In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Empire

  • Introduction
  • Political and Historical Context
  • General Overviews
  • Travel Writing
  • Emigration
  • Ireland
  • India
  • Africa
  • Australia
  • Religion and Imperialism
  • National Identity/Englishness
  • Race
  • Childhood
  • Masculinity
  • Women and Empire
  • Crime
  • Imperialism and Popular Culture
  • Single Author Studies

Victorian Literature Empire
Grace Moore
  • LAST REVIEWED: 09 June 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 22 April 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199799558-0028


The publication of Edward Said’s Orientalism (1978) heralded the beginning of a scholarly interest in the literature of imperialism. As the British Empire was gradually dismantled in the 20th century, much of the writing generated in response to Britain’s sense of an imperial “mission” was neglected as an uncomfortable reminder of the jingoistic pride of the nation’s imperial heyday. Said’s work offered the chance to revisit the literature of empire and to examine the role it played in upholding and disseminating imperial values. The rise of postcolonial literature in conjunction with the development of cultural studies has meant that influential writing consumed by large numbers of readers—such as the adventure story, or the imperial romance—has become the object of serious study, as commentators seek to understand how Britons from all walks of life interacted with or resisted their nation’s growing sense of imperial mission. Critics from decolonized nations and cultures, such as Gayatri Spivak, have played important roles in scrutinizing the representation of “others” in literature and popular culture, probing what is and is not addressed in works that are sometimes curiously unwilling to face up to Britain’s exploitation of its overseas subjects and holdings.

Political and Historical Context

It is impossible to study the literature of empire effectively without some knowledge of the political and historical context out of which this body or writing emerged. James 1995 offers an excellent starting point, with a comprehensive history of the empire that emphasizes the significance of the Victorian departure from previous centuries. Although the Victorians did not have a clear imperial strategy until after the Indian “mutiny” of 1857, as noted by Porter 2004, the final decades of the 19th century saw a much more concerted attempt to accumulate territory, particularly in Africa. Packenham 1992 offers a meticulous account of the aggressive colonization of Africa after 1870, while Bell 2007 outlines some of the difficulties involved in governing imperial territories once they had been annexed. Davis and Hutenback 1988 and Hobsbawm 1989 present nuanced accounts of the economics behind imperial conquests, noting the often illusory nature of colonial profits.

  • Bell, Duncan, ed. Victorian Visions of Global Order. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2007.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511490439

    Provides an in-depth historical contextualization of some of the key challenges experienced by the Victorians in governing and administering their empire. Resists generalizing about the diversity of responses to empire and examines public policy and political theory, while focusing on international trade, expansionism, and international law. Also examines contemporary perceptions of and debates surrounding the role of the empire.

  • Cannadine, David. Ornamentalism: How the British Saw Their Empire. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001.

    While its title may offer a tongue-in-cheek reference to Edward Said’s Orientalism, Cannadine’s study examines the social politics of the British Empire and the stratification of imperial society. Interweaving discourses of class and race, Cannadine explores the sometimes absurd venture of exporting a restrictive class structure across the world.

  • Davis, Lance E., and Robert A. Huttenback. Mammon and the Pursuit of Empire: The Economics of British Imperialism. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1988.

    A major study of the economic forces behind colonialism that makes the striking revelation that the British Empire was a loss-making entity that enriched private individuals at the expense of the nation. Includes some fascinating analyses of imperial commodities including biscuits and Bovril.

  • Hobsbawm, J. A. The Age of Empire, 1875–1914. London: Abacus, 1989.

    A landmark study by a leading Marxist historian. Hobsbawm charts the socioeconomic forces driving the expansion of England in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Includes discussions of perceived threats to empire, such as the “New Woman,” along with a detailed analysis of nationalism and nation-building.

  • James, Lawrence. The Rise and Fall of the British Empire. London: Abacus, 1995.

    A helpful overview of the empire, beginning in the Elizabethan period, but with a major emphasis on the 19th century as the key period of colonial acquisition. James’s style is accessible, but his commentary is incisive.

  • Packenham, Thomas. The Scramble for Africa. London: Abacus, 1992.

    A sustained account of how European powers offloaded their tensions and rivalry onto the African continent in the closing decades of the 19th century. Packenham gives a detailed and comprehensive account of the carving up of Africa and Europe’s quest for a “place in the sun.”

  • Porter, Bernard. The Lion’s Share: A Short History of British Imperialism 1850–2004. 4th ed. London: Pearson, 2004.

    A wide-ranging introduction to the development of imperial policy in the 19th century. Helpful in outlining the haphazard acquisition of territories in response to individual trade interests, along with Britain’s growing economic imperialism in nations that were never colonized. Porter charts the shift in imperial policy that followed the Indian “mutiny” of 1857 and offers a sustained discussion of the “scramble for Africa” in the closing decades of the century.

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