‘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.

I did not read this book for its content as such:  instead, I read it for its methodology. As it turned out, I found much in it that I recognize in my studies of Upper Canada, and indeed it has given me a better understanding of the mentalite of the Upper Canada gentry than any of the Canadian histories I have read. It is, in essence, an exploration of the twin revolutions of religion and republicanism- certainly not what I expected. In this regard, it is not unlike Michael Roe’s The Quest for Authority in Eastern Australia 1835-51 which looks at power, authority and evangelicalism in an Australian context. But unlike Roe’s book, this is not an intellectual history as such: instead, it is a lived, people-based history, expressed in landscapes, bricks and architectural plans, conversations and mobilities. Isaac’s argument is that the gentry looked to republicanism as a way of maintaining their hierarchical, rank-ordered yet inclusive society, but that under the influence of evangelical religion, republicanism was given a more radical and individualistic twist. Beyond understanding the broad sketch of its overarching argument, I am completely out of my own subject area and in no position to take issue with particular issues or to recognize shortcomings or absences in its approach. I leave that to the many scholars in a whole slew of journals who reviewed the book when it was released. Among them, there was almost universal acclaim for the writing, but some strongly expressed misgivings about the ethnographic history approach that Isaacs utilizes. It is this very ethnographic history approach that draws me to the book.

The book opens unusually. Just as there is often a separate, ‘voice of God’ narrative before the title appears in the opening shots of a film, so too this book commences with a chronological narrative sweep of Virginia’s history headed ‘The Setting and the Action”. It extends over twenty pages and is largely pictorial, with short italicized text. As a result, the title page with bibliographical details does not appear until p.22. A point of minor but ongoing annoyance was that the pictures in this preface section were not numbered, even though they were given roman numeral numbering when referred to later in the text to distinguish them from the many other (numbered) photographs and images sprinkled throughout the book. Perhaps this was corrected in later editions? I thought this opening filmic technique worked well in helping you settle into the context as a reader, and as an assurance that you are in the hands of a masterful writer.

In his introduction he explains that the chapters of the book are “a series of linked studies of changing expressions of the meaning of life, traced through half a century of religious and political revolution in Virginia”. He admits that “considerable effort has gone into experimenting with strategies of presentation that would serve to explicate ways of life”(p.5). Hence, he turns to landscape and architecture as well as dramaturgy as a way of translating the meanings that the inhabitants of this other, older world would have given to their own everyday customs.

Part I is titled ‘Traditional Way of Life’ and it takes up the first 135 pages of the book. It focuses on religion, learning and authority as expressed through the architecture of houses, churches; rituals and hospitality in domestic settings; and special occasions. Although he eschews the use of ‘class’ as a classification, he does makes a triple pass over these topics from the perspective of gentry, planter and slave, regretfully admitting that there is more data about life in the ‘big house’, less about the small white planters, and only tangential evidence over slave experience. Several reviewers, even in the 1980s, took him to task over the sparse treatment of negro slaves in particular, and more recent work has challenged his claims of impotence in the face of paucity of data. Nonetheless, I found that his multi-layered approach, drawing on objects and actions as well as written documents, produced a nuanced and deeply textured depiction of the ways of thought and meanings that were woven into this hierarchical society built on the mutual existence of condescension and deference. There is some wonderful writing here- most particularly a section (p. 52-7) where he describes a gentleman, a planter and a slave each travelling through the same landscape and seeing and experiencing different things as they pass. A simple point, but one that gives you pause, and applicable to any lived experience within any setting.

Part II, ‘Movements and Events’ (152 pages) is quite different in both structure and purpose. It consists of “a series of close-up analyses of particular episodes, intended to reveal something of stress and change as they appeared in passages of action and exchanges of words” (p. 6)  For example, one chapter deals with the eviction of a parson from his parish; another with a meeting of clergymen to discuss whether Bishops should be appointed; a vestry meeting at the Bruton Church; Jefferson writing out the directions for his tombstone. Each one starts with a contextualizing, italicized paragraph that serves as a brief introduction and statement of intent for the episode that is to follow. The chapter that follows the introduction is quite self-contained, and I found myself wondering if they had had earlier incarnations as journal articles. Here he examines individual actors, negotiating and grappling with particular situations, and the claims made in his overarching argument are given flesh and blood. But did these episodes work as a narrative technique? There was an element of repetition in them, and it reminded me a bit of the microscope I had as a child: you’d look through one lens and focus it up and down, then turn the dial to switch to another view of the same object. I felt as if the episodes themselves, for all their human interest and for all the depth and nuance they provided, were static: it was the italicized introduction (like the revolving dial on the microscope) that was moving the argument on.

Part III is short- only 23 pages. It commences by returning to the landscape travelled in Part I, both physical and social, to observe both changes and continuities. I found the lack of symmetry in length between the sections rather unsettling in what is a carefully constructed book, but I found the journey back to earlier settings, now changed, narratively satisfying.

Finally, there is a self-contained section ‘A Discourse on the Method: Action, Structure and Meaning.’ This is a methodology chapter, pure and simple. It explains the rationale behind the ethnographic history approach used in the book, and it gives a step-through explanation of the tools with which to ‘read’ an episode. I very much enjoyed this chapter, and it emboldened me in wanting to use a similar approach in my own work. But why was it placed at the end of the book? To a certain extent, there was a murmured conversation about methodology carried out in the asterisked footnotes at the bottom of some pages (as distinct from the standard, numbered academic footnotes at the end of the text) and I would have enjoyed engaging with it as part of the text, rather than as footnotes. I think I would have preferred to have read this final methodology chapter before reading Part II, where the methodology was applied.  Not all the chapters in the second section were equally ‘episode-y’. In fact, I think I would have preferred to have seen a little more of the methodology on show during the episodes as well.

I blush at my presumption in writing this review (as, to be honest, I do about much that I pontificate on in this blog!) It does not, however, dissuade me from aspiring to walk in Isaac’s footsteps in my own history writing- in fact, the opposite.  As I said, it gave me a much deeper of the mindset of a colonial gentry than other work I have read: put simply, it worked for me.  It is a human history, that makes big arguments- bigger than I can deal with in my own work-  but through a human scale. It treats people as logical, coherent actors with a world view that makes sense in its own terms, irrespective of its opaqueness to us today. It’s a respect for the human condition that I’d like to have in my own work. I very much wish that I ‘d read this book three years ago, and could sit down on a Thursday night at the postgrad seminar, and talk it through with him.

One response to “‘The Transformation of Virginia 1740-1790’ by Rhys Isaac

  1. Pingback: ‘Bring up the Bodies’ by Hilary Mantel | The Resident Judge of Port Phillip

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