Monthly Archives: June 2019

Movie: The Heiresses (Las Herederas)

Chela and Chiquita are a lesbian couple who have lived for decades in Chela’s crumbling family home. When Chiquita is sent to jail for fraud, Chela continues living in the home, selling off furniture and paintings, and gradually carving out her own life without the enveloping presence of Chiquita, who is far more gregarious and assertive. Set in Paraguay and spoken in Spanish with English subtitles, it’s a good exploration of power within a relationship, and the slow flowering of independence and identity in middle age.

My rating: 4/5 stars.

 

I hear with my little ear: Podcasts 17-24 June 2019

Who Runs This Place (ABC) I’m enjoying this series. This time, Richard Aedy looks at The Lobbyists, those groups who use contacts in government and the lobbying miasma that surround it, in order to get what they want. Of all of the flaws of our democracy, it’s the power of lobby groups that disconcerts me the most.

The History Listen (ABC) Two programs this week. The first, The War We Forgot was really good. It examines the loss of Australian civilian life in Rabaul in 1942. I knew that New Guinea was an Australian protectorate after WWI, but I hadn’t realized how ‘Australian’ in was, in a very colonial sense. For example, did you know that people living in Rabaul were listed in the Queensland telephone directory? The mental image of an eleven year old boy holding the hands of his parents as he was shot as a spy by the Japanese stays with me. Well worth listening to.

But I was less enamoured of The surprising story of Wong Shee Ping. He lived in Australia after the gold rush and wrote the first Chinese-Australian novel, which gives a sympathetic insight into the predicament of Chinese women in traditional family structures. However, the author’s life seemed to fly completely in the face of his enlightened attitudes. A bit too Who-Do-You-Think-You-Are- ish for me.

‘Elizabeth Macarthur: A Life at the Edge of the World’ by Michelle Scott Tucker

elizabeth-macarthur

2018, 339 p.

I am old enough to remember when Australia’s wool trade was a source of national pride. Primary school children would send off to the Wool Board (or whatever it was called at the time) to receive a project pack that included samples of wool at different stages of processing: straight off the sheep’s back, washed, combed, and carded, right through to a piece of woven material, all in a big envelope. John Macarthur was on our $2.00 notes, with a whopping great merino beside him, with William Farrer on the other side with his wheat, symbols of the importance of the pastoral industry and agriculture to Australia’s history and economy.

But it was all very male-dominated. I first heard of Elizabeth Macarthur when I visited Elizabeth Farm in Parramatta about twenty years ago. It struck me then, listening to the guide, that much of the glory that attached to John Macarthur more rightly should be shared with her, given that he spent so many years overseas. In this book Michelle Scott Tucker brings Elizabeth Macarthur to centre stage as businesswoman, wife and mother, dealing with a difficult and eventually mentally ill husband.

The book opens with a premature childbirth at sea on a convicts’ ship, where Elizabeth Macarthur, a gentleman’s daughter, is the only woman on board.  She, her husband John  and her infant son were sailing as part of the Second Fleet to Sydney Cove where he would take up his position as a commissioned officer in the New South Wales Corps.  As was common right up to the 20th century, Elizabeth kept a ship board journal, and Tucker contextualizes this journal well in explaining what shipboard life was like in the Second Fleet, and the social distinctions and rigidities within the hierarchy of the passengers. There were tensions, slights and confrontations and even here we see John Macarthur’s hair-trigger sense of honour which was to blight and shape the social life of his family within the colony.

I must confess that even though I’ve read about the early days in Sydney Cove, I didn’t realize the significance of the navy/army distinction as the basis of much of the dissatisfaction at the elite level within the colony (and come to think of it, probably in the other colonies I have read about as well).  Macarthur quickly moved into the centre of the social life of ‘good society’ and was deeply implicated in the Rum Rebellion against (Navy) Governor Bligh led by the New South Wales Corps (Army). His involvement in local politics at a time when official power was exercised through the Colonial Office meant that he spent many years overseas, clearing his name and honour, and then in a sort of political exile that in effect split the family. As was common at the time, young boys were sent ‘home’ for their education, and for many years Elizabeth kept the properties going, soothed the local politics as much as she could and built up the family enterprise on this ‘edge of the world’, while her husband and a number of sons did the same back in England. When a son went off ‘home’ as a seven year old schoolboy, sometimes he never returned to Australia. Instead, opportunities brought about through extended family connections and marriages kept him back in the’ old country’.

