2009, 303 p. & notes
A couple of weeks ago I thought that I had finished the best book that I would be reading during 2013. I was premature in my declaration. This is the best book that I have read this year, and in this case, I have no qualms at all about the behaviour of its author as a professional historian. Kirsten McKenzie’s earlier book Scandal in the Colonies is one of the books that has shaped my approach to my own research. Her portrayal of colonial life in the early nineteenth century as a criss-crossing of networks and connections between different colonies across the globe rings true for ‘my’ judge and the other officials that he encountered during his career, as a quick glance through the Australian Dictionary of Biography will attest. She writes clearly, with humour, and interweaves human stories into a robust and insightful theoretical framework. She’s the sort of historian I wish I could be.
In fact, as she explains in the epilogue, it was her concern as a professional historian with the accuracy of her footnotes just as Scandal in the Colonies was about to roll off the press that brought her to writing this book. As part of the History Wars of the Howard era, Keith Windschuttle challenged the historiography of aboriginal/settler conflict, largely on the basis of the accuracy of footnotes. Like many historians, I should imagine, McKenzie became increasingly “twitchy” (as she puts it) over her own footnotes, and so, suffering “footnote paranoia”, she returned to the story with which she opened Scandal in the Colonies and found it even more fascinating than when she encountered it the first time. It was the case of the putative Viscount Lascelles – in reality, the implausibly but actually named John Dow- a convict who served out his time in Van Diemen’s land after being transported for swindling using yet another false identity. On the expiry of his sentence, he traversed the NSW interior, claiming that he had been commissioned by the Secretary of State to inquire into the proper treatment of assigned convicts. He claimed that he was the eldest son of the second Earl of Harewood- a claim haughtily denied by the Earl back in England whose eldest son, in fact had been disinherited after making a series of disastrous liaisons. As part of his ruse as Commissioner of Inquiry, ‘Viscount Lascelles’/John Dow eloped with a young woman and ended up in the Sydney Supreme Court in an unsuccessful attempt to rescue her from her parents who had reclaimed her, only to see her married some time later to the nephew of the future Chief Justice Dowling who heard the case. He was subsequently returned to the Supreme Court after his deception was discovered- where, yes! he encountered ‘my’ Judge Willis! In Scandal in the Colonies, the anecdote takes less than two pages. In A Swindler’s Progress it effortlessly fills 300 pages.
The distance and dislocation of the colonies gave scope to false identities and reinventions. There are many famous ones both in literature and in real life: Robyn Annear’s book The Man Who Lost Himself about the Tichborne Claimant springs to mind. But this book is much more than the story of an antipodean imposter. McKenzie shuttles between the real Earl of Harewood and his son, bringing in parliamentary politics in 1807, West Indian plantation ownership, elopements and disinheritances, and the imposter son Viscount Lascelles and his deceptions in England, Scotland and New South Wales. The real skill of her book is integrating the two stories, on opposite sides of the globe to explore the way in which the British world was convulsed in this period by debates about identity, wealth, demeanour and masculinity. Note that it is “the British world”- an arena which interweaves both metropole and peripheries as a conceptual transnational whole:
As I began my hunt for Dow and the Lascelles, scholars of empire were calling for histories that recognised that developments in British and colonial societies were part and parcel of the same process. The problem was: how to write it? How could this miracle of synthesis be achieved in anything like a readable manner? How could you show it was happening? And how could you show what it was like to be caught up in these interconnected events? Here I had the story of two men: of one who had come to vanish, and another who had stolen that identity to pursue his own ends. But their fates were part of far bigger events. (Epilogue, p. 296)
Her earlier book Scandal in the Colonies is a tapestry of such stories, woven between Sydney and Cape Town between 1820 and 1850. It has many theoretical insights that make you stop, reread, and realize that things are falling into place. In this second book, she makes this theory come alive as she meanders along a story that crosses years and oceans, looping back on itself, with deceptions and evasions and disappointments and anxieties in multiple settings. It is not necessarily a straightforward chronology, first in one country, then the other, although the structure of the book does support this rather simplistic approach. The book is far more discursive than this, stopping to explore phenomena and events only tangentially connected with the main narrative thread. It is far more a ‘life and times’ of a phenomena than a biography of Lascelles in both his authentic and false identities.
Her epilogue betrays a slight defensiveness about her use of narrative to explore these all-too-human responses in the face of sweeping social change:
Is narrative simply a way for historians to smooth over the mess that is the past; to re-arrange it into comfortingly familiar patterns that have beginnings, middles and ends? and yet, for all our scholarly suspicion of the neatening effects of stories, they still possess a powerful explanatory energy. What was it like to be buffeted by those forces that were transforming so profoundly the British imperial world in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries? Those caught up in them would not live their lives according to the synthesising arguments of scholars. Rather, they would act according to the dictates of narrative and plot: finding opportunities, being thwarted, experiencing greed, hope despair. To follow these twists and turns is to highlight the way their world was changing. It is luck and chance and swindles and lies and unexpected opportunities that direct lives and fates. (p.298)
She need not be defensive. She is a master storyteller who uses the human to enliven the theoretical, and the insights of the scholar enrich her narrative of lives lived with contingency, imperfection and incomplete endings. This is the best book I’ve read all year.
My rating: A big fat, unequivocal 10
Read because: I enjoyed Scandal in the Colonies so much and I can reassure myself that at least I’m reading about the 19th century British empire this time
Sourced from: my shelves- a Christmas present from my husband in 2009. Hmmm…… it took me a little while to get round to reading it.
This will be, I think, one of my last postings to the Australian Women Writers Challenge for 2013.
A great review of Kirsten McKenzie’s book “A Swindler’s Progress”
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It is so nice to have a bunch of fascinating reviews to come back to after being away! Thanks for this review.
I think narrative is pooh-poohed to much by academics. Yes, important aspects of a history can be swept aside in the thrall of the narrative drive, but how can we tell history people want to read without narrative? Telling stories is a fundamental aspect of our humanity. As you point out the skill is writing narrative that does not smooth out or ignore life’s imperfections and unknowns.
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