence both between the family and with their many acquaintances to draw on. Cameo appearances are made by a whole host of figures, everyone from James McPherson (of Ossian fame) to James Boswell, Alexander Wedderburn, Adam Smith, Adam Ferguson, Dave Hume, and many others.

Certain sections of this book were extremely well executed. Rothschild has clearly done her research, mining the archives for every scrap of evidence about the family and their activities, and documenting it well (the notes, which are lovely, take up 150 pages). What she has not done, however, is make the disparate parts of her story into a cohesive whole. Information is repeated (sometimes three or even four times), and the book is separated into short chunks of text which severely restrict the possibility of any narrative flow. The family's story, and how it fits into the larger cultural, political, and economical life of the period, gets lost amidst the repetition.

I hoped, quite honestly, for more from this book. The idea is a wonderful one, the Johnstone family works perfectly as a case study, and the information is there. Some additional attention from a skilled editor might have made it a great book. Instead, I'm sorry to say it was a disappointment.

1 comment:

P M said...

I agree with you that The Inner Life of Empires, despite the interesting themes it pusues, is a disappointment. I don't think the same can be said of Stephen Foster's A Private Empire which also addresses the grand themes of empire from the archival record of a single Scottish family. John MacKenzie in a review of both books in The Scotsman described Foster's book as the better read. I'd recommend it too.