Category Archives: Book reviews

‘The Making of Martin Sparrow’ by Peter Cochrane.

cochrane_martinsparrow

2018, 445 p.

While writers of historical fiction need to wade into history if their work is not to be rendered ridiculous, it’s less common for historians to publish fiction (well – under their own name, anyway). This is not true for historian Peter Cochrane, who has ranged across Australian history with his academic writing, with published works on John Simpson Kirkpatrick (of Simpson and his donkey fame) in Simpson and the Donkey, the struggle for responsible government in Colonial Ambition (my review here), and most recently in The Fight for White Australia about World War I.  These are just the histories of his that I have read (or am reading at the moment): he’s also published a book to accompany the ‘Australians at War’ series and written about Tobruk, among other works.

Cochrane is a fine narrative writer, and this comes through both his histories and also his fiction, of which The Making of Martin Sparrow is his second foray. I was much impressed with an essay he wrote for the Griffith Review on the writing of narrative history (see my comments on the essay here) and I enjoyed seeing him deploying his craft in the fictional The Making of Martin Sparrow.

Martin Sparrow is an expired convict, who has been granted a small holding in early New South Wales. He is no great farmer and in debt, and as the book opens, he has been flooded out as has everyone else along the Hawkesbury River in 1806. Like many other convicts, he is lured by the idea of an internal hinterland to the west, far from the brutality of the penal colony, where he can live free.  He is not a brave man, but in the aftermath of the flood, he decides to take his chances. Events occur suddenly, and the course of events ricochet into different directions as Sparrow acts in ways that he would not have imagined: sometimes led on by others, other times acting on impulse.

Set on the Hawkesbury River, this book instantly invites comparisons with Kate Grenville’s The Secret River.  But this is no domestic drama: for those who’ve read The Secret River, this book is set more in the brutish world of Smasher Sullivan than in William Thornhill’s morally-conflicted travails. Life ‘back home’ in England is only obliquely mentioned, and action is set firmly within the penal colony with its own corruptions and violence, where everyone is scrabbling to find a toe-hold in a ‘new’ country that is very old, with the mindset and practices of ‘home’.

The book has a wide range of characters, and I found myself turning often to his ‘Dramatis Personae’ in the opening pages, helpfully arranged by location and role. The book is divided into five parts, with many (67) short chapters. The book has a filmic quality with a great deal of dialogue and cutting between scenes.  However, I’m not sure that I was convinced by the dialogue. A number of his characters speak with the stiff formality of an educated background and a literary culture and Cochrane has clearly chosen to give them this voice.  While I recognize that transported convicts did come from a range of educational backgrounds, I’m not sure that it would manifest itself in their speech in this way.

His characters, particularly Martin Sparrow, are well-drawn. He is not necessarily your ‘good man who was done wrong’, and at various times he displays duplicity, fear and violence. It is a very male environment, as New South Wales at this time certainly was, and women have a hard time of it. There is settler and indigenous violence, and the book is not overlaid by twenty-first century politics.

Being fiction, there are no footnotes but in an afterword, Cochrane does signpost his influences and support his introduction of several plot-lines that are not part of our commonly-held view of penal NSW, most particularly in relation to women.

He also mentions his own experience of the land west of the Hawkesbury – a rather risky admission given the grief that Kate Grenville was given her when she described licking her salty lips on a rough crossing on the Palm Beach to Ettalong Ferry and extrapolating this to the sea  travel for The Secret River. (See Inga Clendinnen’s Quarterly Essay: The History Question). But here, his own experience of hiking in what are now the Wollemi and Gardens of Stone National Parks  informs his really beautiful descriptive writing of landscape,  which is so evocative that you can almost see it yourself. The sense of place runs throughout the book, from the cold dripping wet, to the mountains that fold one onto the other and the strewn wrack of a flood.

Actually, it would make a damned good film, with an ending left ambiguous enough to be enticing. It is a nuanced portrayal of a penal settlement and human nature.

My rating: 9/10

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library

 

 

‘We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy’ by Ta-Nehisi Coates

Coates

2017, 366P.

Well, according to the blurb on the back of the book that describes it as an “essential follow-up to Between the World and Me”, I’ve read these books in the wrong order because I read this book, We Were Eight Years in Power first. I’m rather embarrassed to admit that I wasn’t even quite clear who Ta-Nehisi Coates is, except that I know that he has been speaking at various Writers’ Festivals around the country in the last few weeks.

