Anachronism and Aristocats: A Case Study

(Image Credit: Walt Disney Studios, https://www.dogalize.com/2018/06/everybody-wants-to-be-a-cat/)

The recent launch of Disney+ has led many people to revisit the entirety of the Disney catalog, ranging from animated classics like Beauty and the Beast to less than stellar hand drawn features like The Jungle Book along with recent Marvel fare and nostalgic trips through Disney Afternoon and Disney Channel programming (and yes, Baby Yoda). One of the many titles available is The Aristocats, a 1970 animated film centering on a female cat named Duchess and her three kittens, Toulouse, Marie, and Berlioz, owned by a wealthy former opera singer, Madame Adelaide Bonfamille.

When Bonfamille reveals that she is leaving her entire inheritance to her cats, her butler, believing that the inheritance was to be his, resolves to get rid of the cats. Duchess and the kittens meet an alley cat named Thomas O’Malley and attempt to return to their mistress and their lavish home. And…that’s it, that’s the story. Oh, and there’s a mouse named Roquefort because France, one memorable jazz song toward the end, a racist caricature that would make Mickey Rooney blush, and likely the most notable exposure of the West African hub Timbuktu for many children.

The film is light on story, moves at a brisk pace, and contains a lot of reused animatics, owing to the ease of copying through xerography animation used by Disney since the early 1960s. It is a movie that is hardly a classic, but ultimately, it’s a serviceable film about cute cats and kittens being cute cats and kittens, one for children to enjoy and later demand toys.

However, two scenes from this film stand out, not because they are particularly bad or particularly good, but because of their odd presence within the narrative. The very beginning  establishes (very prominently) that the movie is set in Paris, 1910, still within the zenith of aristocratic values before the trauma and bloodshed of World War I. Yet, two elements within Aristocats are utterly anachronistic, deviating not only from the temporal setting but the mentalité of the era that they are worthy of discussion.

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Abstract? More like, abs-cat…(Image Credit: Walt Disney Studios)

The first moment occurs within the first act of the film devoted to illustrating the lavish lives of the “aristocats” and how they go about their day. As youngest kitten Berlioz practices piano and middle kitten Marie engages in a dramatic struggle with trying to stay in tune, the oldest kitten, Toulouse, works on his painting. The purpose of this scene is to convey a sense of refinement within the daily lives of the aristocats, highlighting art as the pinnacle of proper living.

Yet, Toulouse, a cat in 1910 Paris, does not paint within the style of the era, certainly not borrowing from the impressionist tradition of his namesake, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. Instead, he approaches paint and canvas in a manner akin to Jackson Pollack, producing an abstract work of art that would certainly be familiar to the 1970 viewing audience but absolutely at odds with Belle Époque Paris. The abstract forms of art popular after World War II and the surrealist and Dadaist aesthetic tradition that inspired them emerged within a specific context, one that would tonally be at odds with the values of the aristocats.

Dadaism and surrealism began as a response and critique of the ideology and logic driving World War I, artists looking at the destructive capacity of the war and critiquing and lambasting all of the discourses that led to that point. “Civility,” a theme heavily implied in the film (though not in its racial or Social Darwinist context), drove European powers to war and violence, leading Dadaists to redefine and quite literally turn the meaning of art upside down in protest. Surrealist and abstract art, essentially a middle finger to convention and pre-World War I aristocratic values, being readily accepted by the aristocats, especially before the war, is a decision informed by misinformation about history.

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Image Credit: Walt Disney Studios

The second of anachronism occurs during the song “Ev’rybody Wants to be a Cat,” quite easily the best scene in the movie due to it’s psychedelic imagery (and being the only memorable part of the film, stereotypes and all). The song and the performance invoke jazz and swing, a dramatic shift from “scales and arpeggios” and the classical fare that would more likely be enjoyed by aristocats. Unlike abstract art, jazz was at least developing by 1910, but it was still largely confined to New Orleans, a fusion of ragtime and blues, European melodies and African percussion patterns, performed by African American musicians like Jelly Roll Morton. Jazz became wildly popular in Europe, the representation of “American music” before rock n’roll of the 1960s, but it was very, very unlikely that anyone in 1910 Paris was familiar with or a fan off American jazz. Moreover, those consisting the aristocracy would be even less likely to widely accept jazz due to the need to maintain “proper civility” and appreciate “true art.” Thus, Duchess and the kittens dancing and enjoying the jazz performance is at odds temporally and with the mentalité of the time.

For those that would argue, “this is a movie for children, one focused on cute cats not concerned with history, it doesn’t have to be historically true,” well, you’re right. The Aristocats never claims to be a documentary of the the period or an accurate encapsulation of the era, it’s light entertainment aimed at children. But, I believe that the anachronism in this film is particularly interesting and revealing, not so much for the narrative of the feature but the broader meta-narrative of Disney.

While The Jungle Book was released in 1967, one year after Walt Disney’s death, it was still a film with significant input from the man in charge. The Aristocats, the next feature released, was the first of a new era, one in which Walt was no longer at the creative helm. The incorporation of anachronistic elements, I argue, are not an attempt to blur history intentionally. Instead, latching on to popular elements of the 1960s and 1970s represents an attempt to chart a new course, to reach and maintain an audience, or as many other outlets would put it, “Disney trying to be cool.” With one man so central to the creative process within the animation studio no longer present, anything produced after is bound to be dramatically different, with some contending that The Aristocats serves as the beginning of “a dark age.” This is too much doom and gloom (many of the golden age Disney films really don’t hold up, and that’s without accounting for the numerous racist elements), but the Disney films of the 1970s and 1980s are certainly different from those that came before. The anachronism of The Aristocats exemplifies the new methods used by the animators and new thinking within the studio, one that certainly differed from “Walt’s vision.”

Roast Beef and Chicken Tikka Masala, Coca-Cola and Chinese Tea: A Historiographical Review of English Food History of the Nineteenth and Twentieth Century (Introduction and Part One)

(Image Credit: Historic UK, https://www.historic-uk.com/CultureUK/The-Great-British-Pub/)

“One cannot trust people whose cuisine is so bad.  The only thing they have ever done for European agriculture is mad cow disease.  After Finland, it is the country with the worst food”

-Jacques Chirac (2005)[1]

At an international meeting between French, German, and Russian officials in 2005, Jacques Chirac, the President of France at the time and former Prime Minister of France, condemned the food and cuisine of the British Isles, a bit of light (if lazy) comedy to ease the tension of the diplomatic meeting as well as locus of commonality between the three nations.  Though at points throughout history the three countries have been at odds with or fighting against one another, the leaders could all smile and take pleasure in the fact that for all of their differences, at least their food was not as bad as that of Great Britain.

