Category Archives: Colonial biography

‘Macquarie: From colony to country’ by Harry Dillon and Peter Butler

macquarie

2010, 329 p.

Probably my first introduction to historic argument, as distinct from historic narrative and fact, came in HSC Australian History (yes, I am old enough that it was HSC and not VCE and young enough that it was no longer ‘matric’.)  There I was feeling all soft and fuzzy over Macquarie when along came that nasty Bigge character.  But was it as simple as this? For the first time I realized that historians- Manning Clarke, Ellis, Ritchie- could have a different take on the same event, and that you could talk about historians’ arguments and set them up against each other,  rather than just relate what happened.

And there I was nearly 40 years later, reading another book on Macquarie, nicely timed with my trip to Sydney in December last year.  It evoked a whiff of the goodies-and-baddies sense of history, and Macquarie is definitely in the goodies camp in this book.  It’s a very readable account of Macquarie’s time in New South Wales and his contribution to the shift from ‘New South Wales’ to the entity of ‘Australia’.

The authors argue that Macquarie was the victim of a mismatch between the intended use of New South Wales as both penal settlement and free colony.  His position at the head of a penal colony gave him autocratic powers but he used them to make opportunities for ex-convicts, rather than the elite- which was pretty much the expectation at the time.  He was, at heart, a military man, which expressed itself through his authoritarianism and brittle response to criticism.  The authors emphasize his Scots background as a motivating factor, and indeed call him the ‘laird’ throughout, arguing that his policies sprang from a paternalist mindset.  I’m not convinced that ‘laird’ is the right imagery, and it’s not something that Macquarie himself claimed.  The book is written from a very Australian-centred perspective, and I think that the depiction of the Colonial Office would have benefited from a fuller empire-wide analysis. As it is, the goodies/baddies dichotomy is a little too simple.

Although the biographical details of the authors links them with Charles Sturt University, they both have a background in journalism, and I think that this comes through in the book, which is eminently readable.  They have been granted all the publishing features on a historians’ wishlist- footnotes (not all that many) AND a bibliography (what luxury!), index, and source list for the illustrations.  Many other much more academic tomes than this one are often short-changed in this regard.

I was attracted to read this book after a brief browse at the ‘reduced’ table in my uni book shop. I noted that the book started with a chapter highlighting the heritage of Macquarie today, followed by a chapter that had him returning home ‘under a cloud’.  It then reverted to a more conventional biography, ending with a 2010 visit to his ancestral home.  I’m interested in the way that historians structure biography at the moment, hoping to break out of a strictly chronological form for my own thesis, and so I was interested to see how this worked as a reader.  I think it did, in that it had a pleasing sense of symmetry and that the bookend chapters allowed an argument to be mounted in what is, essentially, narrative history.

Putting history in its place

puttinghistoryinitsplace

Well, well, well- I’m on ITunes U! (and so are some of my fellow LaTrobe-ites who read this blog!) There’s some interesting papers there, and a video of Henry Reynolds on the History of Tasmania.

The full title of my paper is “Global Positioning Systems: Circuits of Empire Large and Small”.  It was delivered at Putting History in Its Place, a conference held at La Trobe University in September 2012.

It’s labelled as “Movement around the Imperial Network” on I-Tunes.  When I played it through I-tunes it seemed to be brutally truncated at the end, but my downloaded version ran through to the end.

https://itunes.apple.com/itunes-u/putting-history-in-its-place/id571785142

Sir Alfred Stephen

AlfredStephen

The Stephen family is a multi-tendrilled family who weave their way through legal and literary nineteenth century life.  They are truly a well-documented family in the true sense of the word: they wrote frequently and voluminously and this correspondence has been kept by family custodians  who are proud of the family and its contribution to public life.  This is the Stephen family that spawned Leslie Stephen of the National Dictionary of Biography fame, who was of course the father of Virginia Woolf.  Sir James Stephen was the Permanent Undersecretary at the Colonial office during the first half of the 19th century and his influence seeps through colonial affairs through his discursive memos scribbled on Colonial Office documentation- was there a single place on the red part of the globe that he didn’t have an opinion on?  And then there are the ‘legal’ Stephens-  James Fitzjames Stephen in England, but a clutch of Stephens in the antipodes as well:  John Stephen Snr and Jnr, Sidney Stephen who ended up in Port Phillip, Francis Stephen, and Alfred Stephen, Chief Justice between 1844 and 1873. Those of us of a certain age might be aware of Sir Ninian Stephen, the former  governor-general, but he does not appear to be a direct descendent of the Australian Legal Stephens (although there may well be a connection further back).

