RUNNING THE SHOW Stephanie Williams (Viking, £20)

In one of the more engaging books on the British Empire, Williams takes a multi-faceted look at the governors who ruled so much of the globe in the Victorian era. Most battled with the mundane tasks of bringing order out of chaos in far-flung outposts — building schools and hospitals, drafting new laws, creating railways systems and “dealing”, of course, with the tribes under their sway.

It was a job that appealed to the eccentric, not necessarily a position for reward but more one of exile at a time when wars were being fought in every corner of the Empire. Foremost of these was Sir Bartle Frere, who from his throne in the Cape sparked Britain’s most disastrous conflict in history — the Zulu Wars — in defiance of his Government.

Williams neatly sums up the predicament of some governors with an allusion to Thackeray’s Vanity Fair, in which Becky Sharpe’s husband, Colonel Rawdon, is sent to a mythical, fever-ridden island to “dispose” of him. One unfortunate, John Treacher, was whisked off to Labuan, a tiny island near Borneo. A doctor by profession, he had “gone native”, having a penchant for Sarawak girls. Riddled with malaria and rheumatism, he could barely walk.

Worse still in this magnificent snapshot of Empire is Sir John Glover, a hero in the Ashanti Wars in the Gold Coast, manning Newfoundland where “rain beat through the walls whenever there was a strong gale” and where the whole household was sick with typhoid and other maladies. Across the world in the diamond rush of the Transvaal, Col Lanyon was living in a rented bungalow with oil lamps and candles.

Williams gleans most of her information from a survey filled in by governors in 1879: a treasure trove of cameos of history.

In many of these forsaken places, the governor had to make decisions which could lead to a crushing of slavery or the creation of a sound colony. For some, however, it was a path to madness or — more often — a fatal disease. Explorer Sir Richard Burton summed it up by describing a govenor’s home in Africa as a “corrugated iron coffin . . . containing a dead consul once a year.”