Within gastronomy and culinary history, French food is viewed as the pinnacle of gourmet cuisine, a “triumph” according to Priscilla Parkhurst Ferguson and still the foundation for much of the curriculum of culinary schools.  French dishes and restaurants, ranging from Michelin star establishments serving caviar, foie gras, and pressed duck, to traditional and rustic fare like beef bourgignon and ratatouille, are considered among the best in the world, with French cooks and chefs lauded for their creativity and mastery of ingredients, techniques, and flavors.

By contrast, food from the British Isles is presumed to be bland, boiled, and lacking in diversity, particularly when compared to the food prepared across the English Channel, a stereotype no doubt aided by the fact that a dish as simple as bone marrow on toast constituted “a cooking revolution” in London’s restaurants.[2]  Though Great Britain surpassed France in naval strength and economic prowess throughout much of modern history, food and cuisine serves as an arena of French supremacy, an aspect of contrast between the two countries and an expression of bourgeois civility and explicitly French genius and artistry.

Just as much of the world celebrates and studies French cuisine, scholars have turned their attention to studying the history of French gastronomy, using food as a lens to reveal new information about the history of France.  Some books offer overviews on the origins and development of French cuisine, such as Ferguson’s Accounting for Taste: The Triumph of French Cuisine (2006), while others hone in on a particular facet of French food history, such as the beginnings of the modern restaurant, the association of champagne with all things French, and the interconnectedness between colonialism and cuisine in Vietnam.[3]

Despite being disparaged by much of the international community, scholars have likewise contemplated the history of food in England,[4] using food as a way of examining trade, culture, empire, and society.  Works on English food range from longue durée social histories, such as Dorothy Hartley’s Food in England: A Complete Guide to the Food that Makes us who we are (1954), John Burnett’s Plenty and Want: Social History of Food in England from 1815 to the Present Day (1966), and The Making of the Modern British Diet (1976), edited by Derek Oddy and Derek Miller, to analysis of international trade and exploitative labor, such as Harold Innis’ The Cod Fisheries: The History of an International Economy (1954), Sidney Mintz’s Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History (1985), Mark Kurlansky’s Cod: A Biography of the Fish that Changed the World (1997), and Catherine Higgs’ Cocao, Slavery, and Colonial Africa (2012).

Interestingly, there are significantly more works on the food of the English Middle Ages and the early modern period than books that track the history of food in the nineteenth and twentieth century.  Moreover, scholars that do focus on the modern era often look to the food of the empire, with a significant amount of historical attention on the British Raj along with studies on the British colonial impact on various African cuisines.  Additionally, with food being a popular subject for a popular audience, there are many long histories of English food written by non-academics, with the authors of these books often aiming for a comprehensive account of food throughout English history rather than focusing on particular periods.  Nevertheless, despite the negative stereotypes about the cuisine of the British Isles, there is a significant body of literature dealing with the history of English food, offering new methods for studying, understanding, and teaching the history of England along with opening up opportunities for comparative work with the scholarship on the history of French gastronomy.

This paper reviews five different works dealing with the history of English food and cuisine, concentrating on works published since the late 1990s in order to highlight more recent publications.  The review essay will assess the arguments, sources, and methodology of five books, comparing the individual analysis and situating them within a larger historiography.  The books in question range from recent attempts at unpacking the social history of English food with an explicit attempt to incorporate elements of “the cultural turn,” to large comprehensive accounts by non-historians, to a book that views the British Empire as an interactive system through the lens of food.

This essay examines Liquid Pleasures: A Social History of Drinks in Modern Britain (1999) and England Eats Out: A Social History of Eating Out in England from 1830 to the Present (2004), written by John Burnett, Kate Colquhoun’s Taste: The Story of Britain Through its Cooking (2007), Clarissa Dickson Wright’s A History of English Food (2011), and Lizzie Collingham’s The Hungry Empire: How Britain’s Quest for Food Shaped the Modern World (2018).  Though it is rather unconventional for a historiographical review essay to include works by non-academics, the fact that food and food history are popular topics among general audiences and the fact that works by culinary celebrities are more likely to be rented, purchased, and read than books by scholars merits their inclusion into this essay; in the same way that films dealing with historical themes are indeed historical arguments regardless of their accuracy, accounts of the history of food by non-academics must be treated as part of the broader historiography regardless of their intellectual rigor.  All five of these works reveal something new about the history of England in the nineteenth and twentieth century while also provoking further questions and research for historians of modern Europe.

Burnett’s Liquid Pleasures: A Social History of Drinks in Modern Britain investigates the history of drinking in England, declaring that the choice of beverage and the physical consumption of drink are social acts, causal agency rather than inevitable.[5]  Though most people would argue that tea is the national beverage of England, Burnett traces the history of consumption of this along with water, milk, coffee, soft drinks, beer, wine, and spirits throughout modern British[6] history.  Burnett argues that changing drinking patterns throughout the nineteenth and twentieth century represent a change in mentalité, with the choice of drinks subject to a range of cultural and social forces and changes due to connections and globalization.[7]

Two major “drink revolutions” constitute major shifts in Great Britain, the first occurring in the mid-seventeenth century with the transition from beer and ale predominance to the influx of coffee and tea, signaling the “threshold of the modern world,” while the second began in the 1960s with the introduction and popularity of cold soft drinks, a poignant example of American economic hegemony after World War II.  While previous economic and social historians studied the trade and supply and demand of various beverages, Burnett contends that scholars had not done enough research on the consumption of beverages, with the notion of trickle-down dissemination and conspicuous consumption not enough to explain how and why the middle and lower classes of English society drank what they drank.  A social history that attempts to account for cultural factors, Liquid Pleasures endeavors to present a history of England, culture, and society through its beverages.

