Category Archives: Book reviews

‘The Republic of False Truths’ by Alaa Al Aswany

2021, 464 p.

At the start of this year there were quite a few ‘Ten Years On’ -type programs looking back at the Arab Spring that swept across different Middle Eastern countries, reaching its high point with the fall of Muburak in Egypt in 2011. To be honest, I’m no longer clear in my own mind about what happened when and where and why. That’s where fiction, or a well-chosen journalistic non-fiction piece can come in, by humanizing and locating, at a small scale, those huge crowds that seem indistinguishable from each other on the nightly news.

Alaa Al Aswany makes no secret of his politics in this fictionalized account of the January 2011 uprising. He was there himself, and he was one of the organizers of the Enough! group that is mentioned in this book. He presents a group of alternating characters who represent different groups in Egyptian society who participated in different degrees to the uprising or its suppression. There is the devout General Alwany whose morning ritual is prayer, sex with his wife, then off to the office for some torture of political prisoners. His defiant daughter Danya is drawn into the protests and witnesses her friend Khaled shot by the military at point-blank range. Ashraf Wiffa is a dope-smoking failed actor who pursues an affair with his maid, only to find himself falling in love with her and increasingly involved with the protestors, to the disgust of his estranged wife Magda. The love affair of Asmaa, a teacher at a corrupt school, and Mazen, the son of a political prisoner and union organizer at a cement factory, is carried out mainly through letters. Nourhan is a television presenter who becomes the mouthpiece of the military forces, accruing more and more power as she uses her contacts to force a divorce from her former lover Essam, the manager at the aforementioned cement factory.

The narrative cycles between these different characters and different segments of Egyptian society: army, media, business, university. I often find that with a revolving cast of characters like this, I get confused between who is who and what they are up to. However, Al Aswany stayed with them long enough, particularly at the start of the book, to embed them in the reader’s consciousness as individual characters. However, as the book went on, the episodes became shorter. I use the word ‘episodes’ deliberately, because this is what they felt like: episodes in an afternoon soap-opera, with a cliff-hanger at the end before launching off into the next character. For me, this soap-opera feeling detracted from the novel and made it feel ‘junkier’ than it otherwise would have. I can’t help feeling that the characters were stereotyped (the army general, the maid, the idealistic young female student), with an almost Philip Roth-like emphasis on male sex.

I haven’t read any other books about the Arab Spring, and indeed this book is still banned in Egypt – a fact that speaks to its authenticity, I would say. However, there is a sameness about books about revolutions – I’m thinking of several South American books I have read, books set in the French Revolution, Nino Haratischvili The Eighth Life (for Brika) – as idealism gets swallowed up into betrayal, the torture becomes more vindictive and untrammeled, and the army and police embed themselves more deeply. This inexorable cycle is why books like this are important: to remind us that within the bigger historical forces, there are people who love, who wrestle with their consciences, who make decisions and live and die with the consequences.

My rating: 7/10

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library

‘The Most I Could Be’ by Dale Kent

2021, 456 p

The name ‘Dale Kent’ seemed familiar. At first I thought that she might be an expatriate feminist that I had heard of sometime, but on learning more about this book I realized with a little jolt of recognition that I had been one of her undergraduate students at La Trobe University.

It was back in 1976 and I did two half-units of Renaissance History- one on Florence and the Italian Renaissance, the other on Medieval Italian Communes. To be honest, I have little memory of the content, but I do remember seminars in the rather-pretentiously named West Peribolos building, with the west summer sun slanting through the edges of the holland blinds drawn against the narrow full-length windows at afternoon seminars. I remember Dale Kent who struck me at the time as quite beautiful, vivacious, theatrical and rather awe-inducing, and I regretted that I did not have her as my tutor, having instead an M. Billington of whom I have no memory at all (I had to consult an essay I had kept from the subject, to find out her name). So I was attracted to this book because, not only is La Trobe “my” university but I expected that, as a historian, she would structure a good memoir. After all, Inga Clendinnen who was a colleague of Kent’s at La Trobe at the time, wrote Tiger’s Eye, one of the best memoirs I have ever read (see my review here) and I hoped that this might be similar.

For me, a memoir is a creative re-construction of a life structured and shaped around a motif. Despite the phrase ‘the most I could be’ which was repeated both as boast and self-exculpation in several places, this is pretty much a start-at-the-beginning-and-go-through-to-the-end sort of autobiography. At the end of the book she says “As a historian, I have kept the record” (p. 406) and this is the way that it read: as an act of recording rather than creating. I admit to being disappointed.

I found myself wondering who might be the intended audience for this book, beyond other historians (many of whom may be checking the index, because in all but one case she uses the full names of her colleagues). The history field in Melbourne is not large, and there were many familiar names. Her area of expertise was patronage during the Renaissance, with a particular focus on the Medici family. Certainly she led what now seems like a charmed academic life: scholarships to undertake her PhD at Oxford University, positions at Berkeley and Princeton, sufficient tenure at admittedly lower tier universities that nonetheless provided a salary and sabbatical and other leave to travel to conduct her research in Italy; and a string of prestigious just-in-time fellowships and projects that sustained a career of over 20 years in America.

All this was a long way from her childhood in Moonee Ponds, East St. Kilda and then Caulfield, as the daughter of Christian Scientist parents. Her father was an engineer, while her mother had left school early. Her working-class grandparents, Nell and Horrie came from Footscray. She was overweight (something that is hard to believe because she is absolutely beautiful in the photographs included in the book), she wet the bed as a child and had few friends at school. A whole new world opened up for her when she enrolled at Melbourne University, and she left Christian Science behind. She met her husband, Bill, who shared her academic interest in Renaissance Italy, and they built their careers together. As a young mother herself, at the age of thirty, she decided to ‘divorce’ her parents because they were too intrusive, and eventually left her husband Bill too, and embarked on her peripatetic international academic career. Her relationship with her only daughter was the price, and one that I hope has not been inflated by the publication of this book. Ironically, her comment about why she ‘divorced’ her parents – “they didn’t love me enough to make the slightest adjustment of their expectations to my needs, so that we could continue to be part of each other’s lives” (p.156)- could conceivably be said by her own daughter about her.

