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Sir Robert Chambers
Law, Literature, and Empire in the Age of Johnson
Thomas M. Curley

"I can't think of any work of eighteenth-century biography that quite matches this."—Donald Greene, University of Southern California

Sir Robert Chambers (1737–1803) was a literary as well as a legal man. Friend and collaborator of Samuel Johnson, professor of English law at Oxford University, and one of the four judges on the first Supreme Court of India, Chambers was an enormously influential figure in the eighteenth-century British empire. This book is the first authoritative biography of Chambers and is also the first major contribution in decades to historical scholarship on Johnson. It demonstrates Chambers's important role in early English legal education, in Samuel Johnson's life and political thinking, and in the formation of British India during a period of active cultural exchange between East and West.

The cooperation of Chambers's descendants and the discovery of all his judicial notebooks have given Curley access to a splendid archival collection of rare documents about Sir Robert's private life and public career. Curley adds important dimensions to political and legal history by recounting the establishment of the Vinerian Chair of English law at Oxford University and by documenting long-hidden activities, motives, and decisions in the stormy foundation of British India, beginning with Chambers's farsighted role in the century's most infamous criminal case, the prosecution of Maharajah Nuncomar in 1775.

Sir Robert Chambers is the first analysis of Chambers's groundbreaking commingling of English law and Indian practice, as detailed in seventy-two volumes of his judicial notebooks recovered in Calcutta. As an Indian judge, Chambers founded the enduring hybrid heritage of Anglo-Indian law on which the modern constitution of the Republic of India still rests. This book also provides the first full account of Chambers's close friendship with Samuel Johnson and their collaboration on a survey of the British constitution, which profoundly influenced the later writings of both men. Curley reveals Johnson's literary and political interest in India, and his call for encyclopedic study of the East by the West, a call heeded by Chambers and Sir William Jones in founding the Asiatic Society of Bengal. Amassing the largest library of Sanskrit manuscripts in the Western World, Chambers contributed significantly to European awareness of the riches of ancient Indian literature.

Lively and readable, this authoritative biography examines the relationships and activities of prominent men in eighteenth-century England, and it supplements Curley's two-volume edition of Chambers's and Johnson's A Course of Lectures on the English Law. It will interest readers curious about multiculturalism—two centuries before the term existed—as it developed under the British empire. All scholars of legal and literary history and of Asian and British studies, as well as lovers of biography, should relish this absorbing and well-researched history.

Thomas M. Curley is professor of English at Bridgewater State College, Massachusetts. He is the editor of A Course of Lectures on the English Law, 1767–1773, Volumes 1and 2, also published by the University of Wisconsin Press, and the author of Samuel Johnson and the Age of Travel.


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Portrait of Sir Robert Chambers

September 1998
96-033813 KD
720 pp.    1 illus. (est.)    6 x 9

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Cloth $87.50 s
ISBN 978-0-299-15150-8
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