Burnett begins by tracking the consumption of water throughout English history, centering on water purification efforts of the nineteenth and twentieth century and municipal control over the water supply.  Though officials of the British Empire trumpeted the benefits of laissez-faire, competition between water distributors brought too little water of poor quality to the majority of the population, resulting in the collective ownership of water as an ideological break from free trade.  Though the struggle to provide clean tap water was decades long and required massive engineering expertise and enterprise, distributing clean water and marking a dramatic shift away from the nineteenth century “dark age” of waterborne diseases, Burnett notes with ironic amusement that today people want to purchase “natural” spring water.[8]

Burnett transitions to the consumption of milk, a beverage that served as a pillar of the agricultural community as a commercially traded commodity, while the elite largely mixed it with their tea or coffee to curb acidity or prevent the cracking of china.  Modern standards of cleanliness, health, and nutrition established in the nineteenth century had the effect of putting many small cowherders out of business and preventing the adulteration of milk by adding water or other products, with the increased quality of the product along with state organized milk delivery increasing consumption.  Milk transitioned from a symbol of rural society to an instrument of social policy during World War I and World War II, with destitute farmers needing to turn to dairy in the midst of agricultural depression and the presence of milk in war rations making it an essential product of the home, particularly a necessity for growing children.  Despite this, Burnett notes that the consumption of milk declined since 1969 due to its decreased use in cooking and questions with regard to its nutritional value due to high fat content.  The consumption of beverages throughout history are determined by social and cultural factors rather than a constant, with the history of milk an illustrative example of changing tastes and patterns of consumption.

Burnett then discusses the history and consumption of tea and coffee, both of which kickstarted the “drinking revolution” of the mid-seventeenth century.  The aristocracy first consumed tea as statement of status, with tea a way to show off various porcelain and mahogany drinkware, but made its way to the middle and lower classes over the course of the eighteenth and nineteenth century to become “a national drink.”  Importantly, Burnett explains that the middle class did not simply drink tea as a way of emulating the elite; the adoption of tea was an active process of cultural construction, a revolt against outmoded extravagance and immorality.[9]  Middle class women in particular drank tea to define temperance, civility, and domesticity, as coffee was associated with the coffeehouses of the masculine public sphere, while drinking in excess was the vice of the aristocracy and working class.  The expansion of the British Empire and “free” trade[10] made tea and sugar cheaper and more readily available to the working class, the stimulant beverage constituting a significant portion of the diet of the industrial working class.  Tea was a national beverage by the early twentieth century, but after World War II it represent the staid, old-fashioned lifestyle of the past, with postwar generations demanding and desiring new beverages.[11]

Though coffee was widely popular in the seventeenth century, the affordability of tea starting in the eighteenth century relegated the former to a small consumption base among the elite.[12]  However, new espresso bars in the 1950s and the association of coffee with an American middle class lifestyle and worldview, imagery depicted in advertisements, have made coffee more popular in England today (though not popular enough to displace tea).

The most dramatic transformation of consumption within the British Isles was the widespread popularity of soft drinks after World War II.  Though there were nascent attempts to create sodas and fountain drinks throughout the nineteenth century, it was the cultural shift after World War II and the establishment of informal, individualized consumption patterns of on-the-go lifestyles that fostered “a soft drink revolution” in England (and throughout the world), the entrenchment of Americanesque mass consumer society fundamentally altering drink preferences and consumption patterns.[13]

Burnett concludes with chapters dedicated to the production and consumption of beer, wine, and spirits.  While beer was central in English society during the Middle Ages, Burnett notes that its history is one of overall decline.  The introduction of new beverages like coffee and tea, the temperance movements of the nineteenth century, and the restructuring of working class lifestyles produced more leisure time, leading working class men to spend less times in pubs and taverns, all had an impact on reducing the consumption of beer.  Wine, by contrast, maintained a fairly marginal place within British society until the lowering of import duties when Great Britain joined the European community in the 1980s.  Over the late twentieth century, wine became associated with the modern home and the comfort of domesticity and middle class living, increasing in popularity and reflecting a pre-Brexit Europeanization of taste.

The consumption of spirts experienced ebbs and flows throughout the nineteenth and twentieth century, affected by advertising, rationing, and work and life patterns within English society.  The choice and consumption of drinks, particularly in the modern period, was always subject to change, with certain beverages displacing others within English society due to affordability or cultural importance.  Analysis of the drinks of England offers a new way of understanding societal change, particularly class differences and the omnipresence of American economic hegemony after World War II.

Burnett builds his analysis from quantitative data collected from economic documents, ledgers, and surveys, as well as medical treatises and cookbooks from the Middle Ages to the present, Parliamentary Papers, documents from the Royal Commission and Select Committees, secondary economic histories and histories of trade, histories of beverages, and histories of the middle and working class throughout the nineteenth and twentieth century.  Though in many ways a work of social history reflecting Burnett’s academic training and previous works, discussing as few individuals as possible in favor of bottom-up analysis, Liquid Pleasures does account for cultural factors that led to the popularity of particular beverages at particular times.  Though people may prefer the taste of particular beverages, (and even considering the fact that today many drinks are specifically designed to taste good to the most amount of people) the consumption of beverages is a conscious decision made by individuals that when taken together reveal societal trends worthy of historical analysis.

Burnett is most successful when he is discussing the histories of milk and tea, as people did not inherently drink these products, both required changing cultural norms and easier accessibility.  Moreover, though not his explicit focus, his analysis on the increasing popularity of soft drinks in England coincides with increasing American economic hegemony after World War II and supplements literature on Americanization of the European continent, with “Coca-colonization” an often-cited facet of the “irresistible empire.”[14]  Burnett’s study uses the drinks of England as a lens to understand societal and cultural trends, viewing English history through the beverages its people consumed.

Burnett’s England Eats Out: A Social History of Eating Out in England from 1830 to the Present, the last book published before his death in 2006, traces the history of eating outside of the home from the nineteenth century to the time of his writing (2004).  As with Liquid Pleasures, Burnett investigates how and why people chose to eat their meals outside of the home rather than treating eating out as a given or an inevitability.  Eating in restaurants, taverns, and public houses became more important as home and work became increasingly distant from one another in the modern era, with the increased urbanization of England creating greater reliance on commercial producers and retailers rather than the very literal “farm to table” eating patterns of the past.[15]

For much of England’s history, eating food outside of the home was associated with work, men and women eating out for utility rather than pleasure.  However, the English elite began dining in French style “restaurants”[16] as an expression of wealth and status, breaking up the “monotony” of English roast meats with French style sauces, soups, ragouts, and vegetables.[17]  These dishes were prepared by émigré chefs fleeing the French Revolution, transitioning from the royal court to the homes of the English elite, demonstrating commonality between the cuisine of England and France despite the imagined contrast between the two.  Though the elite ate out for pleasure, the lower classes largely ate outside the home out of necessity until the mid-twentieth century, when the arrival of American chains, ethnic restaurants, and the renaissance of the public house coincided with increased disposable income and the arrival of mass consumer society.  Unlike Liquid Pleasures, the history of eating out in restaurants, taverns, and pubs is largely a teleological one in which increased income fostered greater consumption, eating out a product of modernity and greater leisure time and experiencing less volatile ebbs and flows than drinking patterns in England.