This is a long autobiography at over 400 pages, and it is very detailed, especially when it came to describing the clothes she wore and the food she ate (something that I usually view as the kiss of death for an autobiography/memoir). There were some small factual details that I found myself eying rather skeptically. A Unitarian Church in Collins Street ?(Uniting Church, yes, but not Unitarian). Flamingos in the lake at La Trobe University? (geese, ibis yes, herons maybe, but not flamingos). Small details, I know, but I wonder how many others there were that passed me by.

She is laceratingly honest about herself, her sexual neediness, her alcoholism. I was drawn to keep reading the book, but it was almost as if I was reading with my fingers over my eyes, apprehensive over what she was going to do or reveal next. Too much sex, too many unavailable or unsuitable men, heedlessness to boundaries, a sense of grievance, a quixotic and unrealistic search for a ‘soulmate’, a bewildering lack of insight – why would she want to publish this, thus inviting her readers to sit in judgment on her? There have been quite enough other people doing that : her colleagues, her ex-husband, her daughter, friends who eventually tired of having her sobbing on the telephone to them. She is speaking and telling her story, but it is not hard to see her through others’ eyes. The mismatch between the professional and the personal is stark.

I was interested in her early life, and the effect of her family’s Christian Science religion on her social and intellectual development. She gives an insight into the life of the young academic, particularly when she and Bill were writing their doctoral theses, and she describes the hierarchies and power games within university faculties. She captures well the arid suburban life for bright women in the 1950s and 1960s, and the testosterone-fueled arrogance and combativeness of the scions of Ivy-League and Sandstone Universities. What fails to come through at all is the love that she clearly must have for her interest in Renaissance Florence after all these decades: not in the visual sense (which any tourist could have), but as an historiographical challenge. She has published widely in her field, contributing books, chapters and reviews over many years. Her work sustained and saved her, as she herself admits, but you get little indication of it at an intellectual or emotional level. I’m a little tired of reading of historians emoting about their adventures in the archives, but there is little evidence of a passion of the mind here at all. The body – yes; and appetites for food, drink, new places, and the next project – but no curiosity, or obsession or joy. I wish that I had seen some of that.

My rating: 7

Read because: I realized my connection with her, and because I like reading historians’ biographies.

I have included this on the Australian Women Writers Challenge.

‘Light Perpetual’ by Francis Spufford

2021, 336 p.

One of the big existential questions that we all grapple with at some stage is ‘Why am I here?’ An associated, and equally fascinating question is ‘What if I wasn’t?’ Light Perpetual takes this question, starting off with the real-life death of 168 people who died in the New Cross Road branch of Woolworths in November 1944 in a V-2 attack on a Saturday lunchtime, with the shop crowded with shoppers. Fifteen of those 168 were aged under 11. Spufford fictionalizes five of these children: sisters Jo and Valerie, Alec, Ben and Vernon. A different book might have gone backwards, tracing who the children were and how they came to be there, but Spufford takes a different approach. Instead, he drops the bomb in the first pages, then jumps forward as if the five children were not killed. In fact, they were not even in the store. Instead, they lived lives untouched by that November 1944 attack.

The book is told in chunks of time, dated from when the bomb fell (but not on them). So we have five years on in 1949; twenty years on in 1964 (Beatles time); thirty-five years to 1979 (Thatcher time); fifty years to 1994 (Cool Brittania); sixty five years on in 2009 (post-GFC). Each of these chunks features the five children separately. Rather neat, really: five times five. It’s like a ‘Seven-up’ series on the page, with less regular check-ins and a smaller number of subjects. As such, it deals mental illness, promiscuity, wealth-acquisition, marriages, divorces, Right and Left wing politics, success, education, physical illness and decline…. all the sorts of things raised during the Seven-Up series. Nothing happens as such, although each life (for good or ill) is lived either as a series of transformations, or by putting one foot in front of the other. Decisions are made or not made, options open up or shrivel away.

I must confess that it took me more than half the book to get the characters established securely in my mind. I had to go back to the previous section to find the character there to refresh my memory before launching into the next time frame, and in this regard a table of contents at the start would have been really useful to locate the time shifts in the book.

The treatment of time and chance reminded me a lot of Kate Atkinson’s work, a writer I really enjoy. My library, which persists in labelling books by genre, has designated it as Science Fiction but it’s a far more human book than that.

It is the writing, particularly at the start and the finish of the book that lifts it above the rather quotidian, eventually inconsequential events of human life that it describes. The scene where the bomb drops is like a freeze-frame, minutely examined- really excellent, challenging writing. The middle sections, like their subject matter, are more human and less complex. The final section of the book, as our subjects face their own mortality, becomes more abstract again in its reflection on permanence and change, although this time it is infused with familiarity and even affection.

