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The Personal Touch: Miles Taylor’s Empress

Taylor, Miles. Empress: Queen Victoria and India. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2018.

In the most recent installment of “Heather gets me the best books for Christmas,” I received Miles Taylor’s British Imperial work Empress this past Christmas, 2019. At first glance, Empress looked great, and right up my alley. I could use a general history of the Raj! As I began to read, however, it became quickly apparent that Empress was something completely different, a difference that has only enhanced my appreciation for this remarkable book.

Taylor’s study of Victoria and India is just that: a study of the political, social, and often personal relationship between that greatest of nineteenth-century monarch and her most prized imperial possession. While Victoria is closely associated with British India, being the first British monarch to bear an explicitly imperial crown as Empress of India, she has often been left out of histories of British India, at most lurking in the background as some ill-defined presence. Empress restores this singular monarch to the center of the story, and what a story is revealed. From advocating mercy in the wake of the Indian Rebellion of 1857 to employing a number of South Asians in her household, Victoria held more liberal views toward India than one would expect, and in many ways her affections were reciprocated. For the duration of her reign, political dissent in India always first professed a deep respect for the queen before appealing for rights in her name, and in many ways it was her absence in the twentieth century that saw the Raj’s control begin to slip away. 

For all its unique value, however, readers be warned: Empress is not for the uninitiated. When Taylor declares his intent to focus on Victoria’s relationship with India, he means it. Little background information or historical context can be found in his pages, and the result for those unfamiliar with the history of India after 1800 will likely find themselves lost in a sea of strange people, places, and events. If you have had the pleasure of reading a more general history, however, I cannot recommend Empress highly enough. While Taylor may seem somewhat uncritical of his sources at times (was this affection for Victoria sincere, or feigned due to practical concerns? He never broaches the question), the resulting work is, in my humble opinion, history worth including on the reading list for any modern British or British imperial course.

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