Booknotes: Decline and Fall of the British Empire

The stuff you learn when you spend your weekends hanging out with another bookworm.

This isn't strictly speaking a "booknote" in that I haven't actually read the book in question. But this weekend, while I was reading Graceling, Hanna was reading (among other things), Piers Brendon's Decline and Fall of the British Empire, 1781-1997. And along the way, via her viva voce renderings of the text, I learned a few valuable pieces of British Imperialism trivia.

  • While, from the standpoint of Western imperialism, I realize there are many things wrong with this concept, I was nevertheless quietly charmed by learning of the term sleeping dictionary which was slang for (according to the OED) "a foreign woman with whom a man has a sexual relationship and from whom he learns her language." Perhaps it is my love of dictionaries that gives it an endearing feel; I also like the possibility, at least, that if a sexual relationship was sustained and mutual enough for one lover to learn the language of the other than it might in some ways defy the violence of imperial domination.
  • In a passage that begs for an illustration, Brendon writes that Warren Hastings, the Governor-General of India from 1773-1785, "was particularly indulgent towards his acquisitive and much-loved second wife Marian who dressed like 'an Indian princess,' braided her auburn ringlets with gems, and amused herself by throwing kittens into a bowl full of enormous pearls which slid under their paws when they tried to stand up" (36).
  • And finally, in a fashion moment one wishes the fug girls had been around to see, apparently British women of the late-nineteenth century could purchase bustles that, when sat upon, played "God Save the Queen" . . . a sort of patriotic whoopie cushion!
Long live the British Empire . . . at least in entertaining history books.

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