Colonial histories in the past, tended to focus on the world of men. In recent years there has been more attention on the networks of influence, opinion and behavioural constraints that operated in colonial societies. While John Macarthur had his own political involvements, so too did Elizabeth Macarthur within the women’s networks of early Sydney. His behaviour directly impacted on her own friendships and status, and Tucker describes this well.  Although aimed at a popular, as distinct from academic audience, the bibliography at the back of the book shows that she has read widely on early Sydney, although I’m surprised that she doesn’t reference Kirsten McKenzie’s Scandal in the Colonies which would have fitted in so well here.

The family correspondence has been kept, and it is through this lens that Tucker shapes her reading of Elizabeth Macarthur. Family correspondence has its limitations, of course, and these were exacerbated by distance and slow communications.  For letters to  friends, who had never -and would never- see Australia, there is an ‘other-worldliness’ to her situation. In letters to her sons, who did not need to have things explained, the maternal relationship still held. In letters to and from her husband John, beyond reporting events and business, the politics of their relationship was interwoven with the family mores of the time.

In several places, Tucker notes that Elizabeth Macarthur has not commented on particular events or people. This is always frustrating, perplexing and yet these silences often reflect something of the personality and times of the writer. Sometimes Tucker surmises “she must have….” which I found myself resisting. One of the questions of biography,  is how much we can claim a common worldview at the emotional level with people of the past, especially in the light of recent work in this field.

In this regard, the book reminded me of another biography of a ‘colonial wife’: that of Anna Murray Powell, wife of the Chief Justice in Upper Canada in the 1820s in Katherine McKenna’s A Life of Propriety: Anna Murray Powell and her family 1755-1849 (my review here).  A more academic text than this one, McKenna uses the family correspondence of the Powell family to examine how as matriarch and wife, Anna Murray Powell grappled with a young daughter whose very public and unseemly infatuation with the future attorney-general.  As with Elizabeth Macarthur, there are silences and omissions about the things we are most curious about as 21st century readers, particularly when dealing with a socially unacceptable situation – for Anna Powell, the behaviour of her daughter, and for Elizabeth Macarthur, her husband’s mental illness.

Elizabeth Macarthur was a mother, with her love stretched between ‘home’ and this new life very much on the edge of the world. She was a wife, displaying affection, but also exasperation and diffidence when dealing with a difficult husband. Within her own family relationships, she dealt with distance and madness.  She was an astute businesswoman, handling a large enterprise in the colonies while her husband had all the financial power. Tucker has given us a rounded picture of Elizabeth Macarthur, one that is faithful to the times and also to the sources.

My rating: 8.5

AWW2019I have included this review on the Australian Women Writers challenge

 

 

Article: ‘The Snub:Robert Menzies and the Melbourne Club’ by Sybil Nolan

I enjoy reading essays and articles and so I’ve decided to briefly review them here. My criteria for selection is that they are available online, either freely or through membership of one of our State Libraries (in my case, the State Library of Victoria). Membership of a State Library is free, and it often gives you access to online journals that you would not otherwise have. Not the most recent edition, admittedly, but free nonetheless.

 

‘The Snub: Robert Menzies and the Melbourne Club’ by Sybil Nolan Australian Historical Studies, 2017, Vol 48, Issue 1 pp.3-18  (Available for Victorians through SLV)

MelbourneClub

Commander Keane: Melbourne Club 2012 Source: Wikimedia

I’d always assumed that Robert Menzies, founder of the modern Liberal Party and Prime Minister for what felt like all of my childhood, was a member of the Melbourne Club. It’s a very august institution in Collins Street Melbourne, to which Establishment men belonged (and indeed, may well still do so). However, as Sybil Nolan’s essay shows, Menzies was never a member of the Melbourne Club, even though he belonged to other clubs like the Savage, Australian, Atheneum clubs etc. both in Melbourne and in ‘the mother country’. But why not the Melbourne Club?