This book is a compilation of long-form essays, one for each of the eight years of Barak Obama’s presidency.  Each essay is prefaced with a 2018-dated reflection on the article and the circumstances in which it was written.  There is a dialogue going on at two levels: Coates explaining and challenging himself as author at an earlier time, and the laying out of an argument from author to reader in the essay itself.  These prefaces trace through Coates’ own career trajectory. As the years passed, Coates shifted from an unemployed freelance writer to a public intellectual, who is invited to Obama’s White House to engage with his president in debate. Some of his observations made about Obama in 2008 he continued to hold in 2017, while others moderated or changed over time.

The book starts with an introduction ‘Regarding Good Negro Government’ which explains the title “We Were Eight Years in Power”. It was first uttered by South Carolina congressman Thomas Miller in 1895, regretting the loss of the progress made during Reconstruction,  immediately following the Civil War. In this book Coates repeats the lament, noting that

In short, Obama, his family and his administration were a walking advertisement for the ease with which black people could be fully integrated into the unthreatening mainstream of American culture, politics, and myth. And that was always the problem. (p.xiii)

Right from the start of this book, Coates is critical of “respectability politics” which rails against the black community for its lack of personal responsibility.  The opening chapter of the book discusses how Bill Cosby promulgated this form of black conservatism (Bill Cosby had not at this stage fallen from grace.) Throughout the following chapters of the book Coates calls Obama out for a similar philosophy. However, over the eight years of the Obama presidency, Obama also stepped into his own identity as a black president, most particularly in his comment after the death of  Trayvon Martin, to the effect that if he had had a son, he would look like Martin.  This observation, and his comment that police had “acted stupidly” when they arrested Henry Louis Gates sparked up white opposition to the Obama presidency.  In his epilogue, Coates argues that this white outrage about the Obama presidency – an outrage based not on income, or class but racism – led directly to the inauguration of Trump – the “first white president”.

I don’t know whether Coates “grew into” himself as a writer, or whether there is a qualitative difference between the earlier essays in this book and the ones that came later.  Perhaps the opening chapters were more current (at the time), or required a familiarity with Black History which I don’t have.  For me, as a reader, the intensity of his writing really cranked up with his essay from the Fifth Year, ‘Fear of a Black President.’ This chapter was followed by his Atlantic cover story ‘The Case For Reparations’, which was awarded the George Polk Awards. Here, he demonstrates the structural basis of racism in passionate, logical, informed writing. He extends the argument into his Seventh Year article ‘The Black Family in the Age of Mass Incarceration’.  The final chapters reflect the sorrow that twenty-first century ‘eight years’ have led to Trump and such a vulgar reassertion of white supremacy. For this is just how Coates calls it – structural racism to bolster white supremacy – without any liberal loopholes.

These are excellent exemplars of the long form essay, running in some cases to over fifty pages in length. They show the shuttling of an argument from the personal to the political and back again, and the balancing of data and anecdote. Perhaps it’s the academic in me, but I did wish that there were footnotes at times, but these are magazine essays, aimed at a more general readership.  Coates makes no secret of his admiration for James Baldwin (who, to my shame, I have not read), and from the acclaim Coates’ work has garnered, it would seem that he is a worthy successor.

And yes, I am going to read Between the World and Me

My rating:  8.5

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library.

‘Swanston: Merchant Statesman’ by Eleanor Robin

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Swanston Street is the main thoroughfare of Melbourne, extending from Melbourne University in the north down to the Yarra, whereupon it becomes St Kilda Rd. It’s a rather unloved road, for many years blighted with dodgy discount basements and even dodgier long narrow cafes with desiccated dim-sims. The street is now blocked with huge sheds and scaffolding hiding the tunnelling works for the new metro line that will run under the city.

Swantston Street was one of the original streets on the Hoddle Grid, but the only one of the north-south streets to be named after anyone associated with the ‘over-straiter’ settlement of Melbourne from Tasmania.* It was NSW Governor Bourke himself who suggested naming the street after Charles Swanston, banker, entrepreneur, member of Legislative Council, and ‘merchant statesman’, but Swanston seems never to have actually crossed Bass Strait to see Melbourne for himself.