Though the history of eating in restaurants is largely straightforward, requiring a shift in culture but largely dependent on disposable income, Burnett explains that the total volume of eating outside of the home has not changed since 1830.  Just as scholars studying the history of drinking often narrowly focus on alcoholic beverages, centering on restaurants and restaurant culture misses how the working class and impoverished “ate out” in the nineteenth century.  For the poor, eating outside of the home meant survival rather than pleasure, England’s destitute relying on charity, soup kitchens, factory canteens, and affordable fish and chip shops for sustenance amid long working hours and squalid conditions.

As with the influx of soft drinks, the democratization of eating out began in the 1960s with the entrenchment of American mass consumer society.  More income and leisure time led to English families taking more holidays and leaving the home more often, promoting increased eating in restaurants, establishments explicitly designed to be different from the home and make eating out “an experience.”[18]  Though France had the greatest influence on English cooking and eating, ethnic restaurants, particularly Indian and Chinese eateries, and Americanization in the postwar decades made England “an eating out nation.”[19]  Ethnic restaurants catered to new immigrants working in undermanned industries after World War II and eventually attracted English patrons due to their affordability and “touch of exoticism,” with Indian restaurants in particular decorated with ornate imagery invoking the hegemony of the British Raj.[20]  Ethnic restaurants took over catering and eating out immediately after World War II, and though it is still popular to “go for a curry,” it was (and is) Americanization that influenced eating out habits more quickly and deeply than in most other countries.[21]  For better and worse, according to Burnett, England is now a nation that eats outside of the home, with dining turned into an experience at the expense of declining home cooking, resulting in standardization of cuisine.

Burnett’s sources in this book range from statistical data collected by The Compass Group, MSI Market Research for Industry, Gallup Poll social surveys, Taylor Nelson Sofres Research Group, food and medical treatises, wage and economic reports, letters, dietary surveys, cookbooks, advice publications, restaurant reviews, domestic magazines from the nineteenth and twentieth century, vacation and holiday literature, hotelkeeper’s gazettes, diaries, good food guides in the postwar decades (especially the 1960s), reports from National Catering Inquiry, and scholarship on the history of the rural and working class, works on food policy during the World Wars, and more general monographs on nineteenth and twentieth century England.  Though lacking the ebbs and flows of drink consumption patterns, the history of eating out in England does illustrate societal change over time, particularly class differences in the nineteenth century as well as the impact of American consumer hegemony after World War II.

The history of eating in restaurants also ties into the history of immigration to England, particularly Indian and Chinese migrants after World War II, using restaurants as a method of defining a social niche and providing food for their community.  The popularity of ethnic foods, particularly Indian curries, feeds into the narrative of England and Great Britain as a tolerant, multicultural society, exemplified by former Foreign Secretary Robin Cook declaring chicken tikka masala “a British national dish.”[22]  Despite this narrative and its positive connotations, a celebration of diversity and casting the former empire as a happy family and nation, subsequent work by Uma Narayan and Elizabeth Buettner deem food “the acceptable face of multiculturalism,” a limited acceptance of diversity and a primary vehicle for denying and masking along with articulating racism.[23]  Britons can eat curry and claim to be tolerant while at the same time associating new immigrants with the stench of their food while simultaneously fleeing neighborhoods seen as overcrowded by new immigrants.

Additionally, the history of eating out speaks to the hegemony of American mass consumer society in England as well as throughout Europe after World War II, with Americanization resulting in a greater disruption of tradition than any other factor.  Though not a prominent theme for Burnett, a social historian emphasizing the eating habits of different classes, it is an avenue for further research and for scholars to study the nature of Americanization in England and whether there were similar efforts toward resistance as there were in France.[24]  Both the history of drinks and drinking as well as the development of eating out in England offer new ways of interpreting the history of the British Isles with significant opportunities for comparative work with the rest of the European continent.

 

[1] Paul Hechinger, “Five Myths About British Food,” BBC America, 2012, Accessed May 18, 2019, http://www.bbcamerica.com/anglophenia/2012/03/five-myths-about-british-food.

[2] CNN, “The Dish that Sparked a British Cooking Revolution,” YouTube Video, Oct 19, 2016, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n97pPlhqc9U.

[3] Rebecca Spang, The Invention of the Restaurant: Paris and Modern Gastronomic Culture, 2000; Kolleen Guy, When Champagne Became French: Wine and the Making of a National Identity, 2003; Erica Peters, Appetites and Aspirations in Vietnam: Food and Drink in the Long Nineteenth Century, 2011.

[4] Though unified as “Great Britain” since 1707, scholars largely examine the foodways and trends within England alone. Titles often describe “a history of English cuisine” rather than “a history of British cuisine,” largely reflecting their source base (or, more problematically, using “British” and “English” interchangeably).

[5] John Burnett, Liquid Pleasures: A Social History of Drinks in Modern Britain, (London: Routledge, 1999), 5.

[6] Though using “British” in the title, the book is predominantly (if not entirely) an English history based on the contents and source base.

[7] Burnett, Liquid Pleasures, 1.

[8] Ibid, 28.

[9] Ibid, 50.

[10] Free in quotes due to the infamous relationship of growing Indian opium to trade for Chinese tea, augmented by the gunboat diplomacy of the British East India Company.

[11] Burnett, Liquid Pleasures, 68.

[12] Brian Cowan’s Social Life of Coffee: The Emergence of the British Coffeehouse (2005) discusses the importance of the English coffeehouse as a space of political and intellectual discussion in the seventeenth century, while The World that Trade Created: Society, Culture, and the World Economy, 1400-Present, edited by Kenneth Pomeranz and Bernard Topik explains the economic motivations as to why tea became cheaper and more popular in Great Britain (1999)

[13] Burnett, Liquid Pleasures, 108.

