Monthly Archives: May 2012

‘The Longing’ by Candice Bruce

2012, 354 p.

In her acknowledgments at the back of this book, Candice Bruce names Jan Critchett’s book A Distant Field of Murder (see my review here) as one of the sources that deeply influenced the writing of this book.  I suspect that I know exactly the paragraph in Critchett’s book that encapsulates what Bruce is trying to do in her book:

The frontier was in fact a very local phenomenon, the disputed area being the very land each settler lived upon.  The enemy was not on the other side of neutral ground.  The frontier was represented by the woman who lived near by and was shared by her Aboriginal partner with a European or Europeans.  It was the group living down beside the creek or river, it was the ‘boy’ used as guide for exploring parties or for doing jobs now and then.  The ‘other side of the frontier’ was just down the yard or as close as the bed shared with an Aboriginal woman.

Jan Critchett, Distant Field of Murder (p. 23)

It is this shared domestic frontier that Bruce examines in The Longing: a paradoxical space that was intimate in terms of physical proximity and yet at the same time also a yawning gulf.  Ellis MacRorie is a young Scotswoman, who had been shipped off to marry the older, dour Alexander MacRorie, a pastoralist in the Western District of Victoria.  The homestead is one of the grand mansions described by Margaret Kiddle in her wonderful (if flawed) Men of Yesterday, where shearers and workers mingled with the aboriginal servants and farm labourers.  Leerpeen Weelan, known as Louisa, is one of these domestic servants, and in her loneliness and unhappiness, Ellis believes that Louisa is a confidante and friend.  Leerpeen keeps her distance, impassive and silently mourning the loss of her daughter, her tribe, and her country, and rather derisively judging the infatuation that develops between Mrs MacRorie and the American artist Sanford P. Hart who comes to stay at Strathcarron homestead.

And here we run headlong into one of the narrative dilemmas of twenty-first century narrative writing: presenting the aboriginal voice.  Kate Grenville felt that it would be inappropriate to “step into the heads” of her Aboriginal characters in The Secret River; Tom Keneally has said he wished that he had had a greater sensitivity to the ownership of words and worldviews when he wrote The Chant of Jimmy Blacksmith and that he would be more “diffident”  about writing from the Aboriginal perspective today. But the author of this book, Candice Bruce, in an interview with the SMH does not seem to share their qualms:

Surely we have all moved on from then and can see the value in having multiple voices?…We have a shared history, which is not the preserve of only one group, and so to go back to a time where political correctness decrees who is allowed to write from particular points of view is anathema.

I’m not sure that it’s the preserve of one group alone to make this decision.  I personally am not comfortable with the glib ‘move on’ attitude that this quotation (which may well be out of context) suggests. Perhaps, as Kate Grenville found with The Secret River, Candice Bruce may find the commentary that a writer generates as part of the publicity round can overtake the work itself.  But does it matter what an author says about how they approach their work? After all, works of art existed before and long outlive all this publicity flummery that is frothed up by modern marketing.  In the final analysis, a book should stand or fall in its own right, (shouldn’t it?)  irrespective of the author’s intentions or personality- although I’m not sure that the two can always be disentangled.

I am, however, aware that trepidation over the presentation of Aboriginal characters in some ways maintains “otherness” and that fear of causing offence causes the Aboriginal presence in Australian historical fiction to be sidestepped altogether. I don’t know how you get over that- or indeed whether it is possible or presumptuous to attempt to do so.  I’m mindful of Paul Keating’s exhortation in the Redfern speech about “our failure to imagine” the murder, child theft, discrimination and exclusion faced by Aboriginal people if it happened to us. Perhaps this book is what this “imagination” looks like.  The author says that she was encouraged to write this book by Vicky Couzens, a well-known Gunditjimara author from the Western District in which this book is set, who assured her that any controversy would be short-lived if she wrote with accuracy and respect.  I think that Bruce does both these things, but the wariness that she dismisses as “political correctness” exists on both sides, and for good reason.

