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Heroic Failure and the British
Heroic Failure and the British
Stephanie Barczewski
Yale University Press, 2016
280 pp., $40.00

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Michael Ledger-Lomas


"Alibis for Empire"

Heroic failure often masked ruthlessness.

Half overgrown village, half London commuter town, renowned for golf, well-kept inns and Arts and Crafts houses, Chislehurst in Kent is an unlikely place to find a shrine to a dead hero. On the fringes of its common is a large granite Celtic cross, erected as its inscription says "In memory of the Prince Imperial and in sorrow at his death … by the dwellers of Chislehurst 1880." At the Roman Catholic Church is a mortuary chapel that borrows its Renaissance flourishes from the Château d'Amboise in the Loire. Inside, the Prince Imperial rests on his sarcophagus like a medieval knight, hands clasped in prayer, arms around his sword. He was a failure. Kicked out of France when his father Napoleon III was overthrown in 1870 and suddenly an heir to nothing, he needed an occupation and trained as a British army officer. Keen to see action, he enrolled as a "special observer" in the army that entered Zululand in the spring of 1879 to salvage a disastrous campaign against King Cetshwayo. On the morning of 1 June, the Prince's reconnaissance party was surprised by a party of Zulu warriors. Bungling his getaway, he was speared to death. Yet if he was a failure, he was a celebrated failure. Prints of his demise, waving an ineffectual revolver at muscled spearmen, made him into a noble victim; his friend Queen Victoria treasured a prayer he had penned in his last days, commissioned a painting of the discovery of his corpse and came to Chislehurst to watch as he was consigned to the grave.

The Prince Imperial does not feature in Stephanie Barczewski's Heroic Failure and the British, but he perfectly exemplifies the phenomenon it describes: the tendency of imperial cultures to lavish sorrow on their agents rather than their colonized victims. So strong was the desire of the British during the Victorian apogee of their Empire to feel it was they who bore the costs of its expansion that they could shed a tear even for the luckless son of their former rival. For Barczewski, ...

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