June 26 2013
This book review appeared in The Washington Post on June 21, 2013.
The archetypal image of the first Anglo-Afghan war (1839–42) is best captured in a haunting painting by Victorian artist Lady Elizabeth Butler. Titled “Remnants of an Army,” it depicts William Brydon, an assistant surgeon in the British East India Company Army, approaching the British fort in Jalalabad on horseback following the ignominious 1842 British retreat from Kabul. The painting is searing. Fatigued and half-dead, Brydon clings to his dying steed, whose parched tongue droops toward the ground in utter exhaustion. Darkness begins to envelop the sullen and lifeless landscape, a metaphor for the ominous British ending to its first Afghanistan excursion.
Against this backdrop, the eminent British historian William Dalrymple turns to that war in “The Return of a King,” a well-researched and lucidly written account of the period. Dalrymple makes an important contribution by including recently discovered Afghan accounts of the war, which provide helpful local context.