Leaving aside the question of the wisdom of adopting an aboriginal narrative perspective, how well does she do it?  As well as giving her encouragement, Vicky Couzens also gave Bruce a copy of the Dictionary of Keerray Woorong and Related Dialects, and perhaps this exemplifies the approach that she takes in presenting Leerpeen’s voice.  There are words, naming and labelling, but there’s none of the rise and fall and flow of Kim Scott’s language in That Deadman Dance, or Alexis Wright in Carpentaria.  Words, but not language.

The second narrative arc of this story involves the young art curator Cornelia Bremer who, 150 years later, is researching an exhibition on S. P. Hart for the National Gallery of Victoria.  When the lead researcher is involved in a car accident, she is dispatched to Strathcarron to evaluate the suitability of an S.P. Hart painting in the possession of the MacRorie  family who still live in the family homestead, which is falling into disrepair.  She stays with the family for a couple of days,  learning of the jealousies and rivalries among the remaining family members, and uncovering art work and provenances that are completely unknown to the art world at large.

Here Bruce is on surer ground, because she is herself an art historian who curated the Eugene von Guerard exhibition at the National Gallery of Australia in 1979-80 and contributed to the catalogue of the more recent ‘Nature Revealed’ touring exhibition at the National Gallery of Victoria in 2011 (currently on show at the National Gallery in Canberra until July 2012).  On Candice Bruce’s own website, she shows the images in particular that inspired her, most especially the paintings of Lake Purrumbete and the homestead.  In this regard, I was reminded of Robert Dowling, who also worked as a travelling artist, moving from property to property painting homesteads and livestock as a way for settlers to celebrate their good fortune. When Bruce writes about the excitement of hunting down and reading handwritten correspondence and diaries, and uncovering artwork unknown to the academy, you know that she is writing from first hand experience.   I recognize the wealth of research that underpins this book, because I’ve read much of it myself, but it weighs the book down.  There is a slightly didactic tone to the present-day section, especially in relation to issues over aboriginal artwork and heritage. The  addition of a thwarted extramarital affair added a discordant, even somewhat chick-litty note that made me squirm a bit.

The juxtaposition of these three stories- Leerpeen and her stolen daughter and lost country, Ellis MacRorie and the painter, and Cornelia the art investigator – traverses 150 years.  Bruce emphasizes common humanity and the universality of love and loss, but in so doing hits a few false notes. I found myself becoming tired of the frequent flashbacks, and some of the dialogue, particularly in the present-day section was weak. I enjoyed the section written as Ellis’ diary, and overall enjoyed the historical 1855 thread more than the present-day one.  As a piece of historical fiction, it works well.  It fleshes out those images of the past that are so often formed by film and television, and in this case it draws our attention to colonial domestic relationships that are often overlooked completely. There was, after all, a market for those mission-trained Aboriginal girls (for example, the Cootamundra Domestic Training Home for Aboriginal Girls), yet there is little acknowledgement of their presence.  The imaginative space that historical fiction provides can be one where the imagination that Keating called for can work on us.  In this regard, the book succeeds admirably.

What Bruce does really, really well is landscape, and here her art historian strengths come to the fore.  Her descriptions of landscape are so evocative that you can see it as a painting in your mind’s eye. It’s as if she helps you to ‘frame’ the country yourself, while at the same time reminding us of the aboriginal sense of country, exemplified by the Deborah Bird Rose quote at the start of the book.

Vicky Couzens told her to be accurate and respectful. Candice Bruce gives us accuracy in spades: the depth of research in this book is prodigious, and she brings a wealth of professional experience to the present-day component of the book.  Respectful- yes, I think that she is, but I don’t know that I’m the person who can make that judgment.

My rating: 7.5 -8/10

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library

Read because: Lisa at ANZLit Lovers reviewed  it, and I like books set in Colonial Victoria.

