When Ferdinand Mount finally read a book of family history by his aunt Ursie, he couldn’t believe how accomplished it was. Charting the ups and downs of a Fife family in India, she “evoked the rise, the heyday and the fading of a whole civilisation.” In his new book The Tears of the Rajas, Mount has achieved as much as his aunt—even if the word “civilisation” only invites Gandhi’s quip that for the British it “might be a good idea.”
Mount acknowledges the empire’s proceedings were “uncivil,” never overlooking the hanging and buccaneering the British got up to. But in writing a history from the point of view of his own clan, Mount portrays with sensitivity the motivations of imperialists on a personal level, including their “nagging doubt about what they were doing in India at all.” Many went to make money (“seldom has covetousness posed so nakedly as statesmanship”), others to fulfil the white man’s burden, but there were many whose “migrations were as inexplicable as the swallow.”
What is Mount up to? His bewildering bibliography includes 12 novels alongside polemics and memoirs. In his last book, The New Few, this former head of Margaret Thatcher’s Policy Unit described the UK as an “oligarchy.” In The Tears of the Rajas, this scion of empire provides a warts-and-all account of his ancestry’s involvement in India. Taken together his works provide an interesting critique of the power he and his family have wielded and still wield—from ruling on the subcontinent to the premiership of his close relative David Cameron.