My rating: 8.5/10

Read because: It has been long-listed for the 2021 Booker Prize

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library

‘Death of a Notary’ by Donna Merwick

I read in the newspaper this morning that Donna Merwick (1932-2021) has died. Donna Merwick was an American-born historian who worked as a Lecturer in History at the University of Melbourne between 1968 and 1995. She entered the Order of the Sisters of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary in 1953, and completed her M.A. and Ph.D as a sister until leaving the order in 1968 to take up her position at the University of Melbourne. She is known as one of the members of the ‘Melbourne School’ of history comprising her husband Greg Dening (a former priest), and La Trobe University historians Rhys Isaac and Inga Clendinnen, although in an interview in The Australasian Journal of American Studies published in Vol. 34 No.1 (July 2015), she questions the idea that there was ever such a ‘school’. It’s an interesting interview, combining personal and professional academic considerations (albeit referring to academics of the 1970s and 1980s in a very different academic environment) and is available through JSTOR at State Libraries. She has an entry in the online Encyclopedia of Women and Leadership in Twentieth Century Australia. While I could never in any way hope to emulate it, the history writing of this ‘Melbourne School’ (her skepticism about its existence notwithstanding) has been a huge influence on the way I read and appreciate history.

I read her Death of a Notary back in 2008, before I started this blog, and so I dug out my reading journal to see how I responded to it then. I was obviously mightily impressed. Reading it now, what I like is that in prefiguring some of the current trends in history writing of imagination and extrapolation from other sources (particularly in books written for a wider, popular rather than academic audience), she justifies and delineates where the sources start and finish, revealing her thinking as a historian. Here’s what I said at the time:

1999, 186 p. text and 51 p. ‘Notes and Reflections’

What a brilliant and original book! It is in effect two books. The first is a conversational, present tense, rather speculative narrative that pieces together the small documentary fragments that refer to Janse, the Dutch-speaking notary in Albany, who commits suicide a number of years in the late 17th century, after the English have taken possession of New Amsterdam. The British renamed it ‘New York’ and incorporated it into the British common law tradition, introducing the English language and British colonial bureaucracy. It is largely chronological, told in dated episodes, that change their focus from father to son, and from New Amsterdam to Amsterdam and then back to Albany again. She incorporates observations from parallel, but different experiences that have been documented to supplement where Janse’s record is silent, and she invents, drawing on this other data to give the narrative life and image.

In the second, ‘Notes and Reflection’ section, we see the historian with her hard-hat on. Every ‘invention’ in the first part is sourced and validated; every assumption is justified, and every source is credited. The sheer volume and perspiration is here for all to see in this second part with its more clinical and measured tone.

Brilliant.

My rating (then) 10/10

Sourced from: La Trobe University Library. I see that it is available online through the Internet Archive too, although I’m not sure how much of it you are able to access.

‘The Eye of the Sheep’ by Sofie Laguna

2015, 320 p.

I’ve often noticed that, by chance, I read two books in a row that seem to ‘speak’ to each other, even though I had not selected them for that reason. This happened again on reading Sofie Laguna’s The Eye of the Sheep for my bookgroup, just after finishing Kazuo Ishiguro’s Klara and the Sun. At first glance, there may not be much of a link between a young boy growing up in Melbourne’s Altona in an unspecified time (1980s?) and a ‘smart’ mannequin marketed as an Artificial Friend for teenagers during another unspecified time in the future. What links them them is the narrator’s voice: flat, literal and yet crystal-sharp at the same time. Underlying their blinkered vision is a deep well of sadness and pain.

Author Sofie Laguna does not offer a diagnosis for Jimmy, but today we would probably say that he is “on the spectrum”. We meet him as a six-year old, obsessed with his instruction manuals for the household appliances, puzzled by other people, who he sees mechanistically as a series of ‘pipes’ and networks, linked by strings to other people. We see the world – his baffling, frustrating world- through his eyes, but it is not hard to imagine how he appeared from the other side to his teachers and other children. Here he is, when his teacher Mrs Stratham, knowing that he liked threes, asked him the answer to ‘three times thirty-three’.

The class went very quiet as they waited for me, the Detective of Threes, to solve the problem. I closed my eyes and saw more and more threes everywhere I looked. In every line of threes there was one other number- six, four, one, nine, seven, seven, one – but was the answer in the diagonal or the straight? Nobody in the class made a sound.

The threes kept coming. I couldn’t see beyond them; it was an infinity of threes. I went from still to running, with no time in between. I got off my seat and ran around the chairs and around Mrs Stratham’s desk and past the windows to the door and back again. “Three three three three!” I shouted, touching everything I could. The answer lay on the surfaces and every surface was a clue “Three, three, three”. The answer lay on the surfaces and every surface was a clue. “Three three three!”

Crash! The lizard’s aquarium shattered behind me. “Three, three, three!” I shouted.

p.75

Jimmy is frustrated at school, and home offers little respite. His mother, morbidly obese and asthmatic, smothers him with love. His father, who works at the nearby oil refinery, drinks too much Cutty Sark and abuses his wife: something that Jimmy and his older brother Robbie are powerless to stop, escaping into the flat grasslands behind their house or cowering in bed together at night until the violence stops. It is harrowing, and Jimmy responds in his own way:

Panic streamed through her and was transmitted to me. I ran from wall to wall, my cells spinning me around the rooms, one after the other. Hallway! Kitchen! Bedroom! Bathroom! Sitting room! Hallway! Nobody could stop me! …I was faster than the speed of light. I knew if it went on much longer I would disintegrate.

p.63

Jimmy is labelled as being “slow” and yet, he is too fast. He is not well-equipped for when his life spirals out of control, through no fault of his own. I found myself fearing for this child and I was spurred to keep reading to keep the story going so that he would be safe (yes, I know that’s illogical). I ended up in tears.

The real strength of this book, which won the Miles Franklin, is the power of the narrator’s voice, which doesn’t slip for a second. The author has disappeared completely behind this guileless yet perspicacious character, who becomes real: someone I cared and worried about enough to lie awake at night, thinking of him. Her book is an exploration of class and deprivation, but also love and fear, strength and weakness. It deserved its Miles Franklin Award.