[14] Victoria de Grazia, Irresistible Empire: America’s Advance through Twentieth-Century Europe, (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2005).

[15] John Burnett, England Eats Out: A Social History of Eating Out in England from 1830 to the Present, (London: Routledge, 2004), xii.

[16] Burnett credits Spang’s work on the origins of the modern restaurant in eighteenth century Paris.

[17] Burnett, England Eats Out, 3.

[18] Ibid, 324.

[19] Ibid, 327.

[20] Ibid, 283.

[21] Ibid, 328.

[22] Robin Cook, “Robin Cook’s Chicken Tikka Masala Speech Excerpts,” The Guardian, April 19, 2001, Accessed April 4, 2016, http://www.theguardian.com/world/2001/apr/19/race.britishidentity.

[23] Elizabeth Buettner, “Going for an Indian: South Asian Restaurants and the Limits of Multiculturalism in Britain,” The Journal of Modern History, Vol. 80, No. 4, A Special Issue on Metropole and Colony (December 2008), Accessed February 4, 2016, http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1086/591113, 901.

[24] Richard F. Kuisel, The French Way: How France Embraced and Rejected American Values and Power, (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2012).

Roast Beef and Chicken Tikka Masala, Coca-Cola and Chinese Tea: A Historiographical Review of English Food History of the Nineteenth and Twentieth Century (Part Two)

(Image: O The Roast Beef of Old England (‘The Gate of Calais’), William Hogarth and Charles Mosley, 1749; Image Credit: Tate Organization, https://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/hogarth-mosley-o-the-roast-beef-of-old-england-the-gate-of-calais-t03918)

Significantly different from the works of Burnett is Kate Colquhoun’s Taste: The Story of Britain Through its Cooking.  Unlike Burnett, Colquhoun’s previous books are works of literature in a Victorian setting, a writer of historical fiction rather than a historian with academic training.  Moreover, Colquhoun is certainly not analyzing the food and cuisine of England[25] from the perspective of a social historian, instead tracing the development of food from antiquity to the present.  Thus, her work is more of a history “of food” rather than a history “through food,” aiming for a comprehensive account rather than more narrow focus and attempting to reach a general audience rather than an academic one.

Nevertheless, Colquhoun’s work makes extensive use of primary sources and, because it is still a work of English food history, it is worthy of investigation and analysis and constitutes part of the historiography of English cuisine.  Furthermore, books like Colquhoun’s are more common within the field than more narrow inquiries like Burnett’s accounts of drinks and restaurants.  As a more typical contribution to the knowledge of English food and cookery, building analysis from primary sources, and more likely to be read by a nonacademic audience less discerning of what “history writing” is, it is imperative to place Colquhoun’s contribution within the larger historiography.

Colquhoun argues that cuisine and cookery serve as a valuable common language reflective of English history in which old and new march happily hand in hand.[26]  After tracking the history of English food and dining since prehistory, Colquhoun devotes the last third of her book to the cuisine and culinary norms of the nineteenth and twentieth century.  She argues that the nineteenth century was marked by an increasing gulf between the haves and have nots, as a cult of epicureanism developed within the aristocracy (aided by the arrival of chefs from France) while the English poor subsisted on imported grain (provided without instruction on how to cook new products such as rice and maize).  She also discusses the emergence of cookbooks and home economy manuals in the nineteenth century, which promised to help housewives reign in waste, use leftovers, and above all save time, for the Victorian age was one where time was money and speed was progress.[27]

Along with new norms of domesticity, the nineteenth century brought new technology to the home, turning the kitchen into a laboratory of the household regardless of the consistent heat of the range cooker.  While domestic technology, home entertaining, and food on the table helped the middle class to define their identity, the working class and urban poor survived off of penny pies, cheap fish, and potatoes, with mass poverty eating a subsistence diet fueling the material progress of the English nation.[28]

Poverty was so widespread and malnutrition so common that Colquhoun contends that the rations of World War I constituted and improvement in the average standard of living.  War rations, making sure all of England had enough to eat during World War I and World War II, depended on tinned food and processed good, both of which helped to bridge the dietary divide between rich and poor over the course of the twentieth century.[29]  Thrift was patriotism and waste “helped the hun” during World War II, with the housewife expected to make a nourishing meal for the whole family out of tinned meat, potatoes, hard bread, and powdered eggs.  The postwar decades, an end to war rationing, marked a return to French and Mediterranean dishes as well as an explosion of and access to kitchen appliances, again a result of American mass consumer society becoming entrenched in Europe after World War II.  At the same time, England witnessed the emergence of ethnic restaurants and new ethnic cookbooks like Claudia Roden’s Middle Eastern Food (1968) and Madhur Jaffrey’s An Invitation to Indian Cooking (1973), books that offered new dishes while simultaneously recapturing and perpetuating tradition of how one might have dined in the British Empire.[30]

Colquhoun defines the late twentieth century as an age of plenty in the British Isles, an age where its population loves food, celebrity chefs, and cooking programs but at the same time spends less on food than ever before, eats processed pot noodles and McDonald’s, and has “yet to learn how to talk about food as memory and history, to relax into it as part of the framework of our ordinary lives rather than as an issue, a programme, a new ingredient, or a political promise.”[31]  With the rapid change of the postwar decades, Colquhoun laments that the history of food is being lost, the heritage and tradition of the kitchen and cooking giving way to an increasingly atomized lifestyle.  Thus, she believes her work serves as an antidote to this loss of memory, telling the story of England through its cooking to remember what was.

Though not a professional historian in training, Colquhoun bases her work on letters, diaries, manuscript collections, household accounts, paintings, drawings, poems, plays, published records, cookbooks, and novels from the sixteenth to the twentieth century along with secondary sources on food and cooking in English history.  Though a history “of food” in England, highlighting cuisine and recipes throughout history, rather than history “through food,” using food, cooking, and eating as a lens to understand societal change and cultural shifts, Colquhoun’s work nevertheless discusses food throughout English history and makes it accessible for a nonacademic audience.  Moreover, the discussion of rationing during World War I and World War II explicitly appeal to the emotions of the reader and bring the difficult living conditions and lack of resources to life in a way that academic monographs are unable.  World War II in particular led to all but meatless, fatless, fruitless, and cheeseless larders, with wives aiming to stretch limited meat, offal, and Spam supplies by mincing and frying along with creating pies made from rolled oats and mashed potato filled with root vegetables.[32]  Furthermore, the lack of basic necessities like cream, milk, eggs, and even coffee make the struggle of domestic life during war quite visceral and would prove particularly useful as an illustrative example in a classroom.  Though not a focused study like historical monographs, aiming for broad coverage and accessibility rather than in depth research on a particular topic for an academic audience, Colquhoun’s work nevertheless provides a history of English cuisine and therefore English history and society using food as the primary category of analysis.