Ah- don’t mention the war! Because, even though Menzies’ name was put forward as a “clubbable” chap in 1939 after he became Prime Minister, he demurred. In the invitation letter, one of the club’s oldest members said that Menzies should have been invited years earlier “but three or four returned soldiers kept up the always stupid yowl and I couldn’t propose to a man in your position to take a sporting risk.” Menzies had not served in WWI (he was at university, and two older brothers went to war) and in the post-war years, the Melbourne Club did not admit men who had ‘shirked’.

But as Nolan points out, there are other forces at work too. A number of Melbourne Club men, along with the Argus newspaper, had campaigned to clear the way for anyone but Menzies – favouring instead Richard Casey- to rise to the position of Prime Minister. Menzies had been at the head of a group of conservatives called the Young Nationalists, and many Melbourne Club men disapproved of his thrusting political style and his appeal to the middle class. The fact that he had not served in WWI was yet another reason to spurn him, even though in popular memory today Menzies seems to typify Empire Loyalty.

Still, perhaps it was just as well. As Nolan points out, being a member of the Melbourne Club would have sat at odds with Menzies’ ‘Forgotten People’ speech, which appealed to the middle class and is still cited by members of the Liberal Party today. And Richard Casey didn’t miss out- he ended up being Governor General.

I hear with my little ear: Podcasts 9 – 16 June 2019

BBC Outlook  Born the Wrong Colour So I had to Die. A young South African girl is adopted and grows up in the UK. Sneaking around her mother’s room, she find the truth of her birth and what her birth mother was prepared to do to cover the shame of having a mixed-race child in Apartheid-era South Africa. Very good

New Books in History.. Amy Murrell Taylor’s “Embattled Freedom: Journeys Through the Civil War’s Slave Refugee Camp” is really cleaning up the awards, and the interviewer here is obviously a big fan. During the Civil War – when the outcome was still uncertain- slave workers took their families into the encampments of Union soldiers. Many of the men were sent to fight with the Union, while the women and children lived in often makeshift quarters in the encampment. However, there were differences between their experiences, and this book traces through different camps and how these slave women and children (not yet Emancipated) were received. You don’t have to have read the book, or even have a very good understanding of the Civil War- I found it really interesting.  It’s a shame that the book is so expensive (even the e-book is $32.00!)  and I’m not likely to find it in a library in Australia. You can find the interview here.

The History Listen (ABC) Waterloo Bay: that word “massacre”. At the small farming and surfing town of Elliston, on the remote west coast of South Australia, a memorial has been erected to the massacre of indigenous people that occurred in 1849. The use of the word “massacre” on the memorial has split the community.

Who Runs This Place (ABC). This four-part series presented by Richard Aedy started today. In this first episode The Triangle, he looks at the roles of Prime Minister, the Prime Ministers Office, the public service and the security agencies.

Rear Vision (ABC). I’ve had these two podcasts on my phone for ages, and finally got round to listening them. They’re a pair, one (Brexit, British Labour and Jeremy Corbyn) dealing with Brexit and the Labour Party, and the other The Conservative Party and Brexit exploring the Conservative Party’s introduction and fraught relationship with Europe . They take a long-term historical view of the relationship between these political parties and the EEC and EU. There was a lot that I either never knew or had forgotten (a distinction which is becoming harder to be sure about these days). For example, did you know that Britain’s first referendum was over whether to stay in the EEC during the 1970s? These podcasts might be three months old, but they’re still very relevant. What a right stuff-up.

 

‘An Aboriginal Son’ by Gordon Matthews

matthews_australianson

1996, 230 p.

There are spoilers in this review

In his short disclaimer about” changed names to protect identity etc.” at the start of this book, Gordon Matthews writes:

This book was an act of catharsis. I wrote it to make peace with myself.

The motivations for writing a memoir are many and varied, and I suspect that ‘catharsis’ is quite a common one. However, I’m not sure that all catharsis needs to be put into print. I closed this book feeling complicit and somewhat sullied, and I wondered why Gordon Matthews published this book.

At one level, I can understand it. Identity, or the search for it, is one of the touchstones of modern life. In Australia,  there is heightened awareness of the Stolen Generations of indigenous children after years of Royal Commissions. In this book, with the small black and white photograph on the back cover of a cheeky, curly-haired boy who certainly looks aboriginal, we think that we are reading the story of an adopted child who learns later in life that he is part of the Stolen Generation. But that’s not what happens (and here’s the spoiler, so look away now!). Adopted by a middle-class white family; teased by his private school ‘friends’ who call him ‘Abo’; conscious always of his difference, he is encouraged by an Aboriginal Liaison Officer to apply for a university scholarship and eventually gains a designated position as Australia’s first indigenous diplomat. Then he finds out the truth: that his father is Sri Lankan, not Aboriginal, and his whole identity falls apart. Although his Aboriginality was not a deliberate hoax, he knows that he cannot continue to claim an indigenous identity that he does not hold.