I spent an extra two days in Sydney after attending the Law and History Conference in December.  I took the opportunity to check out papers in the Mitchell library, most particularly those of Sir Alfred Stephen who was a contemporary of Judge Willis’ on the NSW bench- and what a delight these papers were!  Of course, there’s a winnowing effect at work here- unless every piece of correspondence is kept, much depends on the person wielding the scythe. Business, whimsical, bureaucratic and intimate correspondence might be treasured, or just as easily, given the chop.  It would appear that Ruth Bedford has been the custodian of the correspondence of the Australian branch of the family and she privileges family-based communication, with a heavy representation of the letters sent between the women of the family.

Sir Alfred Stephen married twice.  He had nine children with his first wife, then a second clutch of nine children with his second wife Eleanor (Bedford).  Eleanor’s is the voice that comes through most clearly- a busy step-mother, an absolutely besotted new mother, a woman caught up in the fears of scarlatina, concerned about aging parents, and very much in love with her “dear Judge”. There’s such a sense of humour that comes through this archive: children’s stories, funny little poems written on the bench during a particularly boring insolvency trial (hmmmm…..), the beautiful image of the Puisne Judge ‘dancing’ his new baby up into the air, enjoying his second round of fatherhood.

But for all of the delight of Eleanor’s voice, there’s the rather stenorian tones of her ecclesiastical father from Hobart, very concerned about the bishop and other diocesan doings, and the more restrained voice of Alfred Stephen’s mother.  But even these more sober voices testify to the richness of a large family life as it unfolds over time.  There’s the defalcation of one of Sir Alfred’s brothers, bringing  shame onto the family. Babies seem to pop out with barely an indication that they were expected -perhaps the letters announcing the pregnancy were lost, maybe news travelled by word of mouth through mutual acquaintances or perhaps the announcement is coded in language that I did not pick up.

I must admit that this is the sort of archive work I enjoy most.  ‘Big’ public events come through the correspondence and I ‘know’ many of the people written about.  But there’s also that intimate, shyly humourous family aspect that comes through as well. It reminds me that I’m writing and reading about real people with all their foibles, shortcomings, dimples and guffaws as well.

Source: Alfred Stephen, diaries, letters and family papers, MS 777, uncatalogued MS 211 (State Library of New South Wales) and letter-books (State Library of New South Wales and State Records New South Wales)

Other:  J.M. Bennett Sir Alfred Stephen: Third Chief Justice of NSW 1844-1873. Federation Press 2009

‘The Galts: A Canadian Odyssey’ by H. B. Timothy

1977, 175 p.

Well, now that I’ve read a book written by John Galt about Canada, an autobiography by John Galt, and now finally this biography of him, I’ve got to admit that the biography wins hands down.  It’s set me off wondering about the relationship between autobiography and biography, especially when considering a literary figure, as John Galt is.  I can only think of two other cases where I’ve read a writer’s autobiography followed by a biography penned by another person: Janet Frames Angel at my Table trilogy  paired with Michael King’s Wrestling with the Angel, and Patrick White’s Flaws in the Glass paired with David Marr’s Patrick White: A Life.  In terms of feeling that I understood the character, the biography trumped the autobiography each time, no matter how beautifully or incisively the self-penned work was written.

Am I surprised by this? I don’t know. The autobiography of a writer, by its very nature, will be framed by the author’s own self-image and imbued with a literary sensibility and becomes  source material itself for the biographer, as well as a work in its own right.  The biographer can challenge, contextualize and interrogate the self that is portrayed by the autobiographer, bringing the questions, perspectives and judgments of the outsider in a way that the autobiographer cannot. The autobiography is undertaken at a particular time of a life not yet fully lived- not on the deathbed as a rule!- and the biographer can know things to which the autobiographer is oblivious or blind.

This biography of the author John Galt is written by a Canadian academic who brings with him the nationalist agenda of claiming Galt as part of a significant Canadian family dynasty, even though John Galt (1779-1839) spent only a small proportion of his life in Canada itself, and  he set relatively few of his books there.  As a result, the author privileges Galt’s experience with Canada as a lobbyist and Canada Company promoter and administrator over his identity as a literary figure.  I’m interested in Galt’s Canadian connection, too, so even though Galt in his autobiography sees Canada as just one thread of his life story,  I’m glad that H. B. Timothy has teased it out in this way.