‘How to Live’ by Sarah Bakewell

Sarah Bakewell How To Live or A Life of Montaigne in one question and twenty attempts at an answer. 2010, 331 p. & notes

I think that all readers have their own literary bucket list of books that they want to read before they die.  Mine are all big baggy things that I want to gorge myself on: James Joyce’s Ulysses,  Anthony Powell’s Dance to the Music of Time, Frank Moorhouse’s ‘Edith trilogy’, Eleanor Dark’s Timeless Land trilogy, and Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu (I’ve read two, but I’d like to read them one after the other).  I did have on this list Montaigne’s Essays, but it has occurred to me that Montaigne doesn’t require the big Christmas holiday commitment like these other books do.  He’s better read in small snatches, and is indeed tailor-made for an e-reader because, after all,  who’d want to cart that hefty volume around on the off-chance of the quick dip?

In fact, it occurs to me that Montaigne would have made a fantastic blogger, because his Essays are quirky and digressive, just as a good blog is. [An aside- one of my favourite, digressive, informed and very Montaignesque blogs is Historians are Past Caring] This book, How to Live, is a biography in the quirky and digressive spirit of Montaigne too.  It, like Montaigne, takes the question “how to live?” and distills twenty answers that Montaigne might have given, as prisms onto Montaigne the man and his work.

The twenty  attempts at an answer? Don’t worry about death; pay attention; be born; read a lot, forget most of what you read, and be slow-witted; survive love and loss; use little tricks; keep a private room behind the shop; be convivial, live with others; wake from the sleep of habit; live temperately; guard your humanity; do something no one has done before; see the world; do a good job but not too good a job; philosophize only by accident; reflect on everything but regret nothing;  give up control; be ordinary and imperfect; let life be its own answer.

As you might sense from these chapter headings, this is a biography, but it doesn’t read as such.  At the end of the book the author includes a chronology of Montaigne’s life- even the placement of this chronology at the back of the book rather than at the front is surprising- and I was comforted to find that I had somehow gleaned the major trajectories of Montaigne’s life, even though the author had zig-zagged chronologically throughout the book. The book is generously peppered with artwork- black and white, unfortunately- but in good Montaignian spirit it is not captioned, leading you to wonder what it is, and why it’s there.  The notes at the back provide the details, as well as full footnotes and references.  This is a well-researched book, but it wears the research lightly and plays with it in good humour, just as Montaigne himself might have done.

Bakewell places his life within the political and cultural milieu of the time, and locates it within a broader philosophical palette. I particularly liked her exploration of  Montaigne as a Phyrrhonian Sceptic- someone who is happy to suspend judgment, as a sort of mental calm and openness to uncertainty.

We, and our judgment, and all mortal things go on flowing and rolling unceasingly.  Thus nothing certain can be established about one thing by another, both the judging and the judged being in continual change and motion. (Essays, II,  12, p552 Frame version)

It is this diffidence and openness to question that makes Montaigne such delightful company.  In a world of braying certainty from the media, fundamentalist religions and partisan politics, it’s refreshing to watch someone walk around a topic, trailing off into tangents and viewing it from different angles.  In good blogger fashion, Montaigne was willing to go back to adjust his ideas, modify his stance and raise questions with himself- much as bloggers often go back to tweak a post.  Of course, this wrought havoc with the different editions of his essays as they were released, as he changed words, qualified his opinions and inserted paragraphs.

Montaigne’s annotations, corrections and insertions to his own text prior to republication of a new edition, Bordeaux copy.

She also traces the history of the Essays as an artefact through its different editions and translations.  In a very Montaignian spirit, it seems that there is no absolutely definitive edition, and that each has its drawbacks and advantages, and might have been changed yet again had Montaigne had opportunity to publish yet another edition.

So Montaigne’s Essays have moved up the menu on my e-reader for the quick dabble.  Somehow, I think that’s just the way he’d like them to be read, too.

Read because:  I felt like it

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library

My rating: 9/10

A rainy day at the NGV

It’s cold and wet, in the way that winter days used to be.  Three years ago, in the midst of drought, I was wondering if I’d ever see one of these wet days from my childhood again- the ones where you wake up to the sound of rain that just goes on and on.  But here a rainy day is back, although I note from the weather segment that once again this rain is courtesy of low pressure troughs moving down from the north, quite unlike the across-the-Nullabor weather patterns that I’ve been used to all my life.