As Eleanor Robin explains rather late in the text in this biography of Charles Swanston (Ch.15) , Swanston has not been treated kindly by Tasmanian historians. In 1948 W.H. Hudspeth regaled an after-dinner audience with an entertaining sketch of Swanston’s rise and fall that became the accepted view for the next seventy years.  Other historians, like Kathleen Fitzpatrick relied on the evidence of contemporary detractors and the discomfort of colonial settlers over Swanston’s ignominious end to depict him in a negative light. This book, which conceptualizes Charles Swanston as a ‘merchant statesman’, places him within a wider imperial mindset, and assesses his intellectual and social capital against the financial business mores of the time.  Drawing on the archives of the Derwent Bank papers, which were only fully catalogued in 2017,  Robin concludes that Charles Swanston was

a vital cog in the rapidly turning wheel of change. He was a man of the world who played out his life boldly in exotic and far-flung regions of the 19th century British Empire (p.198)

Charles Swanston was born in England in 1789 and at the age of 16 was commissioned in the East India Company army. The wide-reaching networks of soldiers involved in Wellington’s armies have been described by historians, most particularly Zoe Laidlaw and Christine Wright . Importantly, Robin alerts us to a different, parallel set of networks that connected India and Australia, first through military men in the East India Company, and then through them to the trade market between the two countries. This connection with India played out in the lives of two of Swanston’s sons too, when they also joined the Indian army before eventually retiring to England.  There was a strong presence of Scots in the East India Company as well, and if the Indian networks were the warp, then the Scots influence -which also ran through Swanston’s family- was the weft running through his financial and mercantile activities.

Swanston first visited Van Diemen’s Land in 1829 for a temporary visit on leave from the East India Company.  He was quickly embraced by the Hobart ‘genteel’ society, several of whom shared Indian ties with him. He quickly found favour with Governor Arthur who declared that he wished that the colony were stacked with “a hundred settlers such as Captain Swanston from India” (p.24) Even before permanently settling in Van Diemen’s Land, which he was to do in 1831, he purchased several estates, including New Town Park at New Town, and under the patronage of Governor Arthur, purchased shares in the newly established Derwent Bank, which he was to eventually control.

Colonial port cities during the nineteenth century were marked by their cliquishness, gossip, social claustrophobia and instability of ‘respectability’, and this was certainly true of Hobart during Swanston’s time.  As an appointed, non-public-service member of the Legislative Council in a colony with no popular representation, he was embroiled in the partisan politics of governor-against-Council, especially after his patron Governor Arthur departed the colony and Sir John Franklin was appointed in his place. Apart from political maneuverings  Swanston was involved in the gentlemanly pursuits of many other elite public men in a small colony: the orphan school, infrastructure schemes in water, coal and smelting, insurance companies, church warden, board member for the Mechanics Institute and vice-President and Treasurer for the Royal Society. Like many gentlemen of his time and milieu he had a particular interest in horticulture and viticulture.

In her title, Robin identifies Swanston as a ‘merchant statesman’, one of those class of men with the British education and contacts to take up the commercial opportunities that opened up in the colonies.

Those around him recognised his global outlook. He had the eye of an army strategist and, as financier and legislator until his last tumultuous days, he operated in the national interest, as well as for his own good. (p.101)

His control of the Derwent bank gave him contacts with merchants and entrepreneurs, and he leveraged his Indian and Scots networks in the importation of manufactured goods from both India, the Far East and ‘home’. Most particularly he acted as agent for  Edinburgh-based George Mercer, encouraging Mercer to invest in Van Diemen’s Land and to  purchase land and properties for his children who emigrated to Australia, and most importantly, like Swanston,  in becoming involved in Melbourne as a new investment opportunity.

As Robin demonstrates, Swanston provided much of the financial and intellectual muscle behind the Port Phillip Association’s attempt to ‘purchase’ huge swathes of land through a ‘treaty’ with the Kulin nation.  He was “the chief strategist and spearheaded the Association’s campaign for legal title to the ‘new country'” (p. 114) It was probably Swanston, along with Gellibrand or Wedge, or all three, back in Van Diemen’s Land who took Batman’s diary and wrote it up into a more polished report. It was Swanston who acted as a conduit between Governor Arthur and the members of the Association, as a lobbyist with the New South Wales government, and who briefed George Mercer to lobby the British government. The treaty was always legally dubious, but there was a concerted and well-co-ordinated lobbying campaign at local, colonial, and metropole level to have it, and the claims of the Port Phillip Association, recognized.

