Introduction

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John Stuart Mill Autobiography sheds much light on the life and thought of its famous author. But it conceals more than it reveals in the brief passages where Mill discusses his lengthy career in the service of empire. Although he spent 35 years writing dispatches to India for the East India Company at a time when the latter came to dominate the Indian subcontinent, Mill chose to dismiss his imperial service with curt and dull prose. Whatever role he may have played in the making of the Victorian Raj, Mill thrust that role into the shadows when he composed the story of his life.

In doing so, Mill also directed the spotlight away from the impact of imperialism on his life. The Autobiography is famous for its account of his special education at his father's side and his subsequent attempt to overcome the narrowness of that early indoctrination in utilitarian thought. But the pages of this important self-study are nearly silent on the relationship between these events and the bureaucratic life that Mill led at India House. Readers of the Autobiography can be excused if they conclude that Indian administration was insignificant for Mill's intellectual development. In the grand narrative he constructed to describe his life, Mill placed his intimate contact with imperialism at the margins.

But we should be wary of this interpretation. As a growing body of literature suggests, autobiographies are at best ambiguous guides to the lives of those who write them. Whether one accepts the radical argument that self-studies are a form of fiction or self-invention or the moderate claim that autobiographies are simply an attempt to impose narrative order upon unruly experience, Mill's account of his life in the Autobiography

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