Weather notwithstanding, off we toddled to the National Gallery of Victoria to take advantage of the members’ free entry today to the Fred Williams exhibition. I really don’t know why I keep going back to the Fed Square gallery (other than being forced to if I want to see particular exhibitions) because it always enrages me.  My chagrin starts with the cobbled, windswept forecourt. It is bleak in winter and baking in summer, uneven, and slopes upwards onto an artificially created hill that ensures that the whole Federation Square complex completely blocks any sight of the river.  It amuses me that the so-called ‘accessibility’ markers that denote a slightly smoother path  are themselves virtually indistinguishable from the rest of the cobblestones.

Then, how to get into the damned gallery?  You’ve got to hand it to the NGV- in both the Fed Square and the International Galleries, the doors are squirrelled away out of sight- I mean, you wouldn’t want anyone to come IN would you?

Having solved the mystery of getting in to the gallery, and having passed the highly prominent and clearly-sign posted shop (the only thing, along with the ticket box, that is clearly signposted in the whole building)  your next task is to work out how to get upstairs, as the exhibition you want is most certainly upstairs.  Ah- there’s the escalator- a little single-file, one-way escalator tucked away in a corner.  You want to go down again? I’m yet to find the down-escalator, but I have found the wooden staircase that has the steps sawn off at an angle like spiral steps, but in a squared, boxlike structure.  Or there’s another staircase that just goes on and on and on upwards- oddly I’ve never found how to get down again.  Isn’t there some regulation about landings in staircases??

Exhibition seen, now for coffee! There’s the cafe with a narrow window that looks out onto the river- well, it would if it weren’t covered with artistically hung black mesh.  What goes in, must come out-so where ARE the toilets? Ah, there’s a subtle little sign over in the corner, virtually indistinguishable.  The door opens into a stygian darkness, which lifts slightly over the cubicles, but barely enough to detect the flush buttons that are mere engravings on the stainless steel walls.  The whole place is so damned impractical and must break every possible regulation in terms of accessibility and safety.  I have no idea how they could evacuate the building in an emergency. It’s architectural pretension run amok.

Am I in a bad mood today? Perhaps I am.  Let’s just say that I’m glad I had free entry to the Fred Williams exhibition.  I’m with Robert Nelson on this one- his review Dogged dabs of a blobby dazzler pretty much sums it up for me.

Fortunately my rainy day at the NGV was saved by “Intimate Landscapes”, the Fred Kruger exhibition of photographs– no, not the Nightmare on Elm Street Freddy Krueger, but instead the German photographer who worked in Victoria between 1860s-80s.  He was a travelling commercial photographer who was contracted, among other things, to photograph the Aboriginal people living at Coranderrk mission, near Healesville for the Aborigines Protection Board.  His photographs, intended to highlight the industry of the inhabitants, and the success of the mission, are freighted with all the “dying race” and “clean and useful” philosophies of the time.  He also took photographs of bridges, reservoirs, and rivers, often with small human figures alongside.  In a feat of organisation, he took a large group shot of literally hundreds of school children outside Flinders Primary School in 1880- you can see it here.   There are street shots of Queenscliff, Geelong and Ballarat as well. Fascinating, and well worth the cobblestones and steps, clammy umbrellas and wet socks.

Uplifting Quotes for the Uninspired Historian #14: Keith Sinclair

Pardon the gendered language- it was written 35 years ago.

In biography, in other respects probably the most difficult form of historical writing, there is at least in principle a clear guide to what is relevant.  Biography is about a man, and the ideal data is that which seems to take us deepest into his or her personality, like Florence Nightingale’s Notes from God, or Alfred Deakin’s prayers.  Since he knows what is central, the author should know what  is peripheral.

Keith Sinclair ‘On Writing Shist’ Historical Studies Vol 13, No 51, 1968 pp. 426-432

Easy, huh?

‘The Memory Keeper’s Daughter’ by Kim Edwards

2006, 414 p.