Clarissa Dickson Wright’s A History of English Food is another attempt at a comprehensive survey of English food by a nonacademic, this time by a celebrity chef and television personality, starring in the late 1990s BBC series Two Fat Ladies.  Dickson Wright defines the food of England as “an amalgam of its history and experience,” with cuisine and culinary norms constantly changing and food itself revealing information about society.[33]  As with Colquhoun, Dickson Wright attempts to track the history of English food in its entirety, but begins in the Middle Ages rather than going all the way back to prehistory, devoting the last third of the book to the culinary norms of the nineteenth and twentieth century.  Though still citing cookbooks from the past, Dickson Wright uses significantly fewer primary sources than Colquhoun, but manages to include the work of social historians like Hartley and Burnett that Colquhoun neglected.  Moreover, as a cook and culinary personality, Dickson Wright includes comments about the quality of particular dishes or cooking styles, her book once again a history “of food” rather than history “through food.”  Nevertheless, because of her fame in the British Isles, her television program lending her significant clout in discussing matters of food and dining, Dickson Wright’s account is more likely to be picked up, purchased, and/or read by those interested in food history, and it must be analyzed and interrogated as part of the historiography of English food.

Dickson Wright’s discussion of the culinary history of the nineteenth and twentieth century begins with the emigration of French chefs fleeing the French Revolution, bringing over ostentatious dishes as well as service a la française (food served all at once) consumed by the aristocracy as an expression of decadence and status.  Though Dickson Wright (along with other authors of works on English food) focus significantly on the cuisine of the monarchs, particularly their adoption of French cuisine, she explains that English rulers and the elite were “tasters” rather than “taste makers,” abiding by the culinary fashions of the time rather than dictating them.[34]  Dickson Wright provided numerous details about the excesses of elite consumption in a more humorous manner, especially compared to Colquhoun’s moralizing tone, but notes that the chefs of the time paid great attention to presentation at the expense of taste.

She declares that it was in the Victorian age that people “forgot how to cook,” perpetuating the stereotype of poor English cookery, as wives and cooks began the tradition of overcooking vegetables and the increasing reliance on canned and tinned goods made food more inventive than the past but increasingly dull.[35]  In particular, Dickson Wright blames Isabella Beeton and her Book of Household Management (1861), a home economy tome aiming for comprehensiveness and accessibility, for making the cuisine of England standardized, bland, and reliant on canned and tinned foods, the latter owing to American advances in industrial food production.

As with Colquhoun, Dickson Wright uses food to examine inequality in England in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, for though the dining habits of King Edward VII and his court represented the ultimate expression of overindulgence, with standard lunch and dinner involving up to twelve courses, the majority of the population relied in imported goods, as sixty percent of British food supplies were imported from the Empire or the United States.[36]  The dining habits of the elite and the nonelite highlight the point made by Colquhoun that nineteenth century England was a time of great inequality, a massive gulf between haves and have nots.

Dickson Wright spends less time (and puts less emotional weight) on food rations during World War I and World War II, but nevertheless mentions the lack of resources available to wives and cooks in the midst of war.  Though English troops managed to eat well on the front lines, having enough to eat even if it required a rock or hard object to break a biscuit open, those at home had to make something out of nothing, with food imports cut in half in wartime.[37]  Dickson Wright praises the ingenuity of cooking during World War II, as rations on flour, eggs, sugar, butter, and meat forced cooks and wives to create dishes like carrot fudge (a concoction created from carrots, gelatin, and a trace amount of concentrated orange juice) for sustenance as well as easing the burden and fear imposed by war.[38]  Moreover, the advent of nutritional science by the twentieth century and the inclusion of nutritionists in the Ministry of Food meant that though rations limited the quantity of food available, England actually ate a healthier and more nutritionally sound diet during the war.[39]

The postwar decades produced significant change to food culture in England, as rations came to an end and increased disposable income meant that fewer people went hungry than in the past.  Additionally, Dickson Wright praises the more cosmopolitan attitude toward food since the 1960s, with just about every national cuisine represented by a restaurant or a cookbook somewhere in England, with “English national gastronomy” now including Indian, Chinese, and Middle Eastern dishes rather than solely traditional fare and French dishes.[40]  While there is certainly more to eat in England based on quantity and diversity of cuisine, Dickson Wright laments increasing standardization, as supermarket chains selling processed goods displaced small food shops since the late 1950s and the varieties of produce and livestock breeds have decline to a select few that manage to sell.  Dickson Wright ultimately concludes that English food is a constantly evolving movable feast, with cuisine and culinary norms subject to both change and continuity accounting for both tradition and modernity, with the changeability and adaptability of English food being its greatest strength.

Dickson Wright’s account of the history of English cuisine draws from works of literature (she intersperses literary references throughout the text), recipes, cookbooks, and food and medical treatises from the sixteenth century to the present in addition to works of scholarship, largely social histories like the work of Braudel, Hartley, and Burnett.  She uses significantly fewer primary sources than Colquhoun’s work on the long history of English food, and thus, Dickson Wright’s book is significantly less rigorous in an academic sense.  Her work is a long history “of food” in England and the British Isles, a book given legitimacy due to Dickson Wright’s celebrity status in the English culinary world.  Though aimed at a general audience, particularly a British nonacademic audience curious about food and the cuisine that defines their identity rather than looking to scrutinize English culinary history, Dickson Wright’s work does not present any erroneous information even if it lacks the depth of research present in other works on English food history.  More concerned with giving opinions on the quality of food at a given time or telling stories, A History of English Food is more likely to be read than works by academics and it nevertheless adds to the knowledge base of food throughout English history, particularly offering new models and methods for understanding society and development in the nineteenth and twentieth century.

[25] Again, although using “Britain” in the title, this is a history of English food and cuisine.