Even though the treaty was disallowed,  along with other members of the syndicate Swanston lost no time in sending his own flocks over the strait, and arranging for Mercer to deploy his finance in the same way.  He organized the shipping, taking shares in ‘The Adelaide’ to convey the sheep, and organizing all up twenty sailing vessels. The Colonial Government, in rejecting the ‘treaty’ allowed remissions up to the value of £7000 (a sizeable amount!) for any expenditure that had been forfeited. Swanston took up any of the shares in the now-discredited Port Phillip Association and established the Derwent Company, a new entity.

Robin is non-committal about the intent of the treaty for the men in the Port Phillip Association, beyond commenting on the entrepreneurial spirit from which it emerged and pointing out the flaws in their reasoning. It struck me that we tend to think of frontier conflict in terms of spears and guns and the physicality of violence, and not so much the mindset of the capitalists who were financing the expansion. Swanston himself stayed in Tasmania, arguing that his business and legislative commitments precluded crossing the Strait. I have read much about the frontier conflict later in Port Phillip, but I was particularly struck by the violence and resistance to this first wave of men and sheep, including amongst Swanston’s own overseers (p.134) In this recounting of those very early years, focusing closely on the experience of those first syndicate members, there was no period of benign wariness.  The deaths and outrages on Swanston’s own properties made it harder to argue that the ‘treaty’ was an alternative approach that could avoid bloodshed.

As Robin shows, Swanston was a man of his time, and those times were both exhilarating and challenging for entrepreneurs and merchants.  Profits and investments expanded dramatically in the 1830s,  and they contracted the same way in the 1840s.  It is likely that his own actions as a banker contributed to the collapse of the Van Diemen’s Land economy, when he changed the Derwent Bank from a bank of issue to a mortgage bank. He, and bankers in NSW alike, assumed that because land was finite, an investment in land was “safe as houses”- an assumption that was rendered untrue with the opening up of Port Phillip.  Those networks and connections that had bolstered his reputation in Hobart were now a burden as friends and acquaintances who had once approached him for advice now approached him for relief. As Robin says, “With hindsight, the collapse of the Derwent Bank, taking Swanston with it, was inevitable.” (p. 184)

Kirsten McKenzie has pointed out in Scandal in the Colonies, the question of personal integrity in business was vital to economic success (p.79). As economic historian Syd Butlin wrote, while not doubting Swanston’s good faith, “[Swanston] had simply ceased to distinguish the policy and affairs of the bank from his own interests and business”(p.184). Robin admits that his business operations occasionally shaded into ‘sharp practice’, but that this was not unusual. His business model was based on growth,  which could not be sustained in a changed economic environment. (p.196)  Disgraced and depressed after the failure of both the Derwent Company and the Derwent Bank, Swanston left Van Diemen’s Land to join his son on the Californian goldfields. Their paths crossed, and Swanston died at sea, aged sixty. He was not to know it, but the ‘new’ colony which had dominated his lobbying and financial acumen was about to undergo its own transformation through gold.

Robin closes her book noting the lack of acknowledgment of Swanston in the town with a main street named in his honour. She’s right, and her book goes a long way towards filling this vacuum. In a narrative sense, she has walked around Charles Swanston, profiling him from different perspectives: military man, legislator, merchant statesman, Port Phillip Association member, financier and family man.

In recent years there has been increasing discomfort about the role and behaviour of the ‘over-straiters’, most particularly John Batman, as seen by the renaming of the ‘Batman’ electorate to ‘Cooper’ to honour William Cooper, the Yorta Yorta activist and community leader. There is now a question over whether the statues to Fawkner and Batman that previously stood in the now-demolished National Mutual forecourt will see the light of day again.

Additionally, the opprobrium directed towards ethically questionable economic ventures now  tends to extend to the financiers as well, as seen by the pressure on financial organizations not to invest in the Adani coal mine. In Charles Swanston we see colonization in its white-collar guise, and an abstract concept like ‘settler capitalism’ exemplified in an individual. After Robin’s book, Swanston will not be so invisible. Time and politics will tell whether that’s a good thing or not.

Sourced from: review copy Australian Scholarly Publishing

Eleanor Robin will be speaking about her book at the RHSV on Tuesday 16 October.

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I have posted this review to the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2081.