I’ve seen this book in bookshops for several years now, but I must admit that I wasn’t particularly tempted to read it.  Perhaps it was the pink back cover, the book-group questions at the back, or perhaps it was the shelf-company it kept… oh, alright, call me a literary snob.  I do read and like Anne Tyler and Sue Miller who write American family-based fiction similar to this one, but you’re probably better off classing this with Jodi Picoult.  It was selected for my face-to-face bookgroup (so its marketing strategy of the bookgroup questions at the back was probably spot-on), and I probably wouldn’t have read it left to my own devices, but I have to admit to being thoroughly drawn in right from the opening pages.

It probably speaks volumes about the plot-driven nature of this book to say that it’s impossible to review it without spoilers.  So I won’t, other than to say that structurally, it makes decade-wide leaps as it traces through a decision made in the in 1960s as it unravels through the lives of two different families.  It is a fairly long book at over 400 pages, and particularly near the end I felt it dragged a bit with just a few too many plot-lines introduced and a heavy reliance on reminiscence to develop her characters.  I realized in reading this book how rarely I read a book that relies so heavily on plot (I’m not, for example, much into crime books or murder-mysteries) and I found myself raising questions like “But what about…?” and “I don’t believe that….”

Still, I must admit rather grudgingly that it generated a good book-group discussion (as no doubt it was intended to), and whatever frustrations I may have felt about length or plausibility did not stop me from reading it to the very end.  But I still kept wondering, rather guiltily, (and as I often had cause to say to my children when I perceived that they were wasting their time) “Is this the best use of my time?”  Probably not, but I enjoyed it anyway.

‘A Short History of the West Indies’ by J.H.Parry, P.M. Sherlock and A. P. Maingot

1987, 306 p.

One of the things that I love about doing my thesis on the colonial career of a 19th century judge- and yes, I did just (still?) use the word ‘love’- is that it has taken me to three and a half very different colonial settings in my research.  [Three and a half because Port Phillip was officially part of New South Wales, but I see it as a qualitatively different type of society to Sydney.]  The self-imposed need to knuckle down to start to write thematically has prodded me to turn to the West Indian aspect of my judge’s career- and so, where to start other than a Short History of the West Indies?

In 1968 the New Zealand historian Keith Sinclair wrote a cheekily-titled article called “On Writing Shist”.  No, it’s not a typo- ‘Shist’ is an abbreviation for “Short History”: all countries have them (often with “Short History” in the title), and many eminent historians tackle them.  Even though, as Keith Sinclair points out, a short history is written for an “educated non-specialist”, the reality is that often they’re read by people wanting an overview of their own history, and especially by other historians coolly interested to see how their colleagues, already known by their other work, tackle the task.  It’s a quite different readership when the reader is a complete outsider who knows very little about the topic beyond a vague idea of the country being “over there somewhere”.

For this reason, it’s a good thing for a Short History to have a map or two. In this regard A Short History of the West Indies  fails dismally with not one single, solitary clear map beyond a picture of an antique map as artefact that was illegible.  I found myself craving a good series of historical maps showing which European nation owned what, which port towns were important when, and how and when locations changed their names.  Thank heavens for Lord Wikipedia, which provided this fascinating animated map here.  I am embarrassed to confess how long I spent, playing this over and over, watching islands swapping from one nationality to another, and moving in and out of significance. (How clever- it seems to run by itself!)


Keith Sinclair described  Shist as a “summary interpretation of a topic, intended to make it understandable… an extended kind of explanation”.  In such a book, facts form a “very thin hard skeleton…[ selected]… in relation to the pattern of the whole book”.  The tag cloud in the Google books description is quite pertinent here because it emphasizes that the book is largely concerned with places (Jamaica, Cuba etc) rather than people or events.  The book is arranged chronologically, as you might expect, and as the first edition was published in 1956, it would appear to have had extra chapters added as it spawned its second edition in 1963, third in 1971 and this final one in 1987.   Given that the book has been reprinted so many times with 16 reprints and 4 editions, it has been disconcerting and rather confidence-sapping to find so many typographical and date errors in the text.

