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The City Of Invention

The book reviews of UK children's author, Brian Keaney

The Futility Of Empire

The Little Emperors - Alfred Duggan

 

The Little Emperors is set in Britain at the beginning of the fifth century and  tells the story of Felix, governor of Britannia Prima, an industrious but culturally blinkered civil servant, convinced that by screwing ever greater taxes out of the local people, he is extending the benefits of civilisation.

 

Though temperamentally loyal to Rome, Felix is caught up in a series of political machinations that end in the proclamation of the usurper Constantine III as emperor of Britain. Unfortunately for Felix, he is married to the daughter of one of Constantine's rivals and he ends up fleeing into the countryside. During the hardships of this journey he begins to understand how negative the effect of empire has been upon the people of the island he has governed so inflexibly.  .

 

This is a novel about the futility of empire. Duggan's stepfather was Lord Curzon, Viceroy of India, the epitome of imperial complacency; but Duggan saw his family fortune swept away in the Great Depression, served in the Second World War and then watched the British Empire disintegrate in its aftermath. It was an experience that clearly left its mark.

 

Essentially a political novel, The Little Emperors is a study in transformation: the metamorphosis that takes place in Britain as the grip of Rome begins to loosen is mirrored by the humiliation of Felix. Both the country and the man emerge smaller in stature but more human. 

 

It is very good to see The Little Emperors, along with Duggan's other novels, rescued by Bello, an imprint founded in 201 by Pan Macmillan in order to bring lost classics back to life. Duggan is an excellent historical novelist who has a great deal to say to the contemporary reader. It would have been a tragedy if his voice had disappeared entirely in the great flood of out-of-print books.