[26] Kate Colquhoun, Taste: The Story of Britain Through its Cooking, (New York: Bloomsbury, 2007), xi.

[27] Ibid, 275.

[28] Ibid, 288.

[29] Ibid, 336.

[30] Ibid, 363.

[31] Ibid, 373.

[32] Ibid, 341.

[33] Clarissa Dickson Wright, A History of English Food, (London: Random House Books, 2011), ix.

[34] Ibid, 320.

[35] Ibid, 351.

[36] Ibid, 396.

[37] Ibid, 398

[38] Ibid, 417. Dickson Wright explains that she couldn’t bring herself to experiment with the carrot fudge recipe but was mildly intrigued to know what the end result was.

[39] Ibid, 424.

[40] Ibid, 455.

Roast Beef and Chicken Tikka Masala, Coca-Cola and Chinese Tea: A Historiographical Review of English Food History of the Nineteenth and Twentieth Century (Part Three and Conclusion)

(Image Credit: Twinings)

Unlike the works of Burnett, Colquhoun, and Dickson Wright, Lizzie Collingham’s The Hungry Empire: How Britain’s Quest for Food Shaped the Modern World uses food not simply as a lens to view the English nation, but to study the British Empire, specifically to analyze the empire as an interactive system.  Collingham, a historian in training though not affiliated with a university, previously wrote works on food policy during World War II as well as Curry: A Tale of Cooks and Conquerors (2006), the latter of which used curry to investigate the interaction and interconnections between Britain and India.  The Hungry Empire continues this theme and expands on it to analyze the British Empire in its entirety, how the pursuit of foodstuffs or food policy in one part of the empire affected another region or the British Isles.

She argues that the pursuit of food and trade goods, beginning with tea, sugar, and rum before transitioning to imported food in the nineteenth and twentieth century, turned the wheels of commerce and motivated the expansion of the British Empire, Collingham illustrating the history of trade and empire in an unconventional manner through the locus of food.[41]  Though foreign foodstuffs initially benefitted the elite, the mass importation of wheat, tea, and sugar helped to feed the working class, which in turned fueled industrialization taking advantage of raw materials brought in from the empire, the metropole and the peripheries part of a unified system rather than separate from one another.  Moreover, British tastes reshaped the agriculture, landscape, and cultural norms of the colonies, a lasting legacy of imperial rule in the postcolonial world.  Rather than “nation” and “empire” as binary fields, Collingham highlights how both developed in tandem and depended on one another, using food to reveal the connections along with the economic and cultural effects of imperialism in both the past and present.

Rather than a straightforward narrative of the development of the British Empire, Collingham’s work is largely episodic, using an anecdote about food or a recipe to tell the story about a particular facet of British colonialism.  Her material on the nineteenth century begins with an Indian woman preparing chhattu, which Collingham describes as “an unboiled pudding”[42] but resembles an American biscuit with corn flour rather than wheat, rice, or millet as typically used in the Indian subcontinent.  Corn and corn flour are not native to India, their presence in the subcontinent only possible due to importation from the New World.  Collingham explains that bringing in corn helped the British feed Indian planters and laborers (or, more accurately, provided the food necessary for Indians to feed themselves), as under British rule, Indian agriculture in the north was increasingly geared toward opium cultivation rather than growing grains for subsistence.  Importing corn and grain from other regions of the empire allowed for cash crop production in India, with opium traded for tea and Chinese goods that went to the English working class and the elite, respectively.

Collingham contends that the importation of imperial grain proved important for the British Isles as well, helping to feed the poor and the working class and (more importantly for the elite) preventing social revolution.  The Corn Laws in Britain had artificially kept the price of grain at a fixed rate to protect the interests of the landed aristocracy, but the increased purchase and preference for cheaper American grain led to their repeal and the import of imperial grain.[43] Improved technology, specifically freezing and refrigeration, allowed meat to be shipped from Australia and New Zealand along with produce from India and African colonies by the early twentieth century, with more cheaply available food products improving the standard of living in England.  Because of its empire, England (and Britain) became a mass importer of food, the empire insuring the vitality of the nation rather than the nation simply ruling an empire due to power imbalance.[44]  The empire was an interactive system in which goods and people flowed from colonies to the nation and back again, with food illustrating these connections.

Just as food flowed into the nation from the empire or between colonies, foodstuffs made their way from the nation to the colonies, fueling the expansion of empire by nourishing imperial administrators.  Before advances in canning, refrigeration, and the production of tinned foods on mass scale, the lack of food motivated immigration from the British Isles to the empire, with impoverished rural Britons migrating to Australia and New Zealand in the pursuit of a better life, symbolized by the plentiful nature of lamb and mutton.  Canned and tinned goods in the late nineteenth century not only provided sustenance, but “a taste of home” for British officers, with canned meat, vegetables and grains harnessing raw materials from the empire to be processed in the metropole.[45]  Moreover, the consumption of tinned meats and process goods represented a performance of prestige and British identity, a demonstration of power and “civility” compared to the malnourished colonial subjects.[46]  Collingham explains that this served a greater purpose than conspicuous consumption, as missionaries and officials would ration “luxuries” such as tea to the native population to draw the latter within the sphere of imperial control, insuring compliance in a particularly evocative example of colonial hegemony.[47]

British rule fundamentally altered agricultural patterns and culinary norms in the colonies, remaking the rural landscape in order to grow goods based on British tastes or economic interests, such as the cultivation of less nutritious maize in Kenya instead of the native njahi beans.  British officers criticized and condemned African agricultural systems as “barbaric” and imposed monoculture and massive agricultural projects (even after decolonization) in the name of improvement and “civility,” when in fact the “pure planting” and newly introduced products were detrimental to soil and the cause of malnutrition in British colonies.[48]  Like Colquhoun and Dickson Wright, Collingham examines the affect of rationing during World War II, but rather than focusing on the conditions within the British Isles, she explains that the goods available to Britons during the war came from the empire and resulted in malnutrition and famine within the colonies, exacerbating hierarchies of priority and race.[49]  Though Colquhoun and Dickson Wright lament the lack of meat, dairy, and eggs in their discussions of World War II, Collingham complicates this narrative, illustrating that Britons had food to eat at the expense of Indians, Kenyans, and black South Africans.