In a Shist, Sinclair said, the problem is not so much what to include, but what to leave out.  Themes are established, dropped, and picked up again.  Authors have to deal with the twin narrative problems of shape “the over-all pattern of ideas, facts and prose, woven into a unity” and span- “how one chapter, one hill, will roll gently into the next.  How to present, now and again, an unexpected or dramatic vista”.

In this regard, what I gleaned from this book- which may or not be what the authors intended, and may or may not be what someone more familiar with the topic might detect- is first, that West Indian history didn’t really begin until the fifteenth century. The indigenous Arawak people are dispensed with in a couple of pages. Second, that this is very much a sea-based history, both in terms of the geographic sprinkling of islands across the West Indian basin, as well as in the maritime prowess of the European powers that plied their influence there. Third, that the history of the West Indies is completely wound up in the machinations of these European powers- the Dutch, the Spanish, the French and the English- and their wars, treaties and truces.  Fourth, that the monoculture crop of sugar profoundly affected the history of the region as a whole in terms of slavery, social structure and power relationships and the economy.  Fifth, that a history of the West Indies needs to be seen within the context of U.S. history of power. Sixth, that even though the islands tended to see themselves in a closed loop tied to their metropolitan power, it is important to look across these different historical metropolitan affiliations to see the rhythm and pace of change across the region as a whole.

I don’t know enough to detect what is new or different in this short history compared with others that have been written before and since. Nonetheless, it had me thoroughly engrossed, with many ‘aha!’s as the pieces fell into place, especially in regard to the Dutch influence in European history.  I note that the authors describe the slave rebellions in Haiti, Jamaica and St Vincent as “The Second war of American Independence”.  I liked their use of the cassia tree as an emblem for West Indian history following emancipation- the leaves and bark are lost, then suddenly it bursts into golden flower.

I suspect that the maritime emphasis reflected the enthusiasms of the historian J.H. Parry in particular, and that there is a political thread running through the commentary on seeing the region as a whole, and on the relationship with the United States.  It is probably a history of its time in terms of the sidelining of indigenous history and women. This is a history of big powers and big forces, rather than individuals. I’m full of enthusiasm to wade further into the mud flats of British Guiana history!


J. H. Parry, Philip Sherlock and Anthony Maingot  A Short History of the West Indies London, Macmillan, 1987 (4th edition)

Keith Sinclair ‘On writing Shist’ Historical Studies, Vol 13 No. 51, 1968 pp.426-432

A pleasant Sunday drive to….The Portable Iron Houses

Do people do Sunday drives anymore? We did- across the Yarra and down to South Melbourne to look at the Portable Iron Houses in Coventry Street South Melbourne.

Patterson House, Coventry St South Melbourne

There are three galvanized iron houses on the South Melbourne site.  The one facing Coventry Street, shown above, is still in its original position where, in 1855 it was one of nearly one hundred portable buildings in the vicinity that included cottages, two-storey houses, shops, stores and a coach house.  It was valued at 60 pounds when it was erected in 1853/4.   Portable iron houses were packed in wooden cases (which could be used to line the internal walls) and easily transported by ship or cart.  They were quickly erected and could be unbolted and dismantled to be taken elsewhere for re-erection as a practical and enterprising solution to the dire housing shortage in gold-rush Melbourne.  The house above contained four rooms on the ground floor, with two attic bedrooms that are reached by a precipitous stairway.  I found it hard to envisage negotiating these stairs- barely more than a ladder really- with a babe in arms.  The temperature of the attic rooms in summer must have been fearsome too.

The second house on the side, Bellhouse House, was originally built at 42 Moor Street Fitzroy.

Bellhouse House, South Melbourne

It is believed to be the only remaining example of the work of Edward T Bellhouse of Manchester England.  In 1851 he displayed his portable houses at the Great Exhibition, where they exemplified the practical use of new technology, especially for an imperial context.  There had been iron houses available previously- say for example, this house designed for St Lucia in the West Indies, but the cost and the weight were prohibitive

The Courier (Tasmania) May 8, 1845

(by the way, it should be ‘jalousie’ window, which apparently is just a louvre window).

