One of our recommended books for 2019 is The Last Englishmen by Deborah Baker

THE LAST ENGLISHMEN

Love, War, and the End of Empire


John Auden was a pioneering geologist of the Himalaya. Michael Spender was the first to draw a detailed map of the North Face of Mount Everest. While their younger brothers—W. H. Auden and Stephen Spender—achieved literary fame, they vied to be included on an expedition that would deliver Everest’s summit to an Englishman, a quest that had become a metaphor for Britain’s struggle to maintain power over India. To this rivalry was added another: in the summer of 1938 both men fell in love with a painter named Nancy Sharp. Her choice would determine where each man’s wartime loyalties would lie.

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John Auden was a pioneering geologist of the Himalaya. Michael Spender was the first to draw a detailed map of the North Face of Mount Everest. While their younger brothers—W. H. Auden and Stephen Spender—achieved literary fame, they vied to be included on an expedition that would deliver Everest’s summit to an Englishman, a quest that had become a metaphor for Britain’s struggle to maintain power over India. To this rivalry was added another: in the summer of 1938 both men fell in love with a painter named Nancy Sharp. Her choice would determine where each man’s wartime loyalties would lie.

Set in Calcutta, London, the glacier-locked wilds of the Karakoram, and on Everest itself, The Last Englishmen is also the story of a generation. The cast of this exhilarating drama includes Indian and English writers and artists, explorers and communist spies, Die Hards and Indian nationalists, political rogues and police informers. Key among them is a highborn Bengali poet named Sudhin Datta, a melancholy soul torn, like many of his generation, between hatred of the British Empire and a deep love of European literature, whose life would be upended by the arrival of war on his Calcutta doorstep.

Dense with romance and intrigue, and of startling relevance for the great power games of our own day, The Last Englishmen is an engrossing story that traces the end of empire and the stirring of a new world order.

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  • Graywolf Press
  • Paperback
  • July 2019
  • 392 Pages
  • 9781555978464

Buy the Book

$18.00

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About Deborah Baker

Deborah Baker is the author of The Last Englishmen, credit Julienne SchaerDeborah Baker is the author of The Last Englishmen; Making a Farm; In Extremis, which was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in Biography; A Blue Hand; and The Convert, which was a finalist for the National Book Award. She lives in India and New York.

Author Website

Praise

“It is to Ms. Baker’s credit that she keeps the big events always in view, dramatizing and humanizing the workings of history, particularly the story of empire and its machinations, in a way a novelist would—by making it a story of individuals. . . . It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that there is something Tolstoyan to her vast project.” The Wall Street Journal

“Baker writes beautifully, and she’s done ample research. Drawing on a host of private and public archives, she crafts memorable portraits of dynamic, flawed men and women.” —San Francisco Chronicle

“Ms. Baker draws from a rich stock of unpublished memoirs, journals, police reports and other documents, deploying fresh material with a light touch. . . . As narrative history this is skillful work.” —The Economist

“A book rich in fascinating details drawn from personal archives.” —BBC Culture

“Incisive and illuminating. . . . This is a thoroughly researched, relentlessly engrossing epic tale. . . . [Baker] writes with verve and authority on colonial tension, cultural achievement and global conflict.” Star Tribune (Minneapolis)

“Baker’s meticulously researched account . . . reads like the very best of novels.” —Siddhartha Deb

Discussion Questions

1. There are multiple ways in which the title The Last Englishmen can be interpreted. In what ways could each of the men Baker writes about be considered “last Englishmen?”

2. What was the significance of John Auden and Michael Spender’s 1937 survey expedition to the Karakoram? Why were accurate topographical maps of these remote and inaccessible mountains considered important?

3. Brothers John and Wystan (W. H.) Auden were both concerned with manliness, seeing in each other aspects of masculinity they felt were lacking in themselves. To what extent was masculinity integral to this generation of Englishmen? How do John and Wystan’s feelings about masculinity and Englishness change over the course of the book?

4. What role did the quest to reach the summit of Mount Everest play in England’s effort to project its power over India? Why were all the European powers so invested in climbing the tallest mountains of the Himalaya during the 1930s?

5. A number of well-known historical figures, such as Winston Churchill and Gandhi, appear in the book. Sometimes they cross paths with the book’s main subjects, sometimes they are just objects of curiosity, speculation, or gossip. How are they important to the story of The Last Englishmen?

6. How does Baker’s portrayal of Churchill differ from the more heroic treatments we have seen in recent films like “The Darkest Hour” or in the TV series “The Crown?”

7. How were geological survey and mapmaking technologies repurposed for warcraft and intelligence? What benefits did postwar India derive from being rapidly industrialized into a wartime economy?

8. Despite the fact that England refused to promise India independence in exchange for support of the war, Sudhin Datta, John Auden’s best friend in Calcutta, was prepared to enlist on behalf of the Allies after the fall of France. What do you think this decision says about his loyalties?

9. How do the recent historical reappraisals of India’s wartime role change our perceived narrative of WWII? What lessons can be learned?

10. In 1938 both John Auden and Michael Spender fell in love with a London painter named Nancy Sharp. What role does Nancy play in this book largely about men and largely set in India?