So what does a new historian, weary of combing 19th century newspapers about little colonial communities read when she heads down to the beach for a few days? Why, a NOVEL emerging from combing 19th century newspapers about a little colonial community, of course!
I’d heard Michael Redhill talking about his book ‘Consolation’ on Radio National’s The Book Show last year. The 1850s setting in Toronto, Canada attracted me particularly because if I am going to trace my Resident Judge John Walpole Willis to his career in Canada and British Guiana by upgrading to a PhD, then these places are going to be as familiar to me as Port Phillip is now. But is that possible? One of my fellow students commented that she had heard that, in the end, your thesis is always about you. I’d resisted that thought for a while, as there seems something so self-indulgent and self-aggrandising about it, but perhaps there’s more than a little truth in it, especially in my case. After all, my first awareness of Judge Willis came from living in Heidelberg, in what was originally the Port Phillip district. I do not have a judicial bone in my body, but I am attracted to the idea of community cohesion, and its flipside, community rejection of someone who doesn’t fit role expectations. I’m fascinated by the intersection of small, face-to-face relationships and politics and the Big Imperial Politics of the nineteenth century Colonial Office.
Is it possible to write about a place and a culture that you have never been to? In the furore over Kate Grenville’s book The Secret River, particular criticism was directed at her efforts to absorb the atmosphere and emotional responses to a rough sea crossing, or the banks of the Thames by visiting them today and trying to imagine herself into the responses of people of the time. Approaching the Heads of Port Jackson on a safe twentieth century boat with lifeboats, communications and a nearby coastguard could not possibly parallel the experience of a small boat with men alone facing huge seas, it was argued.
But, on the other hand, can a description of the courtroom atmosphere of the 1840s ignore a February heatwave? Can the episode of two men serving papers on Judge Willis on his way to inspect the half-built courtroom make sense without an imagination of the straggly streets of early Melbourne? How necessary is it to be aware of such things? If I’m drawing on this almost environmental contextual awareness as the well-spring for my treatment of him in the Port Phillip community, will I be able to do it for Upper Canada- where I have never been, and as an even greater challenge, in British Guiana? Port Phillip, Upper Canada, British Guiana- even their names have changed, to say nothing of the colonial nature of their societies.
And so, I thought I might turn to fiction as a taster. Consolation is written as two interwoven stories. The ‘modern’ story is set in a Toronto high-rise hotel, where the widow of a recently-deceased historian is looking down on an excavation where, perhaps, artefacts will be discovered to vindicate her husband’s claims over the shoreline and the likely existence of a shipwreck containing a box of photographic plates of 1850s Toronto. The ‘past’ story concerns the photographers who created the plates and their adjustments to colonial Toronto and separation from family and ‘home’.
There’s always a peril in the ‘two interwoven stories’ structure that one will overshadow the other, and I think this happened here somewhat. I really enjoyed the 1850s sections, and felt quite impatient when I was dragged back to the drawn out ‘suspense’ of a Time Team program written on paper. Of course, my motivation for reading the book may differ from that of other readers, but I felt that he made the characters of the photographic partners J. G. Hallam and Mrs Rowe come to life. His descriptions of 1850s Toronto had the whiff of the newspaper article about them, but I enjoy that.
Apparently the book received muted praise in Toronto itself. There is a slightly evangelical authorial tone that comes through in the ‘modern’ section about heritage and community identity, and perhaps I, too, bridled a bit against being lectured about something that, in reality, I do feel strongly about.
Putting my historian hat on, I could see parallels between the 1850s Toronto he describes, and the 1840s Port Phillip where I spend most of my mental time. Even the concept of the photographic panorama was replicated here in Port Phillip at much the same time, for slightly different reasons. And as a fiction reader, I was drawn to the characters he evoked and the little community in which they lived.