There had been timber pre-fabricated houses as well (La Trobe’s cottage is a good example) but with these iron houses we are talking mass-produced, cheap, urban housing that could be manufactured in Britain and shipped to colonies throughout the world.  The iron on the Bellhouse House runs horizontally, and it would have originally contained three rooms.  I must admit that I found it rather charmless.

The house that I was most intrigued by was Abercrombie House, which faces Patterson Place at the back, where there were originally fourteen houses of a smaller size erected by the entrepreneur who erected the Coventry Street House.

Abercrombie House, Patterson Place South Melbourne

This particular house was moved from its original location at 59 Arden Street, North Melboune in about 1980.  You can see a picture of the house still in North Melbourne here  and it being shifted by semi-trailer after being cut in half here. They must have had their hearts in their mouths while they were moving it, because it is certainly in a very precarious condition.  It was last occupied in 1976, and standing there looking at the single light bulging hessian-covered ceiling and the layers of wall paper, it’s hard to credit that such primitive living conditions still existed in the middle of Melbourne forty-odd years ago.  But conversely, on a wet and cold winter’s day, it’s also important to recognize what a vast improvement this house would have been on the canvas tents that were the alternative.

Abercrombie House from Patterson Place

The Portable Iron Houses are presented by the National Trust, and they are open on the first Sunday of the month 1-4 p.m.

‘Bunyip Aristocracy’ by Ged Martin

Ged Martin Bunyip Aristocracy: the New South Wales constitution debate of 1853 and hereditary institutions in the British Colonies, Sydney, Croom Helm, 1986, 198 pages & notes.

To understand the past in its full roundness, the historian must acknowledge that the ideas and plans which did not come to fruition are sometimes as significant as those which did.  Any other approach is tantamount to accepting that what has happened had to happen, it which case there is really no point in writing history at all. (p. 197)

“Bunyip aristocracy”- what a delicious phrase! It was coined by Daniel Deniehy to describe the squatters and pastoralists who, if they got their way in the constitutional debates of the early 1850s,  would style themselves as earls and lord it over the rest of the people. He was speaking  at a protest meeting held at the Victoria Theatre (in Sydney) on 15 August 1853, on the eve of the Select Committee of NSW’s debate about a hereditary aristocracy.

People may have laughed at the idea of a jumped-up bunyip aristocracy  but, as Ged Martin points out

From the standpoint of modern Australia the scheme is exotically bizarre. To men who saw themselves as a resident outpost of a British world, it was eminently appropriate… In many ways, New South Wales and 1853 were the logical place and year for the idea to surface.  As a colony of large pastoralists it had a superficial similarity to landed society in Britain. Its convict past had accustomed its landowning and conservative classes to equate the defence of political control with social exclusivism.” (p. 195, 196)

The idea of a hereditary colonial aristocracy that could sit in an upper house was not new, however, and nor was it confined to New South Wales alone.  In the early chapters of this book, Martin examines the idea of hereditary institutions across the empire.  Hereditary honours for Canadian colonists were mooted in the British parliament during the debate over the 1791 Canadian constitution, but the suggestion was not acted upon.  The governor of British Guiana, Sir James Carmichael Smyth, urged the establishment of a colonial order of knighthood in 1831 and again in 1837.  It was an idea that bubbled up from time to time, only to subside again when derided or frowned upon at either the London or colonial end.

In its favour was the argument that as British subjects, colonists should be able to be considered for imperial honours.  It was felt that by instituting a framework of honours, not-quite-aristocratic-but-close-enough families would be encouraged to migrate to the colonies, where they would improve the temper of society.  An upper house composed of hereditary peerages, with perhaps the odd lifetime peer thrown in to give people something to aspire to, would act as a brake on democratic excess. After all, the colonial lords would have the long-term interests of their families and their dignity at heart, and so could be trusted to do the right thing.

But should they be ‘proper’ titles, that had good standing back home? What if England was flooded with newly minted lords, flaunting their new titles when there was such demand for titles in Britain itself?  Was it possible to invent an instant aristocracy, or was it the outcome of centuries of slow growth?

