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Book Review


Webster, Wendy. Englishness and Empire: 1939-1965. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005). pp. 253, $74.00.

     Wendy Webster's Englishness and Empire: 1939-1965 is an attempt to address the lack of scholarship on the impact of decolonization and the loss of world prestige on metropolitan British culture and society. She argues that the impact of this was registered throughout British society. This loss of a global role was of profound importance to the British because it forced them to question their role in the world, their role in history, and their role at home. She makes good use of media archives, focusing particular attention on films, but also includes elements of radio, newspapers, and, for both the Coronation and Churchill's funeral, television. As a somewhat new medium in the period being discussed, television's influence was felt through the modernity of the format and in what was being viewed. Live television allowed 20 million Britains to view the Coronation simultaneously, with an additional 150 to 200 million viewers worldwide. (6)

     The book was organized into three main narratives: the people's empire, which encompassed a wartime depiction of empire that attempted to pull the peoples of the empire together across race, gender, and class differences; the siege narrative, a post-World War II depiction of empire as attacking or threatening the metropolis; and the late 1950's-early 1960's story of British masculinity as being as its peak during World War II, a story that reached its apex with Churchill's funeral in 1965. Women and non-whites are discussed in the first two narratives, while the third is defined in opposition to standard notions of them.

     This book was written for a scholarly audience, but the language is accessible to a more general population. With its focus on popular culture, especially film, this book could be of interest to film enthusiasts as well as social historians. Webster introduces the subject of each chapter with an illustrative example from popular culture and ends each chapter with a tie-in to the following chapter's theme. The narratives are discussed in relation to major events in British history—World War II, the Coronation, the Colonial Wars, and Churchill's funeral. Chapter two is about the people's empire, a depiction of solidarity within the empire. Chapter three, the post-war period, sees the people's empire and people's victory replaced by a hero's (i.e. white man's) victory. The following chapter, "Coronation," sees the youthful Queen Elizabeth II come to the throne. She is the symbol of the new imperial identity, the Commonwealth, a "multi-racial community of equal nations." (118) The problems of the "Colonial Wars" and "Immigration" as described in chapters 5 and 6 are united by the central theme of the fear of attack. The final chapter deals mostly with the masculine culture of the time with a focus on Churchill's legacy. Finally, the Epilogue centers on the impact of empire on the Falklands War of 1982.

     The people's empire was a necessary and vital part of the British war effort. The term itself is an attempt to explain the unification of peoples across the empire without regard to race or country. Webster bases the term on the more common "people's war." It implies that the empire belonged to all of its citizens. In 1940, Britain stood alone in Europe, but as a Punch cartoon made clear, they were alone with 500 million people. (44) In the poster "Together," designed to advertise the imperial war effort, the empire's people were depicted with white Britons in the front (Canadians, Australians, New Zealanders, and South Africans) with Indians and black Africans marching at the rear. Although a hierarchy was clearly evident, there was an attempt at inclusiveness. This depiction is clearly a propaganda piece, but the empire was in fact crucial to British victory. The colonial armies were a source of labor and manpower. The war made the differences between members of the empire less significant in comparison to the possible outcome.

     One of the more tantalizing ideas discussed in this book is the idea of the siege narrative. The 1950's saw a shift away from the people's empire. "Diverse peoples were no longer united against a common enemy. Instead a racial community of Britons was under siege in empire. (124) White Britons saw themselves as threatened throughout the empire during the colonial wars and the period of decolonization. The increase in immigration to Britain, especially by non-white peoples from former imperial dominions, was both a corollary and a cause of this. Just as empire no longer seemed a "safe" place, now neither did "home."

     There are two features lacking in this volume: there is no discussion of Cold War visions of British identity and there are no pictures. Although the title indicates the book will only cover the period 1939-1965, the lack of a discussion about Cold War era perceptions of British identity was disappointing. The lack of images to accompany the text is a major drawback. The visual medium is the focus of the discussion and, without examples of posters or stills from movies, some of the force of the argument is lost. The most compelling arguments were the ones that used examples with which most readers would be visually familiar, while the inclusion of relatively obscure movies as examples made a truism of the saying a picture is worth a thousand words.


Lorelei Sterling
Washington State University


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