My rating: 9.5/10

Read because: CAE bookgroup selection. (The other Ladies Who Say Ooooh (my daughter’s name for my Bookgroup) loved it too)

I have included this on the Australian Women Writers Challenge Database.

‘Klara and the Sun’ by Kazuo Ishiguro

2021, 320 p.

In 2015 Nobel Prize winning author Kazuo Ishiguro admitted in an interview with the Guardian that “I tend to write the same book over and over, or at least, I take the same subject I took last time out and refine it, or do a slightly different take on it.” I must admit that this is the way that I felt about his most recent book Klara and the Sun which seemed to be almost a companion novel to his 2005 Never Let Me Go.

Klara, the eponymous narrator of this novel is an AF – ‘artificial friend’ – a type of intelligent mannequin marketed at parents and children who want a trusted, safe ‘friend’ for the child. From her storefront window, basking in the warmth of the sun which replenishes her solar cells, Klara is observant as she watches the passing pedestrians and traffic while affecting a mannequin-like blankness. She is purchased for Josie, a young girl suffering from some unspecified illness. Josie has been ‘elevated’, a form of genetic engineering for intelligence, but now her mother is desperate that Josie, like her older sister Sal, is going to die. When she acquiesces to Josie’s urging to purchase Klara, we do not know why, although it becomes clearer as the book goes on.

As with Never Let Me Go, the narration is flat and just somewhat off-kilter. Klara can move, but her perception and observation is very much limited to what is immediately in front of her. She has no sense of smell, and her vision at times is broken into small screen-like boxes. We have no idea what she looks like, or what anyone else looks like for that matter. For some reason, I had assumed that it was set in England but it was only when ‘being English’ was seen as a distinguishing trait, that I began wondering where it really was set. Things are described with the eyes of the outsider: people look at their ‘oblongs’ (phones?) and just as Klara needs to piece together stimuli to make sense, so we too gradually understand what being ‘elevated’ involves, and Klara mother’s intentions for Klara and Josie.

I felt that the book was a bit heavy-handed in its treatment of ‘sacrifice’, a deity and miracles, which are superimposed over the limited worldview of Klara. Just the scenario of a deliberately constrained consciousness, and a body so utilitarian in its construction, is bleak and though-provoking in its own right. I found myself fearing for Klara, an emotion that she did not hold for herself. Like Cathy in Never Let Me Go, the real strength of this narrative voice is its emptiness, punctured by savage shards of awareness.

I think that my enjoyment of this book was heightened by having read Never Let Me Go, which as Ishiguro himself admitted, has a similar theme, with a slightly different take. They make two companion stories. In Never Let Me Go (which I think is the better book) we have the creation of the physical body for a purpose; here we have a consciousness awakened (but not allowed to develop) with the body itself immaterial. Other people have dealt with similar themes of course – I’m thinking here of the television series Humans – but being taken into the limited worldview of Karla, and Cathy from Never Let Me Go, gives both these novels added and memorable poignancy.

My rating: 9

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library

Read because: It’s on the Booker Prize Long List

‘The Echo Wife’ by Sarah Gailey

2021, 254 p.

SPOILER ALERT

I’m not in the habit of getting book recommendations from the New Scientist, but when I saw this review, I thought that it sounded interesting. My library, which insists on putting genre labels on its books, describes it as a ‘thriller’, while the blurb on the front describes it as ‘Big Little Lies meets Black Mirror’. I guess that it is a mixture of all three, but I thought that it also raised questions about coercive control and domestic relationships not suggested by its marketing.

Evelyn Caldwell is an acclaimed developmental biologist, who is at the top of her field in adult cloning research. Her marriage, under strain for some time, has failed and her husband Nathan has left her for a younger, less driven woman happy to give him the children he craved. She had been aware of ‘the other woman’ for some time, but this was a more fundamental betrayal. Nathan had been using her own research in adult cloning to develop a copy of her, but less intelligent, more pliable, more maternal and less threatening.

And that’s probably as much as I will say, because I don’t want to give away the story, but suffice to say that it branches into murder and crime, as well as its science-fiction-y premise of adult cloning. Our narrator, Evelyn, is insensitive and unaware, and she has her own back story of a bullying father and a nervous, anxious mother – both of whom she resembles at all times, even though she consciously tries to avoid doing so.

One thing that did not strike me about the book was the New Scientist designation of it as “a comedic look at the risks of cloning”. I found little comedy in this book at all. It raises questions about identity, autonomy and coercive control, and I was not completely surprised to read the author’s lengthy ‘acknowledgments’ where past abuse is still very present.

This book is probably more commercially-marketed than I am accustomed to reading, it’s not high literature, and it is more plot-driven than I prefer. At times the plot strained credulity and the ending was far too neat. But for all that, I found it compelling and disturbing, with more depth than I expected.

My rating: 7.5 out of 10

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library

‘The Women of Little Lon’ by Barbara Minchinton

2021, 304 p.

It was odd that I should be reading this book when the issue of prostitution re-emerged into the public discourse. First, the state of Victoria finally decided to decriminalize sex-work by the end of the year. Second, The Age published an article about The Men’s Gallery in Lonsdale Street being accused of facilitating prostitution and breaching liquor and planning guidelines. Concerns about breaching planning guidelines are a very 21st century concern, but the anxieties about prostitution and liquor, especially in Lonsdale Street (albeit at the other end) are highly pertinent to Barbara Minchinton’s lively, well-researched and eminently readable book about sex workers in ‘Little Lon’ during the 19th century.

