“In Britain today, delusions of empire as a benevolent undertaking abound and Winston Churchill is often simply a beloved defender of England. This book shows the view from India, with empire a brutal undertaking and Churchill an imperial fantasist… Deborah Baker thinks she writes of the last Englishmen. There are some left who would benefit from reading this [book].”
“Baker is able to inhabit characters from both sides, not merely as political entities…but as confused and deluded human beings, crashing into one another with all the dissatisfaction and self-doubt that membership in your and my species entails. The result is a book that offers not only the historical facts, but also a convincing three-dimensional experience of the withering of European ambitions in Asia.”
March 12, 2019
Anyone writing today has to avoid giving the impression that—as Salman Rushdie, in a pungent critique from the 1980s, put it—“the history of the end of the Raj was largely composed of the doings of the officer class and its wife,” with Indians as “bit-players in their own history.” Baker, who is American and has lived in India, comes to this history with less baggage than a British writer. She is not an academic historian, but she has written what is, despite the novelistic arrangement, a book that belongs on the same shelf as the many recent revisionist histories of India’s war.
“What the deeply researched, marvelously portrayed life stories recounted in The Last Englishmen show is just how muddled these world-historical changes actually look when you’re living in the middle of them. That makes the book a valuable supplement to the more conventional accounts of decolonization as a process driven by clear-eyed activists and historical logic. If anything, histories like Baker’s may be precisely what are needed in the present heated moment, as reminders of the many ways in which people find their way through political transformation.”
“Incisive and illuminating. … This is a thoroughly researched, relentlessly engrossing epic tale. Baker is adept in all areas — on the slopes of Everest or within corridors of power, among Calcutta’s intellectuals or London’s art crowd. She writes with verve and authority on colonial tension, cultural achievement and global conflict. … Baker’s study of national endeavor and personal struggle throws a valuable light on past upheavals and ideals. There is much to admire and a lot to learn.”
“In her ambitious new book, ‘The Last Englishmen: Love, War, and the End of Empire,’ she brings to bear this art of juxtaposition upon a much-told story, the last two decades of the British Empire in India, to create something wholly original … It is to Ms. Baker’s credit that she keeps the big events always in view, dramatizing and humanizing the workings of history, particularly the story of empire and its machinations, in a way a novelist would — by making it a story of individuals. She understands everything about these people, the details of their lives, the connections and the criss-crossings, intersections, overlaps, friends-of-lovers-of-friends. It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that there is something Tolstoyan to her vast project.”
Baker’s narrative is eventful and diffuse … One moment we’re high in the Himalayas, the next we’re in an intellectuals’ conclave in Calcutta — and then we’re off to a London theater, a Manhattan hotel and a Brussels airbase. … Baker writes beautifully, and she’s done ample research. Drawing on a host of private and public archives, she crafts memorable portraits of dynamic, flawed men and women.
“The Unknown Auden: the Poet’s Dashing Older Brother”
“In The Last Englishmen, Deborah Baker has written an exuberant, scene-changing, shapeshifting group biography … ”
“Baker tells her story as if it were fiction, generally paraphrasing rather than directly quoting letters, diaries, and other documents. Purists may object to this, but every incident and description of minutia, and every thought or feeling, is meticulously sourced. The result is a book with a narrative sweep of an epic novel.”
“A rich account of the end of the Empire, told through the lives of the small fry”
“A refreshingly novel account … Ms. Baker draws from a rich stock of unpublished memoirs, journals, police reports and other documents, deploying fresh material with a light touch … As narrative history this is skillful work, showing ordinary individuals as they cope — or buckle — while great geopolitical events twist and shape their lives.”
“But what really distinguishes this book is its brilliant characterizations and its structural agility. It reads like fiction … Non-fiction ought always to be this engaging. Baker is not herself a novelist. Her husband, Amitav Ghosh, however, is, and so she must know how fine is the line between biographical fact and historical fiction. The Last Englishmen straddles it to dazzling effect.”
“Deborah Baker: Portraits of Passion”
Noted critics have said that The Last Englishmen reads like a novel. That’s where I find myself in disagreement. For a book that is so closely and creatively based on research, it is conscious of its narrative role and does not attempt to read like a novel at all—instead re- affirming, in its difficulty and detail, its provenance. Where it feels like the best of novels is in the sophisticated structure it employs, reminiscent of Vikram Seth, who spoke memorably in the voice of Amit Chatterji in A Suitable Boy: ‘I’ve always felt that the performance of a raag resembles a novel—or at least the kind of novel I’m attempting to write. You know,’ he continued, ‘first you take one note and explore it for a while, then another to discover the possibilities, then perhaps you get to the dominant, and pause for a bit, and it’s only gradually that the phrases begin to form and the tabla joins in with the beat…and then the more brilliant improvisations and diversions begin, with the main theme returning from time to time, and finally it all speeds up, and the excitement increases to a climax.’
The beauty of The Last Englishmen is in adapting this form to non-fiction so bravely—right down to the climax, with the Great Calcutta Killings when the original Set of Sudhin’s adda find themselves divided as never before. Buy this book. And then take your time reading and re-reading it.
“Pulitzer-nominated biographer Deborah Baker’s new book, The Last Englishmen: Love, War and the End of Empire, is a work of history and imagination, a crowded portrait of the last couple of decades of British rule in India. ”
Employed in the service of the empire, [the “last Englishmen” of Deborah Baker’s new book] find themselves entangled in a web of friendships, rivalries, accidents and adventures. But from the interstices of their lives, shot through with hard facts and the gossamer thread of Baker’s vivid imagination, emerges a tale of alienation and existential dilemma. As with her earlier books, Baker puts a human face to history. She makes familiar events, such as the Great Calcutta Killings of 1946, come alive in all their heartbreaking details. With her close attention to archival records and gift of reading between the lines, Baker has forged a form that’s very much her own.
Complex, multilayered, rendered with novelistic flair, her books illuminate her skills as historian, biographer and essayist.
“An immersive book about a cast of characters who stood at the edge of history, written by a clever excavator, elegant wordsmith, and structural craftsman who is adept across cultures. Through their lives and loves, Baker illuminates the world on the cusp of war, chaos, and vast social change. Baker’s novelistic pages have an ease and elegance that make them a pleasure to read. The prodigious volume of her research is evident, but the text wears it lightly.”
Grant Jury, Whiting Foundation
“Deborah Baker combines a novelistic alertness to the inner life with an anthropologist’s understanding of multiple cultures and a historian’s eye for major events. The result, yet again, is a continuously absorbing and stimulating book, which enlarges the cultural and political history of the mid-20th century even as it grippingly relates the adventures of a few men and women.”
“Love, war, politics, psychoanalysis, poetry, Calcutta and, especially, the Himalayas — Deborah Baker’s meticulously researched account of India and Britain in the forties reads like the very best of novels.”
“[The Last Englishmen is Baker’s] most creatively conceived, deeply delving, and wizardly blend of biography and history to date … With a uniquely encompassing vision, command of complex information, and profound insight, Baker dramatically chronicles the seminal scientific and artistic explorations of four courageous, ingenious brothers whose achievements enrich our understanding of the still-molten, sharply relevant past.”
“An elegant and complex narrative of India and the British Empire … Baker skillfully navigates numerous interlaced tales, illuminating in a lively and stylistic fashion both the inner lives of intriguing individuals and weightier geopolitical developments.”