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Review Essay

When Empires End

The Last Days of British India

In This Review

The Last Englishmen: Love, War, and the End of Empire
The Last Englishmen: Love, War, and the End of Empire
By Deborah Baker
Graywolf Press, 2018, 352 pp. Purchase

The pupils of Miss Higgins’ School in Calcutta had lined up neatly for the photograph, the girls’ shoulders draped by braids, the boys’ knees peeping below shorts. Their tropical uniforms blazed brightly in the black-and-white photograph. Many of the children, including my mother and my uncle, were Bengali. Some were European, and at least one was half-Bengali, like me. “Her uncle was W. H. Auden,” my grandmother said, pointing to a girl named Anita.

If I didn’t know who the poet W. H. Auden was when I first saw these pictures from my mother’s 1950s schooldays, I knew nothing whatsoever about his brother John Bicknell Auden, Anita’s father, until reading The Last Englishmen by Deborah Baker. Auden is one of the leading characters in this group biography of young British men who set out for India in the 1920s to work as imperial administrators. They went expecting

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