As she points out in the author’s notes, the term ‘sex worker’ was not used at the time. In fact, the word ‘sex’ did not appear at all in the newspaper or court reports. Instead they were ‘common prostitutes’, ‘gay women’ or ‘streetwalkers’. As society became more censorious, they were ‘sly girls’ and ‘she traps’, and ‘unfortunate creatures’. Surprisingly, prostitution itself was not illegal in the 19th century. Women could be (and were) charged with ‘behaving in a riotous or indecent manner’ or ‘being drunk and disorderly’ but not prostitution or soliciting per se. The focus was on ‘disorderly’ behaviour, and there was a feeling that shutting down brothels in one area would only shift the problem elsewhere. This changed in 1891, and even more so in 1907 with amendments to the Police Offences Act, which made street soliciting, and then soliciting from windows and doors illegal, and outlawed profiting from prostitution. It may have destroyed the business of prostitution that existed in Little Lon for Melbourne’s first seventy years, but it did not eradicate the profession itself. (p.239)

Thanks to C. J. Dennis’ Songs of a Sentimental Bloke, ‘Little Lon’ became notorious as the site for gang violence, drunkenness and prostitution. However, as Minchinton points out through her informative maps, there was an equally notorious site in the block between Bourke Street and Little Bourke Street, bounded by Spring Street and Stephen Street (today Exhibition Street). In a city riddled with lanes and small cross streets that have been largely obliterated by large-scale development today, Romeo Lane, Juliet Terrace and Bilking Square were central to another sex work precinct, just opposite Parliament House, and close to the Eastern Market, the Haymarket Theatre and the Theatre Royal. She likens these precincts to a cake in layers. Streetworkers were on the bottom level, using parks, gardens and laneways as their workplace. Some of these workers were just starting out, and perhaps doing it for pocket money, while others were alcoholic, ill and destitute. The second layer comprised women working out of rented rooms or houses. Some of them doubled as bar-maids, some paid only for the time they used the bed or the room, while others lived in ‘short time’ houses, sometimes known as ‘cribs’. The ‘flash brothels’ were the icing on the cake: double storey houses, with domestic servants, extravagantly decorated with lavish dining and entertainment services. Men could stay for weeks at a time, and the “dressed girls” entertained them with singing, cards and dancing. (p. 23-26)

Minchinton captures well a whole economy, dominated by women, that had spin-offs in other, more ‘respectable’ endeavours. Food, drink, drapers, dressmakers, chemists, money-lenders and furniture-hire companies all catered to the sex-work industry. Real estate lay at the base of it, ranging from the short-term hire of a room, the lease of house from landlords (and landladies) who often held several properties in their portfolios, right up to the purchase of adjoining houses to create a ‘flash brothel’, at times purchased by female brothel-keepers themselves . Nor were these areas solely turned over to prostitution: shops, hotels and residences existed side-by-side, sometimes in a reciprocal arrangement, at other times in a more censorious relationship.

There are nearly 100 women named in this book. Many are of Irish origin. Some appear just fleetingly, while others keep emerging from the court reports and newspaper articles that Minchinton has drawn upon, where she often reproduces the article in full. At times, the names threaten to become over-whelming, and so I was pleased when Minchinton drew breath to concentrate on six women in particular, who demonstrate the range of wealth (or poverty) and prominence (or anonymity and confusion in the public record) of women involved in the sex work network.

Annie Britton was famous for marching down Bourke Street in January 1873, with a captain’s cap on her head, scabbard by her side, sword over her shoulder and smoking a cigar: all probably the possession of her client Captain Gillbee of the East Melbourne Volunteer Artillery who frequented her “house of ill fame” in Spring Street. Sarah Fraser, the daughter of convicts, was the owner of one of the flashest brothels in Melbourne comprising 24 rooms across four separate houses. At the other extreme of wealth, there is Mary Williams who co-owned a series of brothels with her husband, starting with a two-room crib in a back lane. At her peak she had two adjoining houses and at least 3 women working from her premises. Sarah Sarqui, a singer, was said to have catered to the desires of the Duke of Edinburgh when he visited Sarah Fraser’s brothel during his visit to Melbourne in 1867-68. Finally, Mrs Bond worked from a house in Stephen (later Exhibition) Street, and later in Grattan Street Carlton. She purchased 143 Lonsdale Street in 1875 and set it up as a grocery store. It is thought that the absinthe bottles unearthed as part of the archaelogical dig in the Little Lon area were associated with her establishment at 143 Lonsdale. As part of explaining the decline of Little Lon through increased surveillance and harsher legislation, Minchinton looks at one of the most famous ‘flash madams’ of all, Caroline Hodgson or ‘Madame Brussels’ whose multiple court appearances and vilification in the tabloid newspapers between 1889 and 1906 reflected changing social and legislative changes.

In developing these portraits of women who were part of the Little Lon network, Minchinton draws on newspaper articles, court reports, family history and archaeological objects uncovered by the archaeological projects conducted at the ‘Commonwealth Block’ and later ‘Little Lon’. By broadening her vision out from the breathless, flippant and often censorious newspaper reports, she gives a picture of the whole lives of these women. For some of them, the appearances in court were just part of the price of doing business; for others they were part of a cycle of violence, drunkenness and imprisonment. They were daughters, sisters, wives and mothers as well as sex workers, and many of them moved in and out of the purview of the courts. In Minchinton’s view, the true villains are those misogynist male writers like Marcus Clarke (who wrote as the ‘Peripatetic Philosopher’) and “slummer journalists” like John Freeman (‘Liber’) and The Vagabond (John Stanley James – see my review of his work here, where I am less critical than Minchinton) who sensationalized and moralized within the same breath. Then there was David Blair, who wrote a Report on the Social Evil to Parliament in 1873 on the dangers of ‘contagion’, who after enumerating the reasons why European women might be driven to prostitution, claimed that the good wages for servants in Australia meant that only “vicious inclination and evil example” could explain its presence in ‘young’ Australia.

