The British Empire

At the time of Victoria's Diamond Jubilee celebrations in 1897 fiction played an important role in developing and strengthening people's support for the Empire. Writers such as Henty produced stories in which the British adventurer was superior to the native and was portrayed  as strong, courageous, imbued with a sense of duty and a strong Christian faith. Writers like Henty, Rudyard Kipling, Rider Haggard and the mass circulation newspapers like the Daily Mail all helped to develop a strong sense of patriotism which occasionally produced outbursts of patriotic fervour as was seen following the relief of Mafeking. As the Empire declined in the second part of the 20th century the writing associated with empire was seen as racist in content  and increasingly difficult to read. The literature became unfashionable and even Kipling, who was regarded as the Imperial Laureate, was read less and less.

If we are to understand the feelings and attitudes of the British at the height of the British Empire then we should read what they read. Good historical fiction can teach what a standard work of history cannot. It can introduce us to the sights, sounds and smells of the Empire and can give some of the characters a voice. I have included below contemporary historical fiction and also historical fiction that has been written in more recent times. Some might regard contemporary fiction as just propaganda. In some cases the author might have set out to persuade the reader of the justness of empire or have just written what is thought to have appealed to the reader and therefore reflected the times.

Much of the contemporary fiction that I have listed is adventure stories. They introduced a newly educated audience to far away exotic places and were a type of fantasy. As well as contemporary novels I have also included more recent fiction which has been written in a more enlightened time when racism is unacceptable and the author may be highlighting the exploitative and racist nature of Imperialism.

The list is by no means complete and I would welcome suggestions of further reading that you can recommend.

Imperial Historical Fiction

Jane Gardam

‘The Man with the Wooden Hat’, 2009

B Cornwall’s ‘Sharp’ series

CS Forester

‘Mr Midshipman Hornblower’

P O’Brian

 ‘Master and Commander’ series

J Gardam,

  ‘Old Filth, 2004


George MacDonald Fraser

Flashman series

Jane Gardam

‘Last Friends’, 2013


C Achebe, ‘Things Fall Apart’, 1958

O Schreiner, ‘An African Farm’

G Foden, ‘Ladysmith’,

J Conrad,

‘Heart of Darkness’,

G Orwell, ‘Heart of the Matter’, 1948

A Harries,

 ‘Manly Pursuits’, 1999

A Harries, ‘No Place for a Lady’, 2005

C Louis Leipoldt, ‘The Valley’, 2001

R Haggard, ‘King Soloman’s Mines’

S David,

 Zulu Hart’, 2009

Alan Moorehead, ‘The White Nile’

D Ebsworth,

 ‘The  Kraals of Ulundi’

AEW Mason,

‘The Four Feathers’


EM Forster,

 ‘A Passage to India’

P Scott,

‘Raj Quartet’, 1971

Amitav Ghosh, ‘River of Smoke’, 2012

Amitav Ghosh,

 ‘Sea of Poppies’, 2009

Amitav Ghosh, ‘Flood of Fire’, 2015

JG Farrell,

 ‘The Troubles’

JG Farrell, ‘The Seige of Krishnapur’

JG Farrell,

‘The Hill Station’, 1981

J Masters ‘Nightrunners of Bengal’, 1951

J Masters,

‘Bhowani Junction’, 1954

J Masters,

 ‘The Deceivers’, 1952

J Masters, ‘The Lotus and the Wind’, 1953

MM Kaye, ‘The Far Pavilions’, 1978

MM Kaye, ‘The Shadow of the Moon’

S David,

 ‘Hart of Empire’

R Kipling, ‘Kim’

R Kipling, ‘The Man  who would be King’

G Orwell,

 ‘Burmese Days’, 1934

RP Jhabvala, ‘Heat and Dust’, 1975

RK Narayan, ‘The Painter of Signs’, 1976

MJ Carter,

‘The Strangler Vine’

P Mason,

‘The Piano Tuner’

L Woolf, ‘The Village in the Jungle’

P Hensher,

‘The Mulberry Empire’

D Leavitt,

 ‘The Indian Clerk’

B Unsworth,

 ‘Land of Marvels’

Elizabeth Huxley,

 ‘Red Strangers’

Oswald Wynd,

‘The Ginger Tree’

Somerset Vaughan, ‘The Painted Veil’

J Buchan,

 ‘Prester John’


Salman Rushdie, ‘Midnight’s Children’

Martin Boyd, ‘The Cardboard Crown’ 1952

Martin Boyd, ‘A Difficult Young Man’, 1955

Martin Boyd, ‘Outbreak of Love’, 1957

Martin Boyd, ‘When Blackbirds Sing’, 1962

Matthew Kneale, ‘English Passengers’, 2000

Thomas Keneally, ‘Bring Larks and Heroes’, 1988

Kate Grenville,

‘The Secret River’

Kate Grenville,

‘Sarah Thornhill’

Kate  Grenville,

‘The Lieutenant’

New Zealand

Errol Braithwaite, ‘The  Flying Fish’, 1964

Errol Braithwaite, ‘The Needle’s Eye’, 1965

Errol Braithwaite, ‘The Evil Day’, 1967

Fiona Kidman, ‘The Book of Secrets’, 1987

CK Stead, ‘The Singing Whakapapa’, 1994

Deborah Challinor, ‘Isle of Tears’, 2009

Eleanor Catton,

 ‘The Luminaries’

Maurice Shadbolt, ‘Season  of the Jew’, 1986

Maurice Shadbolt, ‘Monday’s Warriors’, 1990

Maurice Shadbolt, ‘The House of Strife’, 1993

The Americas

Margaret Attwood, ‘Alias Grace’

Wayne Johnstone, ‘The Colony of Unrequited Dreams’

Andrea Levy, ‘The Long Song’