Monthly Archives: January 2013

‘The Moonstone’ by Wilkie Collins



1868 (reprinted 1998), 473 p in very small font!

Oooof! That took some reading!  Nothing like a big, flapping Victorian novel to gobble up reading time.

The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins has been hailed by some as the first detective story, and it certainly has many of the features of every BBC production you’ve ever seen: the amateur detective, the country house, the incompetent and bumbling police officer, the canny ex-policeman, sleep-walking, creeping round corridors in the night.

The Moonstone is a huge diamond, pillaged on a colonial adventure in India, and brought back ‘home’ to England where it is bequeathed by her uncle to Rachel Verinder on her 18th birthday.  That night, after her party, the diamond disappears.  Suspicions fall on three mysterious Indian gentlemen who have been seen around the country estate, and when an unnamed object is committed to the care of a banker for one year, it is assumed that it is the Moonstone.  Meanwhile there are distraught servant girls, opium addiction, quicksand…it’s got it all, really.

I’m not particularly enamoured of detective stories, but what really impressed me was how modern (or post-modern, really)  this book is in its construction.  After a brief prologue, detailing events of 1799, it is told in two parts or ‘periods’.  The first, set in 1848 is titled ‘The Loss of the Diamond” and consists of one long narrative,  ‘The Events, related by Gabriel Betteredge, House Steward in the service of Julia, Lady Verinder”.  The section period, “The Discovery of the Truth” is set a year later, and consists of eight separate narratives, contributed as statements, or drawn from letters and journals.  There is an epilogue, itself in the form of three statements.  It reminded me a little of Tristram Shandy in that Collins deliberately sets the narratives up against each other, parodying the author in some segments, and unsettling your confidence in others.  It could have quite easily come from the pen of John Barth (e.g. The Sotweed Factor) a hundred years later.

But, indeed, it was published in 1868 in serial form in Dickens’ magazine All the Year Round, which no doubt contributed to its rather daunting length.  We modern readers more accustomed to our books in 300 page bites, and I must admit that I did pick it up each night marveling at the fact that I seemed to have been reading for so long with still so far to go.  Still, at least when I got to the end of it, it was perfectly clear just what happened, instead of the rather vague endings in more recent books that leave you wondering whether you really do know who committed the crime after all.

It’s the first book for 2013 with my face-to-face bookgroup, and I’m wondering if others made it to the end.  I’m glad that I did, but I think what I took away from it was more a sense of admiration for Wilkie Collins’ writing than a driving need to know who-done-it.


‘Moab is my Washpot’ by Stephen Fry


2011 (originally 1997),  434 p.

When, for what seems like years, the best-seller lists were dominated by Fifty Shades of Twilight (or whatever it was), one little spark of light was Stephen Fry’s ‘Moab is my Washpot’ which seemed to just hover there for month after month.  I had no idea what the title meant, and now, with this reissue, I find that obviously no one else did either because he has had to append an explanatory preface.  The title is a quote from Psalm 60 (‘Moab is my washpot, and over Edom I throw my sandal’). For the young Stephen Fry, it captured the idea that the world was a battleground between beauty and the barbarians, between sensitive souls like himself and the Phillistines who were everyone else.  For the adult, successful Stephen Fry, it now captures the “rebarbative, supersensitive and insanely solipsistic soul that I was”. He has a measure of affection for that earlier Stephen Fry though, and by the end of the book, so I do.

Despite his claims to be “middle class at a middle-class school in middle England” (p. 201), it’s certainly not a middle-class that many Australians would recognize.  Boarding school seems such a terribly British phenomenon,  the tattered photograph of his childhood mansion that he carried with him throughout his life is certainly no middle-class Australian home, and the language in which he revels is certainly English, but not Australian.

It is a very self-aware autobiography.  As he himself says:

…I was and am both transparent and opaque, illegible and an open book. (p. 319)

At times he addresses his putative reader: “Bloody hell, I do rattle on, don’t I?” (p. 256) and “Yeah, yeah, yeah- you were a thieving little tosser, we get the picture, we will draw the conclusions thank you.” (p 303).  You are constantly aware of his awareness that this is all construction.  He is, indeed, both transparent and opaque.  He seems to write with disarming honesty about his inability to sing and play sport, his late maturation into adolescence, the almost-expected school-boy sex play with his peers, and his long awareness of his own queerness in both senses of the word, his stealing, his arrogance.  In his writing about his infatuation with Matthew Osborne  all the Bridesheadness of his story drops away: a crush is a crush, and an exhilarating, searing, heightened, poignant, unrealizable and utterly human thing it is too.