In representing the whole lifespan of these women, beyond court appearances and titillating newspaper articles, Minchinton emphasizes the agency and independence of this 19th century women’s network. Certainly there was violence, addiction and illness -and she does not in any way downplay it- but as she says:

The predominance of Melbourne’s nineteenth-century brothels shows that in a world where sex has has a commercial value, women can and will make use of their sexuality when it suits them, without necessarily suffering harmful consequences.

p.241

Minchinton’s wide-ranging research and focus on whole lives emphasizes the networks between women in this largely (but not completely) female-dominated economy that extended far beyond just the provision of sex. You get a sense of the collective ‘up-yours’ of women who danced in the streets -not quite the vision of degradation and evil depicted by journalists and moralists.

My rating: 9/10

Sourced from: review copy from Black-Inc/Schwartz Media

I have included this review on the Australian Women Writers Challenge database.

‘The First Stone: Some Questions about Sex and Power’ by Helen Garner

2020, 304 p.

It was the little sticker announcing ’25th Anniversary Edition’ that attracted my attention to The First Stone, which I read back in 1998. Is it really 25 years since this came out? How did this edition differ to the original? I wondered. Has Helen Garner added anything to this book? How does she feel about The First Stone now? How do I feel about The First Stone now?

Well, the first and easier questions first. This edition has a foreword written by Leigh Sales in November 2019, and has three additional pieces at the end. The first of the additions, ‘The Fate of The First Stone’ is a speech delivered by Helen Garner herself as the Sydney Institute’s Larry Adler lecture in August 1995, just after the book had been released and when Garner herself was coming under heavy criticism. The second ‘Helen Garner’ was written by David Leser and published in the Good Weekend in March 1995. The final piece is an excerpt from Bernadette Brennan’s A Writing Life: Helen Garner and her Work first published in 2017. Garner herself has not added anything else to the book. I was interested that its publication in 2020 did not seem to provoke any further commentary from her or anyone else for that matter. And so, I don’t know how she feels about The First Stone now. The only question that I can answer is how I feel about The First Stone now.

So what was The First Stone? It was a book where Garner reflected on the case of the Master of Ormond College at Melbourne University, who was charged with indecent assault by two female students. The events had occurred after the ‘smoko’ after the Valedictory Dinner in October 1991. One student claimed that the Master had groped her breast while they were dancing; the other claimed that he had asked her into his office after the smoko and groped her there. He denied both accusations. The charge on the second offence was dismissed in the Magistrates’ Court. He was found guilty on the first groping charge, but successfully appealed the verdict in the County Court. After initially backing the Master, Ormond College withdrew their support and he lost his position.

On first reading about the groping case, Garner, as a veteran of the women’s movement of the 1970s, was appalled that the girls had gone to the police over what she saw as such a minor offence. After all, she and practically every woman she knew had been exposed to similar lewdness. She felt that the feminist struggle had been transmogrified into a legalistic, puritanical, punitive, petty process, that conflated minor infractions and egregious assaults. Her immediate response was to write and send a letter of support to the Master of Ormond College, who was personally unknown to her. When she came to interview the women themselves and their supporters, she was seen as being an apologist for the Master and to have betrayed her own feminist identity. Positions quickly hardened, on both sides, despite Garner depicting her book as series of questions and reflections.

I read The First Stone in January 1998 and then quickly followed it up with Virginia Trioli’s Generation F (which has also been republished in late 2019) and Jenna Mead’s Bodyjamming, the latter two written fairly soon after the original book’s publication. I noted in my reading journal that Trioli’s book was seductively easy to read, but that I felt that I had had enough after Jenna Mead’s edited collection of essays. It is hard to capture now just how controversial Garner’s book was. It was pretty unedifying really. Reading it 25 years later, I found myself wincing at her venom against the feminist supporters of the two women, and her blithe dismissal of the power imbalance between the Master of Ormond College and two students. Garner bridles against the smooth entitlement of the ‘Ormond Man’, but seems oblivious to how it would reinforce power, when two young women took on The Establishment writ large, as Ormond College surely is, by taking their complaints to police. Reading the essays that follow the reprint in this Anniversary edition, I am not comforted by the fact that she spoke at the conservative Sydney Institute, or that her stance was supported by conservative commentators P.P. McGuiness or John Laws (much to Garner’s own horror). She tried to interview the two women, but they would not speak to her (as indeed was their right), and they have kept their silence ever since. No doubt, The First Stone would have been a different book had they spoken to her, but I’m not sure whether it would have entrenched, or challenged, Garner’s argument.

Nonetheless- and that’s a very Garneresque thing to say- her point about ‘degree’ still stands. Reading this edition, 23 years after I first read it, I am now closer in age to Garner (both then and now) than I am to the young women. I do wonder about, and am glad that I do not have to negotiate, the sensitivities over ‘ongoing consent’, and the red-lines over banter and flirting. I enjoy Garner’s writing- I always have- and even though I intended reading only the foreword and the closing essays, it was so easy to be drawn into re-reading her original book, with her mixture of self-effacement yet grit, her questioning and her uncertainty. The older I become, the more appreciative I am of nuance and ambivalence, and you find them both in her writing.

But – and there’s another very Garneresque expression- 25 years later we have had the ‘Me Too’ movement, something that Garner herself pre-figures in the book by telling us of her own experiences, some where she felt she had agency, others where she did not. The organizational and legislative channels that were in their infancy then -and indeed had been created as a result of the work of those 70’s feminists – failed the young women at the time but have become more robust. Even more disturbingly, we have seen a number of powerful, well-connected, QC-laden men rebut ‘strenuously’ (as if the strength of their rebuttal is sufficient proof of their innocence), and often successfully, the accusations against them through the courts, sometimes in their own defence, at other times in order to seek legal redress from their accusers. Today, the power-relations implicit in this case would be not have been overlooked, or side-lined, as they were at the time.

