Right at the beginning of this slim volume (the text, excluding notes,is ninety-five pages) based on lectures delivered at the University of Notre Dame in 2008, Judith Brown explains her two primary objectives. The first is to communicate with a wider public that is interested in history but to whom most academic texts are incomprehensible; the second is to creatively use what she terms ‘life histories’ of individuals and institutions as a source for the writing of history. She achieves the first object with finesse, and provides some examples of the second by examining, in four chapters of the book respectively, the India connections of an Oxford College (Balliol), family history as a genre, the shaping of the public persona of two famous Indians (Gandhi and Nehru), and the moulding of their private selves.
Brown is careful to underscore how her work differs from conventional institutional histories and biographies, both of which she feels attempt to narrate a straightforward account of landmark events and trivial details. In contrast, in the first chapter she writes a people centred institutional history of a British college, using an entirely new source: college alumni records spanning almost a century, from 1853 to 1947.