Wednesday 12 September 2012

Jan Morris, Heaven's Command

jan morris heaven's command

I have mixed feelings about Jan Morris.  She is a giant of travel writing, with a whole bookshelf of titles to herself.  Somehow though, her prose, while undeniably beautiful, usually leaves me unexcited.  Just...  not my pair of shoes.  Too poetic, too sentimental, too intimate perhaps.  I far prefer Dervla Murphy's mischievous political incorrectness, but - I keep hoping.  Now and again I pick yet another of Morris's books, to see if my mind can be changed.  Nothing much to lose - I might end up unmoved again, but writing skill is writing skill and it never hurts to sample some.  

Heaven's Command almost did the trick.  Of all the books by Jan Morris I've read so far, this is my favourite.  Sure, the nostalgic, poetic style is as present as ever, but in this particular case it fits the subject so well that I simply can't complain.  Perhaps romantically-tinted narration is the best possible tool to use when explaining the Victorian era.

Heaven's Command is a volume one of Pax Britannica trilogy, a history of the British Empire.  I know nothing about the other two titles, but they're very likely to end up on my reading table eventually.  Not tomorrow, perhaps - Heaven's Command does not leave you with a 'to be continued' feeling, no pressure to complete the picture with further reading.  

The opening book of the trilogy covers almost all of Queen Victoria's reign.  Together with the British troops, a reader roams the Earth from India to Canada, from South Africa to Fiji, from Australia to Hong Kong, with many more exotic stops on the way.  Morris explores politics, ideologies, fashions, digs deep into the meaning of imperialism.  Plenty of heroes from the past, half-mythic by now (at least to a westernised mind) are introduced and brought to life again by anecdotes, colourful yarns, quotes and even gossip.  I'm not in a position to judge how accurate the tales are, but sure as hell they are interesting, with precious ability to fire curiosity and appetite for further study.  

A minor revelation - Jan Morris is far more fun as a historian than as a travel writer (I fully respect your right to be outraged at such a radical judgement).  Perhaps the fact that she's been to pretty much everywhere is what makes her history - global in scope, after all, at least geographically - so enjoyable.  It is quite something to read a historical account footnoted with 'when I was at the site in 19XX, it was still this or that'.  Be sure that Heaven's Command is full of such comments.  

Overall - very agreeable.

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