I was slightly surprised by his telling of how he came to embrace  and be embraced in what he thought was his own Aboriginality.  It seems at one remove from the broader Aboriginal community, seeming to be based mainly within the university and bureaucracy. Is this because he is in Canberra, perhaps? I’m not sure quite when the actions in this book took place, and maybe things have changed. As I understand it, indigenous identity involves both family connections and genetics (rather ironic given how ‘blood’ ratios have historically been used as such a weapon) and acceptance by the community. It is only near the end of the book, when he has admitted that he is not indigenous, that his relationships with the community come into sharper focus.

Secure and happy enough with his adopted parents, it is his search for racial identity in particular that impels his search to find his birth parents. He is curious about them, but not as individuals in their own right, but as the key to his racial understanding of himself. He eventually finds them in America. After giving him up for adoption, they married and went on to have other children. Gordon finds  not only both parents grieving their relinquished first child, but also blood siblings who have been completely unaware of his existence.

The relationship with his birth mother was tense, despite his parents’ joy at finding him and embracing him as part of their family. Contact between him and his family cooled. His birth parents did not want him to publish this book, and it was at this point that I felt I wanted to drop the book from my hands. This was such a fragile relationship, and he was asserting his right over his own story at the risk, I suspect, of alienating and losing this new family that he had found on the way to discovering his racial identity. Pigheaded? Self-sabotaging? Selfish?

The book raises complex questions about identity, race and family. There is a distance in the telling, both at an emotional level and in the slightly stilted language. Whatever he might have been as a diplomat, Matthews is not a ‘natural’ writer.

I can find nothing on the internet about what happened next to Gordon Matthews, or his family.  The silence is a little unnerving. I have no idea how the publication of this book was received by his family at the time, and I wonder if, more than 20 years later, he would say that it was worth it. I guess I will never know.

My rating: 7

Sourced from: Council of Adult Education. It was the June book for my bookgroup.

 

Article: Artists in Society 1850-1880

I enjoy reading essays and articles and so I’ve decided to briefly review them here. My criteria for selection is that they are available online, either freely or through membership of one of our State Libraries (in my case, the State Library of Victoria). Membership of a State Library is free, and it often gives you access to online journals that you would not otherwise have. Not the most recent edition, admittedly, but free nonetheless.

Caroline Clemente ‘Artists in Society: a Melbourne circle 1850s- 1880s’ Art Bulletin of Victoria, 30,  (2014) freely available online here.

The focus of this article is on three colonial artists whose works can be found in the NGV’s collection of colonial period art: Edward La Trobe Bateman (1815-97), Louisa Anne Meredith (1812-95) and Georgiana McCrae (1804-90). Although the works discussed in this article were all created during the period 1850-1880s, the networks and family/friendship connections between the artists reach back into 1840s Port Phillip.  The Howitt family are the linch-pin here as the centre of cultured Port Phillip society, in their large house at No 1 Collins Street and  at Barragunda, their retreat at Cape Schank. [See a photograph of their Collins Street residence here in 1868, showing the presence of large residences and gardens in what is now the centre of the city.]

At the same time, the links between these artists and their works and the cultural influences in the metropole are clear.  Bateman‘s work featured at the Pre-Raphaelite exhibition held in Melbourne in 2015 and Louisa Anne Meredith’s books and illustrations attracted attention in London as part of the empire’s fascination with the flora and fauna of ‘the colonies’.  Even Georgiana McCrae, whose professional life was largely stifled by her emigration to Port Phillip,  was trained by some of the best masters in England and, thankfully, continued her work within her family circle even though it was deemed unseemly for her to work commercially.

This article takes each of the three artists in turn, highlighting the links between them. As the closing sentence of this essay notes:

This circle of friends and artists thus provides a unique insight and testifies to the breadth and vigour of the cultural life of early Melbourne.