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Queen Victoria's Empire : The Changing Empire : Morris


Morris

 

 
Jan Morris
Jan Morris
The following is from an interview conducted for the filming of "Queen Victoria's Empire." It is an actual transcript of the interviewee speaking; hence, much of the text may seem informally constructed.

Q: What was the attitude of the British towards the Empire at the start of Victoria's reign?

A: I don't think he was very interested in Empire at the start of Victoria's reign, as a matter of fact. Because after all, it was doing very well anyway, wasn't it? It was virtually the master of the world, Great Britain. It certainly mastered the seas. It was master or mistress of its own production, its own means of distribution. What was the point of having Empires? It had lost one Empire already in the Americas. And nobody, I don't think, was terribly interested in acquiring a new one. Rather a modern attitude.

Q: With the lead in technology, what did it do to the British attitude towards themselves and the rest of the world?

A: It's hard to generalize it by a British attitude, isn't it? But the attitude of those people who were thinking about it or in a position to do anything about it was, I think, that they had become a kind of master race really. They weren't racially masterful in the way that the Nazis or anything of that sort, but perhaps in the American way, the [way] Americans now are in command of the world's communications. Really, they're the masters of cyber space and of the Internet. And in the same way, the British at that time were masters, not only of industrial production, but of the means of distributing the things they made around the world. They were really on top of the world, and it gave them I'm sure a kind of magical feeling, a feeling as if they'd acquired the Promethean fire, you know. They were doing things that nobody else could do and they could do it, they could do anything. I think that was probably in their hearts was what they felt -- that nothing was beyond them.

Q: Communicate, if you can, just how sensation the Great Exhibition of 1851 was to the people of Britain.

A: As far as the public's concerned, it was architecturally magical...because we heard of this immense new, technologically marvelous building, but we weren't quite sure what was going to go inside it. And when it did appear, there were lots of objections to it, lots of critics who didn't want to have it at all. But it was so unlike anything that anybody had seen before, that in itself, I think, set the thing off on a marvelous passage. It had a sort of idealistic aspect to it...and Prince Albert was in many ways a very idealistic figure. And this was not only to project the British, the majesty of Great Britain, across the world. It was also to emphasize the fact that we were all interconnected. In fact, I forget how many countries [were] at the Great Exhibition, but there were, if not hundreds, certainly scores of countries. So the whole world of course came to see it and take part in it as well.

Q: Discuss the romantic aspects of the Empire -- the hero, Gordon and Livingstone.

A: I think the cult of the hero is very important to the later Victorian Empire. After the mutiny [in India]...the situation was perfect for the cultivation of heroes, wasn't it? Not only were the countries waiting to be explored and exploited, the wars waiting to be fought, the savages waiting to be controlled. But also there was the aspect of religiosity that ran through the Empirem, too...They had decided it was their Christian duty to do these things. So when [men] came along who [were] not only brave and handsome and full of initiative like the explorers, but...were also very holy men, religious men, that was the perfect Victorian ideal hero. Such a man as -- well, Livingstone's one of course -- but I think a more typical one really was General Gordon, General Gordon of Khartoum, who died at Khartoum, as you know, with every aspect of religious heroicness attending him. I mean, he said his prayers every day. He almost wore a halo, really. And he died like a martyr. The whole thing was perfect for the elevation of a rather ordinary general to be a perfect Christian hero. And so it worked indeed...Of course, often these Imperial activists were genuinely religious people. They believed in it themselves. They were brought up not only on the New Testament, but the old Testament, so that people in India -- especially who swaggered around the frontiers you know, fighting wars and things -- fought like Old Testament prophets. And they saw themselves, I'm sure, as Old Testament prophets. And they believed that the sword of God was a good God, was a good sword, too, and they were wielding him.

Jan Morris divides her time between her library-house in North Wales, her dacha in the Black Mountains of South Wales, and travel abroad. She has been to Manhattan every year since 1954, makes an annual visit to Venice, and has spent much of her life wandering and writing for (mostly American) magazines.

Her best known works include the Pax Britannica Trilogy (Heaven's Command, Pax Britannica and Farewell the Trumpets), Spain and Among the Cities, volumes of travel essays, Venice and Oxford, and the autobiographical Conundrum. She has also edited The Oxford Book of Oxford and two Welsh anthologies. Her first work of fiction, Last Letters from Hav, was nominated for the Booker Prize in 1985.


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