Finally, Collingham concludes with a discussion of the traditional English Christmas dinner, centering on plum pudding in particular, deconstructing the dish to expose the imperial origins of its various components.  Empire and nation were fundamentally connected with one another throughout the history of the British Empire, while imperial relationships persist today as many former colonies are locked in the role as primary producers of raw materials for industrial nations.[50]  Food, its movement and consumption, help depict the history of “the hungry empire” in a new manner as an interactive system rather than a powerful metropole ruling weaker peripheries.

Collingham builds her work from the Hall Papers from the Centre for South Asian Studies in Cambridge, special collections from Reading University, cookbooks and food treatises from the nineteenth and twentieth century, histories of trade and commerce, social histories, histories of slavery and exploitative labor, anthropological works, scholarship on food and food history, monographs on colonial America, Australia, New Zealand, India, and Africa, and other secondary sources on British history.  Her book reflects a shift in the historiography of the British Empire, moving past binary divisions between the nation and the colonies, metropole and periphery, in favor of viewing the entirety of the empire as an interactive system and the nation and empire as one and the same.[51]  Though colonies such as Canada, Kenya, India, and New Zealand were separated by thousands of miles, they were connected with one another under the umbrella of “the empire where the sun never set,” with the transportation of food an effective way to highlight these connections.  Moreover, the movement of foodstuffs helped to perpetuate industrialization and imperialism, with wheat and corn imported from the Americas feeding laborers at home and abroad to ensure the survival of rural planters and working class factory workers, all of which kept the larger imperial machine running.

Additionally, Collingham’s work reveals the lasting legacies of imperial food policy, with the agricultural landscapes of former colonies detrimentally altered based on the norms, preferences, and tastes of British rulers.  Susan Zlotnick described the presence of Indian dishes and curry powder in nineteenth century cookbooks as a “conquest of curry and cuisine” in her article “Domesticating Imperialism: Curry and Cookbooks in Victorian England,” which I argue is an overstatement, a misreading and misunderstanding of English cookbooks and imperial identities.  However, the displacement of established agricultural patterns and introducing new foodstuffs and culinary norms, often to the detriment of the colonial or former colonial subjects, constitutes a very real “conquest of cuisine,” one with lasting effects even in a postcolonial world.  Collingham’s book casts English gastronomy as imperial cuisine and uses food as a lens to comprehend how the British Empire functioned along with the continuing legacies of imperial rule.

Taken together, these five books, though differing significantly from one another in authorship, intended audience, and analysis, contribute to the understanding of English food history as well as the history of modern Europe.  Both the histories “of food” by Colquhoun and Dickson Wright and the analysis “through food” by Burnett and Collingham, in different ways, highlight changes to society over the course of the nineteenth and twentieth century.  What, how, and why people ate reveals significant information about their race, gender, and class along with conditions within the British Isles or the larger empire.  Despite the negative conceptions and stereotypes about English cuisine (or lack thereof), interrogating the historiography of English food history reveals new methods for understanding and teaching the history of England, Britain, and modern Europe.

That having been said, the field and scholarship on food in England is still nascent, particularly when compared to works on the culinary history of France.  Though quite a bit has been written about food history in England, the historiography lacks slim, cultural history monographs increasingly common within French food history.  Long histories can claim comprehensiveness and broad coverage, but they lack critical focus on particularly interesting developments or periods.  In particular, the modern era lacks the number of works that deal with English cuisine in the Middle Ages and the early modern era, particularly puzzling when considering the volume of sources available to study food trends of the nineteenth and twentieth century.

Moreover, though all food history stems from social history and the works of Burnett and others like him are still useful, analysis of class and economics can only go so far, and there are many interesting and still unexplored opportunities for analyzing food and cuisine in England.  For example, Burnett, Colquhoun, and Dickson Wright all note the emergence of ethnic restaurants after World War II, but largely treat their acceptance as a gradual inevitability.  Future works within the field could (and should) explain the process and negotiations involved in “the triumph of curry” since the 1950s.  Though many “Indian dishes” like chicken tikka masala and tandoori chicken were inventions of the British Isles (Indian and Pakistani migrants attempting to cater to the taste of British patrons), thus lending weight to Indian cuisine as part of British gastronomy and the narrative of racial tolerance, history is never that straightforward.  The history of immigration to England (as well as France and the United States for that matter) was one of negotiation, struggle, and racist backlash.  What specifically led to the success of ethnic restaurants in England?  What strategies did new immigrants use to attract customers and navigate the social terrain of a foreign land?  Research into this topic would help to bridge the fields between histories of food and histories of immigration, the latter of which lacks a substantial discussion of food or restaurants save for brief mentions in Robert Winder’s Bloody Foreigners: The Story of Immigration to Britain (2004).

Furthermore, encroaching Americanization is a running subtheme in most of the books analyzed in this essay and opens opportunities for further study of how American consumer hegemony functioned in England and, potentially, whether it differed significantly from the experience of the European continent.  This historiography of English food up to this point is fascinating and reveals new information and new methods for understanding modern English history while also stimulating curiosity into new avenues for research and history writing.  With food history itself fairly new within the discipline, it is up to future scholars to broaden and enrich understandings of the culinary past.

[41] Lizzie Collingham, The Hungry Empire: How Britain’s Quest for Food Shaped the Modern World, (London: The Bodley Head, 2018), xvi.

[42] Collingham quotes a source from Robert Montgomery Martin, an Indian Civil Servant, dating back to 1838 to describe chhattu. Based on further (though not extensive) research (as the use of corn flour is still very uncommon within Indian cuisine), it is likely he is referring to a dish that is called kajur today, made of semolina and kneaded into biscuits.

[43] Collingham, Hungry Empire, 219. Importantly, it was economic concerns that led to the repeal of the Corn Laws rather than the fact that maintaining an artificial price of grain was a contributing factor to the Irish Potato Famine.

[44] One could argue (and I would argue) that it is difficult to truly pin down what “English/British national cuisine” truly is because Great Britain was a mass importer of various foodstuffs throughout the nineteenth, twentieth, and twenty-first century.

[45] Collingham, Hungry Empire, 185.

[46] Ibid, 193.

[47] Ibid, 192.

[48] Ibid, 245.

[49] Ibid, 260.

[50] Ibid, 267.

[51] One of the key books in this reassessment of the British Empire and the relationship between the nation and colonies was David Cannadine’s Ornamentalism: How the British Saw their Empire, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001).