 

 

*[An aside: Spencer St was named after 3rdEarl Spencer, the Chancellor of the Exchequer under Lord Melbourne 1830-1834; King St after Philip Gidley King, 3rd governor of NSW; William after King William 4th who reigned between 1830 and 1837- the years of Melbourne’s white settlement; Queen after Queen Adelaide, William’s wife; Elizabeth after the wife of Governor Richard Bourke (contested); Swanston, Russell after Lord John Russell, then Home Secretary, Stephen after Sir James Stephen Permanent Under-secretary for the Colonies (later renamed Exhibition Street) and Spring for Thomas Spring-Rice, Chancellor of the Exchequer 1835-1839]

‘From Strength to Strength’ by Sara Henderson.

henderson1

1993, 337P.

This book made me break two of my maxims. The first is that book-group selections must always be finished. My second is that if I find a book unreadable, I generally don’t blog about it at all.  In  this case, however, I found From Strength to Strength so enervating that I didn’t finish it even though it was a book-group selection. And as for the second, well, Sara Henderson has sold enough copies of this drivel that obviously other people found something in it, even though it completely eluded me. My little blog isn’t going to change that.

Born into a fairly affluent family, Sara had dreams of being a world-class tennis player. An accident which left her with serious injuries, put an end to that. She was swept off her feet by an American ex-serviceman, who spirited her away on his yacht. Always a womanizer with big dreams but poor follow-through, her husband Charles brought her and their young daughters to Bullo River Cattle Station in outback Northern Territory, where they lived in a tin shed for years. After multiple affairs, they separated although she nursed him when he was gravely ill, only to find herself a widow with a huge debt for the station. She and her daughters turned the station around economically, and she was proclaimed Telstra Businesswoman of the year in 1991.

The book started relatively well, where the author admits that this is the second version of her memoir, having decided after finishing the first draft that she does have to tell the truth about her no-good, womanizing, irresponsible husband Charlie. But I soon realized that her commentary – it is too kind to call them ‘reflections’- on her husband became engulfed by a tsunami of anecdotes, all told in the chatty, light tone of a Christmas-letter. The cliches and minutiae mounted; important events (like, say, the birth of her children) happened almost in passing, and it was not hard to discern that this book is a completely self-serving endeavour.

And not just this book either. She went on to write another five books. Her daughters, with whom she fell out at different times, wrote their own books, challenging their mother’s narrative.  Suffice to say, I am not tempted to read any more.

My rating: 2/10

Read because: CAE bookgroup.

‘Deep Time Dreaming: Uncovering Ancient Australia’ by Billy Griffiths

griffiths_deep_time_dreaming

2018, 296 p. & notes

For me, one of the signs of having read a really good history is that on finishing reading, suddenly the themes explored in the book seem to pop up everywhere. This is the way I felt after finishing Billy Griffiths’ Deep Time Dreaming. I pricked up my ears at the the news of the nomination of the Barrup Peninsula for world heritage listing, and it seems that I’ve had several little prods over the last couple of days that have brought Deep Time Dreaming to mind. It imbues the Uluru Statement from the Heart with new meaning.

The book has attracted a lot of attention from historians I admire, but it wasn’t at all what I thought it was going to be. I expected an archaeologist’s account of pre-settlement Australia, but  Griffiths is not indigenous, nor is he an archaeologist but a historian writing about archaeologists.  I wondered a little at his choice of title, but it was quite intentional and double-barrelled:

The Dreaming describes a varied, contoured and continually transforming tradition. But here I draw upon the word’s more common, vernacular meaning: the archaeologists in this book imaginatively inhabit the deep past; they dream of deep time. The Australian public, with their seemingly insatiable thirst for old sites, are also deep time dreamers….The revelation at the heart of Australian archaeology, as this book demonstrates, is that Indigenous history is ancient, various and ever-changing. (p. 8-9)

This book is not a history of Australia, but is instead a history of the archaeology discipline as practised in Australia, written from an outsider’s perspective, “from the fringes, steeped in the neighbouring discipline of history”.(p.4)  Moving chronologically, each chapter is devoted to a particular archaeologist (Mulvaney, Bowler, Rhys Jones), or an archaeological dig that moved out of academe into the wider politics of Australia (e.g. the Franklin River, Lake Mungo). The book documents the recognition of an ever increasing span of indigenous habitation in Australia, from 5000 years to 40,000 and now pushing 60,000. It reflects the interest in ‘deep time’, and the question of human activity in a starkly changing climate.