But being a book written Stephen Fry, you are well aware through his use of  rolling, fruity, razor-sharp language that you are in the presence of a huge intellect and a huge ego very much in control of what he is divulging or choosing not to divulge. He’s aware of the power of his language too:

I have always wanted to be able to express music and love and the things that I have felt in their own proper language- not like this, not like this with the procession of particular English verbs, adjectives, adverts, nouns and prepositions that rolls before you now towards this full-stop and the coming paragraph of yet more words.

You see, when it comes down to it, I sometimes believe that words are all I have…Language was all that I could do, but it never, I felt, came close to a dance or a song or a gliding through water.  Language could serve as a weapon, a shield and a disguise, it had many strengths.  It could bully, cajole, deceive, wheedle and intimidate.  Sometimes it could even delight, amuse, charm, seduce and endear, but always as a solo turn, never a dance. (p. 101)

It comes as a surprise, then, to learn that he had to have speech therapy to slow down his speech enough to make it intelligible.  But even that’s part of the man too: the stream of synonyms and witticisms comes tumbling out so quickly that you can barely keep up and you feel that you’re drowning in his language. You sense that he’s toying with you as a reader too, and yet you don’t really want it to stop.  I think that I would be struck dumb with fear, completely intimidated,  if I were ever to sit next to him at the  hypothetical celebrity dinner party that people keep summoning up.   I very much enjoyed his book, but I think I prefer him safely in print.

My rating: 9/10

Read because: it’s a good before-bed read and I quite like Stephen Fry.

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library.

‘Bring up the Bodies’ by Hilary Mantel


2012, 407 p.

I had promised myself two book treats over Christmas.  One was Rhys Isaac’s The Transformation of Virginia and the second is this one- Hilary Mantel’s Bring up the Bodies.  I had purchased it the very week that it became available…and of course it has sat on my bookshelf unread ever since.

I loved Wolf Hall, the first book in the series. It was one of those engulfing reading experiences, where you don’t want to pick up another book for days afterward because everything else will look sallow and weedy in comparison. I must admit that I haven’t been quite as blasted-away over this second book, but it is still a damned fine read and it had me sneaking away to grab 15-minute reads whenever I could.

It is written in the same second-person present tense voice as Mantel used in Wolf Hall– naturally enough, because it is a sequel.  It is at times a little ungainly: in a conversation between several men, she had to qualify “he-Cromwell….” when there were a few too many he’s around.  I found it distracting in the first book, but I fell more easily into it this time, and found that it served to evoke memories of the earlier volume.  That’s the problem with the second book in a trilogy that is published several years after the first: how can you remind the reader of what occurred earlier without burdening the book with flashbacks, and yet bringing new readers, unfamiliar with the earlier volume, along with you?  I found this with Amitav Ghosh’s  River of Smoke, and vowed then never again to read a series until it was completed.  Ah, but this is Hilary Mantel, and she struck just the right balance- and I think that her continued use of this unconventional narrative voice assisted her.

Thomas Cromwell is the main protagonist of this book as well, and while he continues to be a complex, conflicted man, you see the cold steel in him as well.  In the earlier book, Cromwell had negotiated Henry’s divorce from Katherine of Aragon in order to marry Anne Boleyn.  In this book, Henry has turned against the Boleyn marriage, and Cromwell again needs to shift and manipulate the pieces into place to meet the king’s desires.  The Henry/Anne story has been told many times, but not as quietly and with such menace.  Small events and conversations flit in and out, and it is only later in the book that you see them woven into the sticky web of coercion, blackmail and power that Cromwell so quietly and ruthlessly uses to immobilize his enemies.

Mantel helpfully provides a very good ‘who’s who’ at the start, arranged by place and allegiance.  I found myself referring to it often- maybe a little too often- but perhaps that reflects the nibbly way in which I read it, even though I would have loved to have read it in one big gulp.

Was it better than Wolf Hall?  I don’t think so- Wolf Hall was so big and so different that I don’t think any sequel could continue at the same intensity without becoming a parody of itself.   This book is tighter, more claustrophobic and more chilling.  Can’t wait for the third.

My rating: 9.5/10

Read because:  I knew that I would enjoy it and wanted to relish it.

Sourced from: my very own bookshelf.

‘The Transformation of Virginia 1740-1790’ by Rhys Isaac


1982, 357 p

I have promised myself this book as a holiday reading treat.  I’ve been intending to read it for many years.  Rhys Isaac, who died in 2010 was a much-loved member of the history faculty at my university, and was one of the ‘Melbourne School’ of historians that I greatly admire (Rhys Isaac, Greg Dening, Inga Clendinnen, Donna Merwick.)  I would like to write my thesis within their historiographic tradition and approach- well, it’s something to aim for at least. So I approached this book with somewhat of a sense of reverence and with an eye to the writing up of my own work. Continue reading

‘Macquarie: From colony to country’ by Harry Dillon and Peter Butler


2010, 329 p.