These problems were never really resolved, and by the time the British government considered the new constitution for New South Wales, the proposal for a hereditary upper house had been withdrawn at the colonial end.  Not that it was envisaged that it would be an instant House of Lords in New South Wales: instead, it was envisaged that an order of baronets, uniting wealth and merit, would be established by nomination, which over time would become an electoral college for the upper house.

As Martin points out, it turned out that Australian politics ended up with a number of legislators styled ‘Sir’ and a number of families that developed a tradition of political service anyway : Sir Robert Menzies, Sir Richard Casey and political dynasties like the Anthonys, the Downers, the Jenkins, the Cains and the Newmans.   It was sobering to remember the occasional re-emergence of quaint ideas of Australia as a cadet monarchy with suggestions that Prince Charles might become governor-general, or a rather weird suggestion that Princess Alexandra might become Queen of Australia.  Sir Robert Menzies was her first son’s godfather, and his middle name was Bruce (after Sir Stanley Bruce, I assume, and not because the name ‘Bruce’ summons up a broad-shouldered farmer with big hands?)

Queen Sandy of Australia?

Apparently this idea was treated with derision, with critics suggesting that Sir Robert Menzies or Sir Richard Casey could be appointed governor-general of Great Britain instead.

In many ways this book is a good counterpart to Peter Cochrane’s Colonial Ambition, although it lacks the rollicking characterizations of Cochrane’s book. The typesetting is of its time and awful: dense, single-spaced, typed pages with footnotes jammed up against the lines of text.   It’s not a what-if history, but it does finish by noting the things that could have brought a hereditary honours system or a cadet monarchy into existence, had they fallen differently.  And had a more systematic association with the royal princes developed,

Historians would still have gently derided the whole thing, because historians are usually good-humoured progressives.  But historians are also very good at being wise after the event.  If the persistent rhetoric of transferring British institutions to the colonies had actually led to an attempt to imitate the distinctively hereditary features of Britain’s constitution, no historian today would express much surprise. (p. 198)

Vote 1 Joseph Hawdon!

As you may recall, I am interested in the history of Banyule Homestead, one of the few pre-gold rush mansions still standing in Melbourne.  My sister blog, BanyuleHomestead is exploring different aspects of Banyule Homestead’s history.  Joseph Hawdon, who built the homestead in the 1840s, was one of the candidates for the first election to the Legislative Council of New South Wales.  You can read about his election tilt here.

Oven poached teeth

I had to go to the dentist this morning for a 9.00 a.m. appointment.  I had originally thought that at least I wouldn’t have to wait for long, but then I started to wonder if maybe I would have a longer wait than anticipated.  Why? Because in my mind’s eye I can see hordes of Sunday Age readers, all sitting desperately in dentists’ waiting rooms, with their teeth clamped shut.

I blame Guy Grossi’s oven poached pears, featured in yesterday’s Sunday Age.


Beurre bosc pears?- check.  Cinnamon stick?- check.  Star anise?- no, but  I bought some. In went the pears to cook in the saucepan for 20 minutes or until the pears were just tender.  Well, it was a good 30 minutes before I could persuade myself that perhaps they were slightly more tender than when I put them in half an hour earlier.  Into the oven, 40 minutes, 50 minutes, 1 hr 15 minutes- ye gods, they still looked like albino walruses wallowing in barely coloured syrup and as hard as rocks.  So, in desperation, back onto the stovetop to somehow make them “caramelized and sticky.”

Well, that worked.  So well that once they hit the bowls, they clamped immediately onto the bottom, only to be shifted by multiple applications of boiling water and soaking over night.  “Mmmm” we said, taking a mouthful of pear, only to realize that the caramel set like cement between our teeth.  “Mmmm” was all we could say, really. That, or “mmnnnngggttttsssshhhh”.

You can keep your oven-poached pears Mr Grossi.  Dentists throughout Melbourne and Sydney (and anywhere else the Sunday Life is published) thank you.  I don’t.