In Australia, over the past sixty years, we have had our own time revolution. The human history of Australia is now understood to have spanned three geological epochs: the Pleistocene, the vast period of recurring glaciations in which Homo Sapiens evolved in Africa and began to spread around the world; the Holocene, the most recent interglacial or warm period that began some 11,700 years ago; and the proposed ‘Anthropocene’, beginning around 1800, marking the era in which human activity became the dominant influence on climate and the environment. When people discovered geological time, they were themselves becoming a geological force. (p. 5)

His survey approach, moving across the work of multiple archaeologists and sites, throws up several themes.  First, it illustrates the change from the ‘cowboy-dig-it-up’ method, where archaeologists scooped up the surface to extract and spirit away the largest artefacts, to new recording and dating methods including stratigraphy, carbon and luminescence dating, and integration with written and oral history sources.  Some of these methods came from the increasing academic training, most particularly from Cambridge, which in turn influenced Australian universities when they began offering courses in archaeology.  Other methodologies emerged from the disposition and values of individual archaeologists, most particularly female archaeologists, who are well-represented in this book.  Some of the archaeologists are Australian-born, while others are from Britain and America, signposting the increasing importance of Australian sites as part of the world-wide question of early man’s mobility and settlement patterns.

Second, the book highlights the way that archaeology fed into wider political debates. Rhys Jones, for example, felt the backlash from the resurgent Tasmanian Aboriginal Community for his involvement in the film The Last Tasmanian, and from other archaeologists over his claim that Tasmanian isolation led to cultural degeneration.  In the political arena, the discovery of archaeological remains was fundamental to saving the Franklin River from being dammed, and in the declaration of Kakadu National Park.

Third, and most importantly, the book documents the increasing recognition of Australia’s first people as a living culture, that has given indigenous people a claim on archaeology, challenging the authority and proprietorship of the profession.  Some archaeologists became gradually aware of a stiffening of attitude, others  learned the hard way, as they were excluded from further excavation for years. In this regard, I’m surprised that there is no little representation of indigenous people as archaeologists in their own right in this book, even though it is often mentioned that they are working as archaeology students themselves, or alongside European Australian archaeologists. The indigenous voice ‘informs’, but it is not considered in the same professional frame. What is unmistakable is that the era of the white academic archaeologist sweeping in, digging up, and moving on is over.

This is a beautifully written book. Each chapter starts with an engaging anecdote, making you feel as if you’re starting with a clean slate each time, although the connections soon become apparent.  The narrative is broken up with three ‘interludes’ that place archaeology within the broader political and professional context. At heart, his argument is that archaeology is a human endeavour, and this humanity shines through. It’s an excellent and important book.

My rating: 10?/10

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library.

 

“And the Women Came Too: the Families of the Founders of the Melbourne Mechanics’ Institution” by Anne Marsden

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2018, 187p.

This book is one of a pair, the author having released The Making of the Melbourne Mechanics’ Institution some two years ago. In that earlier book, Anne Marsden looked at the men who were elected to the committee of what later became (and still is) the Melbourne Athenaeum. The Melbourne Mechanics’ Institution (established 1840) was one of the very early cultural and educational institutions in Melbourne. Through her enquiry into the men who were movers and shakers in pre-Gold Rush society, we see the networks and practices that supported nineteenth-century masculine respectability in a new colony.

It’s not hard to find many of the most prominent of these men in the newspapers, churches and business world of Port Phillip: indeed, many of them are interlaced through the pages of this blog that relate to Port Phillip.  Ah- but the women and families of these men! There‘s another degree of difficulty altogether.  In a very few cases there are diaries and letters, as in Georgiana McCrae’s family, but much of Marsden’s information has had to be gleaned from snippets of information. There are brief allusions to the women in the biographies of their husbands and sons, or tangential mentions in newspaper articles and personal notices. Marsden’s challenge has been to integrate these biographies of the families of the founders of the Melbourne Mechanics’ Institution into a perspective on the lives of women and children in Port Phillip. It’s a task long overdue.

The book is divided into two parts. Part I, ‘The Challenges faced by immigrant women’ looks at early Port Phillip from the perspective of women, who were expected to operate within the domestic sphere, support without question her husband’s career aspirations and performance, and most of all, have children. Many of these women had travelled to Port Phillip either from Sydney or Van Diemen’s Land, or had emigrated with their husbands or families.

