Stones of Empire

Jan Morris with Simon Winchester

Read September-October, 2006

Mid-1980s Britain apparently saw a sudden nostalgia for colonial outposts, and none dominates the imagination quite like India. Caught up in this fervour, Jan Morris writes on the subject of British buildings in India; her photographer and collaborator is Simon Winchester in his Young Turk days.

There is, obviously, a great book waiting to be written on this topic. Architecture is the most practical artistic statement a civilization can make. What, then, do we read into British buildings in India? Precisely that the population of a cold, wet island was trapped on a huge, faraway peninsula that is usually hot, often dry, and sometimes lashed by rains and chilling winters. The settlers' nostalgia often trumps their needs, producing buildings of utter impracticality; add to this a certain desire for economy (India was largely governed by a corporation, after all), as well as the usual colonial outpost fear of running afoul of the fashions back home. The resulting buildings are awkward, often ugly, rarely beautiful or elevating, and sometimes hilariously outlandish. It is, in sum, a tale of mediocrity and obtuseness.

Morris peppers the book with analysis and vignettes. She observes the clash of Classical and Gothic representing the transition from the rule of a secular company to a grandiose empire. She enumerates the bizarre confections, from Swiss chalets to Oxbridge imitations to, perhaps strangest of all, a replica of Ypres's Cloth Hall. She observes that Art Deco never invaded India, save for her cinema theaters. And she finds some curious constructions, from the Madras ice house (pg. 32) to railway tunnels at the frontier of the Great Game in Afghanistan.

Despite that, this book never gels. Morris's strength is in human observation leavened with commentary on place, time, and other abstractions. While India is as fertile a territory as one could want, the humans she wants to observe have long since fled the scene, decades and even centuries earlier. As a result the book falls flat and cold, much like one of the stones in the title. The structure is blandly taxonomic, and she can't bring herself to write more than a few paragraphs, or at most a page or two, before moving on to her next assignment. The book also lacks variety, focusing too much on the imperial cities and largely neglecting the wild fancies of more provincial ones. As such it is a work without passion, and the very title suggests her remove.

This book was originally published in 1983. It was re-issued in 2005 with a new foreword by Winchester. In the re-issue, his biographical sketch is larger than hers and there is no evidence of her renewed involvement. A cynical venture?