One of the things that I have been grappling with in dealing with my own research interest (Justice John Walpole Willis) is cracking through the brittle, rather volatile early-Victorian masculinity that is displayed by both men, cloaked in obsequious language and intellectual self-possession.  While living in Upper Canada Willis and Galt became friends, for whatever reason, and they obviously recognized some commonality between themselves.  The autobiography, because it emerges from such a  brittle, rather volatile man, exemplifies this sensibility but it does not interrogate it.  The biography is able to do so somewhat more easily.

Then there is the knowledge of subsequent events and broader context that a latter-day biographer can bring as well: the ‘unknown unknowns’ if we want to get all Donald Rumsfeldian about it.  In this case, Timothy suggests that there was an element of set-up at play: that members of the Established Church back in England acted in the interests of Anglican Church interests in Upper Canada in engineering Galt’s financial downfall (is ‘conspired’ too strong a word?).  He explores the possibility that Maitland and the Family Compact elite had Galt under surveillance even before he set foot in Canada, and that his links with people active in politics to the embarrassment of the administration rendered him suspect from the start.  If so, there’s an element of rather touching, unwitting naivete  about the autobiography because of his unawareness of these larger political forces at work.  This rather tragic edge enhances the autobiography, rather than working to its detriment.

‘The Autobiography of John Galt’ by John Galt

1833, 2 volumes

John Galt published this autobiography in 1833, some six years before his death in 1839 at the age of sixty.  It starts off with a number of early memories: falling into the fire at his grandmother’s house and causing his cousin’s legs to be scalded by the kettle; watching lilies grow, and seeing a postcard of Niagara Falls.  In a more carefully constructed memoir, he could have used these early memories as organizing devices because illness, the Romantic view of the sublime and nature, and the settlement of immigrants in Canada emerge as major themes of his life. However, apart from a mention of Niagara Falls later in the book, he does not do so and the book trails off near the end into a vindication of his work with the Canada Company and a list of his literary, cultural and (to a lesser extent) scientific contributions.   These are prodigious, if somewhat arcane today, as his entry in the Canadian Dictionary of Biography attests.

Although he only lived in Canada for four years, it takes up a large section of his autobiography, much of which is spent explanation of his actions and the injustice of his dismissal from the Canada Company, a company established originally to purchase the Clergy Reserves dotted throughout the new Canadian frontier lands, but which swapped these lands for a huge tract of land at Lake Huron purchased for a uniform 3 shillings and sixpence per acre.   Such land companies (seen also in the Van Diemens Land Company and Australian Agricultural Company) were part of the debate over immigration, crown land, ‘wastelands’ and Wakefieldianism of the time.  This section was my main reason for reading the book, interested in Upper Canada as I am, so imagine my consternation when the version I was reading had an editor’s footnote that a number of rather boring letters about his conflict with the Governor there had been omitted because they weren’t very interesting!  However, I’ve since found another version of the autobiography, and perhaps the editor was right.

A sizeable proportion of the book is also devoted to his literary work, largely influenced by his time in Europe doing the Grand Tour, hanging out with Byron and acting like an early-nineteenth century gentleman should act.  He does describe his methodology of “theoretical history” which underpinned his writing of Bogle Corbet, whereby he fictionalized factual material.  But there’s lots of impenetrable poetry, and further sallies into the literary debates of the day, much of which eluded my understanding.  It’s very much an autobiography of the head rather than the heart, and very much a work of its time.  If, in some sort of hackneyed time machine scenario, I were to meet him today, I think I’d be rather intimidated and wary of him. I would very much be aware as L.P Hartley famously said “The past is a different country; they do things differently there.”

Availability: Available online at Google Books and Internet Archive- downloadable as epub and pdf.  How grateful I am that I’m writing my thesis now and not 20 years ago. I’d be holed up in some Rare Books Room, if indeed I was even able to locate a copy of this book here.

Read because: The friend of my thesis topic is my friend too.  Mind you, he’d be my BFF (best friend forever) if he’d been a bit more forthcoming.  As it is, I read it for slightly thesis-oriented curiosity value.

‘Alexander Macleay: from Scotland to Sydney’ by Derelie Cherry

2012, 415 p & notes  (Review copy)

What a beautiful book! was my initial response on opening this book.  Like Alice in Wonderland’s sister, I am accustomed to my colonial biographies arriving without pictures or conversations, and if by chance there are pictures, it is usually a set of black-and-white pictures inserted in two or three places in the text.  But this book is a well-bound hardback, complete with ribbon place-keeper, with a coloured and gold-embossed dusk-jacket that envelopes an even more beautiful cover underneath.  It shows Conrad Marten’s painting of the landscape surrounding Elizabeth Bay House, built by Alexander Macleay, and possibly the best known association that many of us have with Macleay today.  The fly-leaves of the book are patterned with thistles, reflecting Macleay’s Scottish origins, and the book is replete with vividly coloured photographs.  The book has many of those features that publishers seem to begrudge these days: footnotes AND a bibliography, index and timeline.