The book takes a little while to get going with an introduction, a second introduction,  and a prologue addressed in the second person to Barbara Dalrymple, who will marry Dr Alexander Thomson and arrive in Port Phillip in 1836, the first of the women of the Melbourne Mechanics’ Institution.  Introductions over, the text starts off with leaving home and follows the women on the journey, generally cabin class rather than steerage. There is a short chapter about Port Phillip’s brief European history ‘The Settlement’s Early Months’ to set the scene, then she moves onto the ‘Growth of Early Melbourne’. This is in two parts:  (i) the administrative and physical environment, and (ii) the people and community. The final chapter of this section is titled ‘The Early Melbourne Community: divisions and diversions’.  Each chapter is headed with a quote from either Finn’s Chronicles of Early Melbourne, a letter, or a contemporary newspaper.

This section does tend to be rather ‘bitty’. Marsden has used subheadings liberally, and while it makes information easy to locate, it does interrupt the flow of the narrative.  The chapter headings, complete with numbering (i) and (ii) and numerous subheadings give the sense that you are reading from notes, rather than an integrated text. Nor are the separate chapters conceptually distinct from each other.  ‘Community amenities and pleasures’ could fit equally suitably in the ‘Growth’ chapter (where she has, indeed placed it) or the ‘Early Melbourne Community’ chapter.   Nonetheless, there is a life-cycle logic to the information that she has selected, with its focus on finding housing and making it bearable, health and the bearing of children, and educating children – thus bringing to the fore the issues that Port Phillip women had to negotiate.

In the second part of the book ‘The Women’s Stories’, Anne Marsden looks at individual women whose husbands were influential in establishing the Melbourne Mechanics’ Institution. She starts chronologically, with Martha Lonsdale, who accompanied her husband Capt Lonsdale down from Sydney to be the first police magistrate in Melbourne, the earliest form of administration from Sydney. Her second chapter involves Sophie La Trobe, the French-born wife of Port Phillip’s first superintendent. Much of the information (and scuttlebutt) about Sophie La Trobe comes from the (compromised) but very useful journals of Georgiana McCrae, who is dealt with in the third chapter. Familial relations are also important in her chapter ‘A tale of two sisters’ which covers Henrietta Yaldwyn and Caroline Simpson/Braim.  The fifth chapter ‘The minister’s wife’ involves Margaret Clow, whose husband the Rev James Clow arrived in 1839. Mamie Graham, ‘The merchant’s wife’, also had a connection with the McCrae family, thus highlighting the familial as well as professional networks within this small community. She married James Graham, whose extensive archives of correspondence give us  an insight into the family’s domestic life. This is followed by another chapter about sisters – or at least sisters-in-law, Caroline Wright and Elizabeth Kirby, who married brothers David and Donald McArthur. Their husband’s (and thus their own) fortunes varied, with David becoming a highly-prominent banker, while Donald’s  career as a surveyor faltered. So too did the marriage, and Elizabeth McArthur became a well-known and respectable school proprietor.  The final two stories are of more shadowy relationships: Celia Reibey (daughter of Mary Reibey who featured on the $20 note) who died soon after marrying Thomas Wills, then his two partners Mary Ann Barry and Mary Anne Mellard.  Four ‘more elusive women’ complete the analysis: Mary Anne Peers, Mary Wintle (the jailer’s wife), Elizabeth Beaver and Hester Hurlstone. These brief biographies highlight the difficulties of finding sources and reading between the lines of the public record. The final chapter ‘Out of the shadows and into the half-light’ serves largely as a summary of the book.

Marsden has been very faithful to her sources. While speculating and assuming in places where the documentary record falls silent, she has tethered her analysis of early Port Phillip society to the lives and experiences of these women. While I respect her fidelity to primary sources, I wish that she’d roamed a little further into the secondary literature. She cites Penny Russell’s Savage or Civilized, but I think that she could have used Russell’s analysis of ‘manners’ more fully and explored the meaning of ‘the visit’ and the nature and implication of chain migration in family clusters. As a British colonial outpost, Port Phillip did not differ greatly from other such port towns, and she could have drawn on Kirsten Mckenzie’s work, and sources from Upper Canada that also explore the women’s world, with its own stringent expectations, that existed underneath the more publicly-documented world of their husbands.  In addition, by tethering her analysis of Port Phillip in Part I to the experience of these particular women, there is also a fair bit of repetition when the same details are retold in Part II. The final chapter summarized the preceding text, but did not prod the reader into new questions.