However- and there’s another qualifier – even though it might seem more clear-cut, questions still remain. Because we are talking about ‘humans’ and ‘relations’ then questions should, must remain. There might not be many who would spring to the Master of Ormond College’s defence today – would Garner? (I don’t know). In that regard, the book has dated badly. But the questions of proportionality, agency/victimhood, generational change, the law, class and feminism are just as pertinent – if not more pertinent- today.

My rating: How do I rate this? Should I rate high because it drew me in just as much as it did when I first read it. Or should my rating reflect the fact that time has moved on? I don’t know. I can’t say

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library

I have included this on the Australian Women Writers Challenge Database.

´The Gun, the Ship and the Pen´ by Linda Colley

2021, 424 p plus notes

When I was thinking about writing my thesis, my supervisor exhorted me to “go big”. I disregarded his advice, but now I wish that I had listened to him. Linda Colley certainly “goes big” in this book that explores warfare and constitutions and the making of the “modern world”. It’s a big modern world, that includes Corsica, Tahiti, Japan, Tunisia as well as Britain, France, Russia and America. It’s only when I read such an expansive book as this that I realize how rarely I read a history that spans such a broad canvas.

Many people assume that constitutions emerge out of revolutionary politics, the rise of the nation state and the inexorable progress of democracy. Drawing on constitutions developed between 1750 and the present day Colley argues, instead, that constitutions are written in response to warfare and threats of foreign aggression, prompted by ‘umbrella wars’ involving both naval (i.e. the ‘Ship’ in the title) and land battles (the ‘Gun’) conducted across different regions of the world. They are not a feature of the nation-state, but more often an artefact of empires: Britain, China, Russia, France, Germany, the Netherlands, the Habsburg monarch, the Ottoman empire, Japan, Italy and the United States (p.9). Historically, through their constitutions governments held out the promise of rights, especially the franchise, to compensate men who would fight with their own bodies and pay the taxes to support large armies. Because constitution-making was interwoven with war and violence, along with monarchs, politicians, lawyers and political theorists, there were also military, naval and imperial officers, intellectuals, clergymen and cultural figures of all kinds who made their contributions (p. 11). These were written constitutions, responsive to increased literacy, an explosion in print and its transmission, translation and even the rising popularity of the novel (p.12).

Linda Colley is one of my favourite historians. She is probably best known for Britons (which I have on my shelf and haven’t actually read, even though I have read many papers that cite it) and I loved her The Ordeal of Elizabeth Marsh which combines the ‘small history’ that I love and the ‘big history’ that my supervisor wanted me to write. She does not particularly address methodology in this book, but she does make this comment:

For some, laying stress on the impact of transcontinental warfare – or on any other large-scale and wide-ranging sets of changes – risks flattening out important and essential differences, and detracts from the specific roles and contributions of particular nations, cultural groupings and individuals. There can be a fear, as the anthropologist Arjun Appadurai puts it, that addressing the large-scale will tend ‘to marginalise the already marginal’ and foster neglect of ‘small agencies and local lives’. Yet there is no need, I would argue, to become trapped in such chicken-and-egg type arguments. Drawing attention to the big and the wide and to connections does not mean – and should not mean – ignoring and effacing the specific, the local, the small-scale and finely researched individual details.

p.42

Her book, vast in scale as it is, honours both elements. Each of her chapters starts up close with an individual or an episode before she draws back to take a wider perspective. These individuals, each with their own lived history and cultural context, form a touchstone in that chapter and she returns to them at various stages throughout the text to highlight the distinctions and commonalities between different constitutional responses.

The book is divided into three parts. Part One: Into and Out of Europe has two chapters. Chapter One, ‘The Multiple Trajectories of War’ starts with Pasquale Paoli and his ten-page constitution for Corsica, written in 1755 on re-used letters with the inked words scraped away. Colley then moves outward to discuss the way in which warfare became more expansive and more expensive, pointing particularly to the Qing dynasty of China in the 1640s as an example of imperial force against the Zughar-Mongolian empire. Hybrid wars involving both maritime and terrestrial warfare helped give rise to a series of revolutionary conflicts which expanded the design of written constitutions, namely in North America after the War of Independence and in France and Spain after the Seven Years War. Haiti, she suggests, is the exception that both broke and proved her claim that wars preceded revolution. Toussaint Louverture is the best-known revolutionary war leader on Haiti, but she focusses instead on another, less-recognized leader, Henry Christophe. Colley often does this: she acknowledges the well-known figurehead, but then turns her attention to another player standing off-stage.

Chapter Two ‘Old Europe, New Ideas’ starts off with Catherine the Great, writing her own constitutional document, the Nazak. Colley points out the influence of Rousseau and Montesquieu, then returns to Catherine and her Nazak, and its dissemination and influence across geographical borders and on Frederick II of Prussia, and Gustaff III of Sweden, both Lutherans and both influenced by Enlightenment thinking. She rounds out this chapter with Tom Paine, whom she dubs ‘Charter Man’, who championed the constitution as a real, tangible paper or parchment outline of power, rights and laws, prompting a new interest in the 1215 Magna Carta.

Part Two: Out of War, Into Revolutions has three chapters which are quite different each from the other. Chapter Three ‘The Force of Print’ starts in Philadephia with the Constitutional Convention in May 1787. She describes in detail the development of the 4,500 word American Constitution which was inscribed on four sheets of parchment, each about two feet wide and two feet high. It appeared on the front page of the Pennsylvania Packet on 19 September and by late October, the text had been picked up by over 70 other American newspapers. She points out that this constitution was publicized widely throughout the world, and particularly influenced South American states, especially in Venezuela, the Irish Free State, Norway, Calcutta and the Cherokee nation within America.