I’m not accustomed to such luxury in my history books, although two other recent beautiful publications in Australian History spring to mind: Grace Karsken’s The Colony and Bain Attwood’s Possession.  But both these books, written by noted and established historians, dealt with the founding of the two largest cities in Australia, and while being strongly academic texts, could be expected to- and did- attract a broad readership and both garnered significant history awards.  Who, I wonder, is the audience for this beautiful book?

Alexander Macleay (1767-1848) was born in Scotland and did not arrive in Australia until 1826 at the age of 59 to take up the position of Colonial Secretary, alongside the new governor Ralph Darling.  By this time, he had a large family (17 children!- although only 10 survived to adulthood) and he was accompanied to Sydney by his wife and six daughters and an extensive private collection of insects and objects from all over the world. As Secretary of the Linnean Society in London, he had contacts with scientific boards and their gentleman collectors across Europe, and his interest in botany and natural history continued in NSW where he not only served as patron of the fledgling societies established amongst the colonial gentry here (including the Museum and the Botanic Gardens), but also maintained his networks with the natural history community back home.  His daughters married into the colonial elite of Sydney society, and his home Elizabeth Bay House was noted for its extensive and exotic gardens, through which he introduced many plants into Australia, including the wisteria.  His close association with Governor Darling meant that he had to share the increasing acrimony directed at Darling, and his career ended ambiguously and unhappily under Governor Bourke, with whom he never established the same rapport. However, with the granting of a limited degree of self-government in 1842, Macleay offered himself for election to the Legislative Council where he was voted Speaker, a position in which it was acknowledged, even by his political opponents, that he served well.  But despite (and perhaps because of) the rapid accumulation of land,  he fell victim to the widespread depression of the 1840s, and was forced to move from his Elizabeth Bay House, estranged from his eldest son William who had taken over his finances.  His scientific collection was eventually transferred to the Macleay Museum at the University of Sydney, where it still rests.

So which of these aspects of Alexander Macleay- civil servant,father, naturalist and collector, owner of one of Sydney’s grandest colonial homes, patron and politician- might attract readers to this book?  A well-rounded biography would incorporate all of them, of course, but an insightful, scholarly biography would do more than  enumerate achievements: it would also mount an argument about the individual that is woven into a broader approach to a society, a movement, a time.

The approach that a book is adopting is usually foreshadowed and shaped in the introduction, which in this book takes the form of a literature review, emphasizing that this is the first comprehensive biography of Alexander Macleay and questioning in particular the depictions of Macleay in the works of Stephen Roberts and Manning Clark.  The author takes up where an earlier researcher into the Macleay family, Annabel Swainston,  left off, citing frequently from Swainston’s papers which are now placed in the Macleay Museum.  Reading as an historian then, I found myself wishing that she would move back from her subject, and integrate her observations into a broader scholarly context.  Macleay is a prime example of the collector-networker described in the work of Zoe Laidlaw and Lambert and Lester, and yet this whole approach to empire is largely invisible.   Macleay’s prominence as a conservative is noted, but not taken any further.  A large portion of the book is devoted to Macleay’s gardening and horticultural significance and yet the work of Katie Holmes and others about the meaning of the colonial garden is nowhere to be found.  The blurb from Professor Stephen Garton from the University of Sydney describes her work as a “path breaking piece of forensic research”, and “forensic” is exactly the right word to describe this very close-up, detailed analysis.  However, I found myself craving a bit of distance, and a broader sweep that pointed out the ways in which Macleay was acting as a man of his time and place, and where, if anywhere, he was distinctive.  Having said that, though, her description of the Colonial Secretary’s office was illuminating, bringing to life the men behind the different scripts that you note in reading the primary sources, and her analysis of the financial entanglement that so damaged his reputation was insightful.

What, then, of Macleay’s activities as collector and horticulturalist?  In these sections, the fine-grained approach serves her well, resonant of the painstaking minutiae of the collecting and classifying mindset.  At times, however, the detail and connections seem rather laboured and indulgent: a glorious photograph of a dahlia from her garden that Alexander “would have been among the first to grow” and sweetly-scented stocks that the Macleays “certainly would have included” in their garden, perhaps moves the book towards the ‘significant garden’  market.   Given the prominence of Elizabeth Bay House as one of the foremost homes overseen by the Historic Houses Trust in NSW, I found it strange that the house itself played a minor part in the book if it is directed towards the gift-book buying public who may have visited the house, or those who may appreciate the importance of Elizabeth Bay House amongst our colonial architectural heritage.