Notwithstanding, Anne Marsden’s book is a testament to her patient digging as a historian and her recognition that all these ‘mover and shaker’ men starting up new enterprises and institutions in an infant colonial town, had women behind them. It reminds you that Port Phillip was a town for women and children as well as for the ambitious new arrivals, and that even though it might not be readily visible in the public record,  the domestic always underpins the civic.

Sourced from: Melbourne Athenaeum Library. $20.00 – well worth it.

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I have posted this review to the Australian Women Writers Challenge Database.

 

‘First Person’ by Richard Flanagan

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2017, 392 p.

Near the end of Richard Flanagan’s First Person, there’s an interaction between the narrator, the jaded reality-TV producer Kif Kehlmann and a late-twenties writer Emily Coppin in a New York restaurant. Kif asks her what she writes.  Autobiography, she answers:

It’s what everyone writes now. Knausgaard, Lerner, Cust, Carrère. All the best writers taking literature somewhere new…It’s fake inventing stories as if they explain things…Plot, character, Jack and Jill going up the hill. Just the thought of a fabricated character doing fabricated things in a fabricated story makes me want to gag. I am totally hoping never to read another novel again….Everyone wants to be the first person. Autobiography is all we have… (p. 361)

This book is a wry, knowing riff on the act of writing and the literary imagination. It is written in the form of a memoir penned by the writer Kif Kehlmann who was employed to ghost-write the memoir of a con-man Siegfried Heidl.  Heidl had somehow inveigled himself into directorship of a shadowy para-military outfit under an innocuous public safety name. He had defrauded the banks of $700 million, and he was evasive and slippery. He had received a hefty advance from his publishers to write a memoir, but he had no intention of doing so. Aspiring but unpublished writer Kif Kehlmann was tapped on the shoulder for the job, only because he was recommended by Heidl’s bodyguard, Ray who grew up with Kif in Tasmania. Offered $10,000 to pull together a ghost-written memoir, Kif is given six weeks – and then less- to get the book out before Heidl goes to trial. He does not like Heidl, who is erratic, manipulative and dangerous. Ray warns him not to let Heidl into his head, but Heidl manages to do so anyway. Kif, lured by the money, leaves his heavily-pregnant wife in Tasmania while he comes across to Melbourne where he tries to pin Heidl down.

If Siegfried Heidl sounds familiar, it’s because he is. He is based on John Friedrich, who became the director of the National Safety Council of Australia (Victorian division) which collapsed with debts of a quarter of a billion dollars. He wrote, with Richard Flanagan (i.e. the author of this book) himself as ghost writer, Codename Iago: The Story of John Friedrich. And so, this book which appears to be a novel framed as a memoir, is probably more memoir than it appears, although it is not true.  As Richard Flanagan cheerfully admits in interviews, he was given a six week contract to ghost-write Friedrich’s memoir, leaving his pregnant wife back in Tasmania and he grappled with the erratic, manipulative and dangerous Friedrich.

Too tricksy? Possibly, although while you’re reading it, it all seems quite uncomplicated at first.  Kif’s voice is confessional and appealing enough, until he reveals himself as a bastard towards his wife.  The tension builds in the book as the six-week deadline approaches, and I found myself reading late into the night about 2/3 of the way through the book.  In many ways, I wish that the book had stopped at that point, because I found the denouement rather tedious – although Flanagan is such a clever writer than I’m not sure that this is exactly what he intended.

The real pleasure of this book was knowing its tortured relationship with ‘truth’, and I had a little chuckle out loud when Kif referred to his ultimately-rejected first novel about a drowning river guide, knowing full well that this is Death of a River Guide, Flanagan’s debut novel now viewed as a classic.  I wondered how a reader unfamiliar with Flanagan and his work would read this book.  For those of us who have followed Flanagan’s work, it’s a little nod and wink in our direction.

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library.

My rating: 8.5/10 (it would have been higher if it hadn’t gone on for too long)

Find out more: There’s an excellent review by Roslyn Jolly at the Sydney Review of Books and of course, it’s worth listening to the wonderful Richard Fidler interviewing Flanagan on Conversations.