Chapter Four ‘Armies of Legislators’ starts in Paris in 1789 when the American Gouverneur Morris [sic] of New York arrived after finalizing a draft constitution for the United States, slap bang in the middle of the summoning of the Estates-General which kicked off the French Revolution. Although Morris returned to America, Colley stays in France with her analysis, following Napoleon and his imposition of constitutions on the lands he conquered. In particular, she looks at the Constitution of Cadiz of March 1812 which was explicitly a document for a reformed, more inclusive Spanish empire in South America and the Phillipines.

Chapter Five ‘Exception and Engine’ looks at the paradox that even though Britain does not have a written constitution (and glories in the fact), London in particular was the heart of constitutional inquiry. Jeremy Bentham plays an important role here, with his belief that written constitutions were a template of rational principles of liberal justice and rights that could be imposed on any society, no matter its history or customs. Bentham met and corresponded with men (always men) interested in constitutional matters from all over the world- Greece in 1821, Haiti, Islamic North Africa, Argentina. Colley returns to look at Britain’s relationship with her own Magna Carta and Cromwell’s unsuccessful attempts to codify republican politics. Some two hundred years later John Cartwright, a colleague of Bentham’s, was travelling Britain and corresponding with European politicians, promulgating the ideas that led to Chartism. For some, the essential beauty of the British constitution was that it didn’t exist physically and was perpetually in flux. Many of the politicians and intellectuals in South American countries (e.g. Simón Bolívar) looked to the inroads that British commerce, capital and shipping were making in their countries, and some spent time in London (the British Library was a particular drawcard).

Part Three New Worlds travels to far-flung places in its examination of constitutions. Chapter Six ‘Those Not Meant to Win, Those Unwilling to Lose’ starts off in Pitcairn, of all places, where English mariner Capt. Russell Elliot gave the islanders a spare Union Jack and a ‘few hasty regulations’ that ended up being regarded as a written constitution. It was a remarkably sensitive list: it paid attention to the environment by regulating dogs, pigs and goats; it limited the cutting down of trees; made school attendance mandatory for all children between 6 and 16, and elections for Pitcairn’s ‘magistrate and chief ruler’ were held annually and all adults (including women) voted. This differed from other countries, where women were excluded, largely because they could not fight. The places where women did achieve some sort of franchise were generally on the edges of the British Empire (e.g. Cook Islands, New Zealand, Australia). Turning to settler warfare, especially in the Pacific, she focusses on Governor Gipps in NSW and his nemesis John Dunmore Lang, that fiery Presbyterian minister, who travelled to America and Brazil and dreamed of a future republican Australian federation that might include NZ, New Guinea and Fiji. She discusses Pomare II in Tahiti, and Kamehameha III and King Kalakaua in Hawaii – countries I would never have thought of including in a discussion of constitutions!

Chapter 7 ‘The Light, the Dark and the Long 1860s’ picks up on her interest in the 1860s (she co-organized a conference ‘The Global 1860s’ at Princeton University in 2015). Good grief- here are General Hasayn Ibn ‘Abdallah and Khayr al-Din in Tunisia, a long way from America emerging from the Civil War in the mid 1860s, which she examines in some detail. Then across to Africa, where James Africanus Beale Horton, from Sierra Leone and of African-British heritage, encouraged the emergence of west African political communities with strong African monarchies alongside strong African republics, with ‘universal’ suffrage.

Chapter 8 ‘Break Out’ starts with an analysis of the 1889 woodblock print ‘Issuing of the State Constitution in the State Chamber of the New Imperial Palace’ where the artist Adachi Ginko indulged in some imagination in depicting the handover of a new constitution. Most of this chapter deals with Meiji Japan, and Japan’s victories against China and then Russia in the early 20th century, and its seizure of Taiwan in 1895 and annexation of Korea in 1907.

Her Epilogue picks up on WWI, drawing in all the empires, and further amplified by the Spanish flu epidemic. The collapse of the Russian Empire triggered off a new bout of constitution-making, while other earlier constitutions across the globe collapsed. The dissolution of the Soviet empire in 1991 resulted in the emergence or re-emergence of fifteen ostensibly independent countries in Eastern Europe, central Asia and Transcaucasia. The civil wars that still afflict the world drive up constitution-writing to unparallelled levels. By 1991, she claims, only about 20 of the 167 single document constitutions in existence were more than 40 years old. She brings her analysis into the present day, with a 2016 poster promoting the repeal of the 8th provision of the Irish constitution that effectively banned abortion, and photographs of a demonstrator in Pretoria, South Africa hiding his face behind his pocket-book edition of the constitution, and Olga Misik protesting in Moscow in 2019, holding her copy of the Russian constitution.

What a journey across time and place! Who would have thought that a history of constitution-writing could take us across so much territory? I must confess that I find it hard to become exercised over constitutional discussions – although we are often glad of robust constitutions and rules when they are challenged. I feel that historians have to use their very best narrative skills to breathe life into a study of constitutions, as Colley has here and as Peter Cochrane did in Colonial Ambition. But even the most inflexible constitution is not written in stone. We are seeing the rise of Originalism in the U.S. Supreme Court and with the Uluru Statement from the Heart, Australians are being asked again to consider their constitution and the place of First Nations people in it (or not). And rather more ominously, the constitution of the People’s Republic of China identifies Taiwan as “part of the sacred territory of the People’s Republic of China” and claims that “re-unifying the motherland” is a “lofty duty”. Colley’s magisterial and beautifully written book – and I don’t use that term lightly – highlights constitutions as forever-evolving political creations, shaped by individuals and larger historical forces. And still they keep forming….

My rating: 9/10

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library.