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Deborah Baker: The Last Englishmen

In Conversation with Elizabeth Flock

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Deborah Baker discusses her latest book, The Last Englishmen: Love, War, and the End of Empire, a biographical saga--both intimate and epic--about the waning of the British Empire in India.

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, Deborah Baker’s The Last Englishmen is an engrossing story that traces the end of empire and the stirring of a new world order.

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

Elizabeth Flock is a reporter for PBS NewsHour.  She began her career at Forbes India Magazine, where she spent two years as a features and investigative reporter in Mumbai, and has worked for U.S. News & World Report and the Washington Post. Her book The Heart is a Shifting Sea: Love and Marriage in Mumbai was published in 2018.

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