Probably my first introduction to historic argument, as distinct from historic narrative and fact, came in HSC Australian History (yes, I am old enough that it was HSC and not VCE and young enough that it was no longer ‘matric’.)  There I was feeling all soft and fuzzy over Macquarie when along came that nasty Bigge character.  But was it as simple as this? For the first time I realized that historians- Manning Clarke, Ellis, Ritchie- could have a different take on the same event, and that you could talk about historians’ arguments and set them up against each other,  rather than just relate what happened.

And there I was nearly 40 years later, reading another book on Macquarie, nicely timed with my trip to Sydney in December last year.  It evoked a whiff of the goodies-and-baddies sense of history, and Macquarie is definitely in the goodies camp in this book.  It’s a very readable account of Macquarie’s time in New South Wales and his contribution to the shift from ‘New South Wales’ to the entity of ‘Australia’.

The authors argue that Macquarie was the victim of a mismatch between the intended use of New South Wales as both penal settlement and free colony.  His position at the head of a penal colony gave him autocratic powers but he used them to make opportunities for ex-convicts, rather than the elite- which was pretty much the expectation at the time.  He was, at heart, a military man, which expressed itself through his authoritarianism and brittle response to criticism.  The authors emphasize his Scots background as a motivating factor, and indeed call him the ‘laird’ throughout, arguing that his policies sprang from a paternalist mindset.  I’m not convinced that ‘laird’ is the right imagery, and it’s not something that Macquarie himself claimed.  The book is written from a very Australian-centred perspective, and I think that the depiction of the Colonial Office would have benefited from a fuller empire-wide analysis. As it is, the goodies/baddies dichotomy is a little too simple.

Although the biographical details of the authors links them with Charles Sturt University, they both have a background in journalism, and I think that this comes through in the book, which is eminently readable.  They have been granted all the publishing features on a historians’ wishlist- footnotes (not all that many) AND a bibliography (what luxury!), index, and source list for the illustrations.  Many other much more academic tomes than this one are often short-changed in this regard.

I was attracted to read this book after a brief browse at the ‘reduced’ table in my uni book shop. I noted that the book started with a chapter highlighting the heritage of Macquarie today, followed by a chapter that had him returning home ‘under a cloud’.  It then reverted to a more conventional biography, ending with a 2010 visit to his ancestral home.  I’m interested in the way that historians structure biography at the moment, hoping to break out of a strictly chronological form for my own thesis, and so I was interested to see how this worked as a reader.  I think it did, in that it had a pleasing sense of symmetry and that the bookend chapters allowed an argument to be mounted in what is, essentially, narrative history.

Putting history in its place


Well, well, well- I’m on ITunes U! (and so are some of my fellow LaTrobe-ites who read this blog!) There’s some interesting papers there, and a video of Henry Reynolds on the History of Tasmania.

The full title of my paper is “Global Positioning Systems: Circuits of Empire Large and Small”.  It was delivered at Putting History in Its Place, a conference held at La Trobe University in September 2012.

It’s labelled as “Movement around the Imperial Network” on I-Tunes.  When I played it through I-tunes it seemed to be brutally truncated at the end, but my downloaded version ran through to the end.

More worthies at the Boroondara Cemetery

It surprised me that the Boroondara Cemetery was established as early as 1858.  I’m well aware that graveyards were established on the outskirts of cities because of fears of contagion, but Kew seems so suburban for 1858.  The surrounding houses seem to be Edwardian in design, and the fence and rotunda that give the cemetery such a  High Victorian/Edwardian appearance date from the 1890s as well.

Because of the strong turn-of-the-century aspect of the cemetery,  I was startled to find the graves of very early Victorian settlers there.  Here’s Edward Henty from Portland, one of the earliest permanent settlers


Georgiana McCrae is buried here as well.


There’s some very large memorials here- none rivalling the Springthorpe Memorial in beauty, but striking nonetheless.

There’s the Syme memorial for David Syme, proprietor of The Age



and the Cussen Memorial was erected by Supreme Court judge Leo Cussen for his son Hubert.


Somehow, compared with these, the Howett memorial looks rather -um- utilitarian.  Still, time may be kind to it.


I quite liked this one.


While speaking of death, I noticed this death notice in The Age yesterday.  I do not know the woman at all, and mean no offence by posting this.  I was very touched by it.

WEST Verna Rae. Passed away peacefully at Munday Court, Skye on December 27 2012 aged 88…. A feisty savvy survivor of the Old Beechworth Asylum who never stopped searching for our mother, with whom she was lovingly reunited in 1991.  Moved to a Singleton Equity house in Skye in 1992 with loving care from DHS.  We were glad to be able to embrace Verna in our family.

Therein lies a tale, I suspect.