And so, I find myself somewhat confused over how to appraise this book. It is a close-grained biography that could have benefited from more distance and a broader sweep.  It is also a particularly beautiful publication, that reflects no doubt the author’s experience in publishing over many years, and her own love of gardening and her family connection with Paradise Gardens and Nursery in Kulnura, west of Gosford.  The combination of the two is rather puzzling- appreciated, but puzzling nonethess.

This book was provided as a review copy by Paradise Publishers, Kulnura.  Available at www.alexandermacleay.com

The conference you have when you’re not having a conference

Friends of the Turnbull Library, Edward Gibbon Wakefield and the Colonial Dream: a Reconsideration,  Wellington, GP Publications, 1997, 200 p.

There’s a lot to be said for an edited collection of conference papers, particularly if the conference was held seventeen years ago in another country.  Think of it- you don’t have to make choices between clashing streams when you’re interested in both, or having to summon up a shred of enthusiasm for a session where nothing is of any earthly interest at all.  You can read the argument in its entirety, rather than having the speaker say “Oh?! My twenty minutes is up already?? Oh well, I’ll leave it there”.   The published chapter is often longer and more detailed than the 3000 word maximum paper that can be read aloud in 20 minutes, and it has all those delicious and helpful footnotes hanging off it.  It’s faster to read it than to listen to it.  Of course, not all papers are published, and it’s very possible that the one paper that had everyone buzzing  and which became a touchstone for extempore comments and questions throughout the conference is not represented in the printed collection.  But it might be.

In August 1996 the Friends of the Turnbull Library convened a conference called Edward Gibbon Wakefield and New Zealand: 1830-1865 to mark the bicentenary of the birth of Edward Gibbon Wakefield.  Apparently one commentator referred to the seminar as “the most politically incorrect event of 1996”, and you can see why s/he would say that.  A Wakefield seminar could have been quite unremarkable in the 1950s, when Wakefield was still celebrated as the father of New Zealand settlement. But in 1996, the Waitangi tribunal and the work of historians like Michael Turnbull (The New Zealand Bubble), John Miller Early Victorian New Zealand: a Study of Racial Tension and Social Attitudes 1839-1852) had dulled the lustre of Wakefield entirely.

Papers from the seminar were published under the title Edward Gibbon Wakefield and the Colonial Dream: a Reconsideration, and as with all seminars, the title, themes and streams that are presented are as much a reflection of the historiography of the present as they are of the subject matter itself.  The papers are divided into five parts:  Wakefield’s Life;  Wakefield’s Thought; Wakefield’s Historical Influence; Views of the Land and Wakefield’s Cultural Legacy.

Wakefield’s Life covers biographical aspects of Wakefield’s career, and here Philip Temple gives a taster of his then-unpublished book which eventuated as A Sort of Conscience.  Ged Martin presented a far more damning perspective of Wakefield, which is repeated in a different but similar paper here.

A more positive view is found in the section on Wakefield’s Thought, especially in Erik Olssen’s paper which marks out Wakefield’s place within the wider field of Scottish Enlightenment thinking by looking more closely at Wakefield’s published annotations on Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations. This paper picks up on Olssen’s Sinclair Lecture, delivered in 1995 and available here.

Graham Butterworth examined Wakefield’s thought in terms of the Quaker tradition, while acknowledging that Wakefield himself did not identify as a Quaker even though there was a strong Quaker influence on his mother’s side.

Part III on Wakefield’s historical influence looked at historians’ depictions of Wakefield in Australia,  in terms of labour history, and in relation to the Scottish settlement at Otago- a paper that was too regional for me to make much sense of.

The Views of the Land section picked up on the ecological and spatial approach to history that is still influential today.  Marian Minson’s paper examined pictures and lithographs that were produced for investors and potential immigrants still in England and they are reproduced in the volume.

The final section of the book, Wakefield’s Cultural Legacy takes a cultural theory approach to his work, – look! Here comes Foucault again!- examining Wakefield’s corpus of writing as artefacts existing within a particular fantasy/polemic genre, and drawing links with a 1986 novel Symmes Hole.

The book commences and closes with papers by Maori presenters, both condemning the loss of Maori land.

So, all in all, I enjoyed my day at a conference held 17 years earlier in Wellington.  All I needed, really, was some stewed percolated coffee and a blueberry muffin for morning tea, a  ribbon sandwich with incongruous and mysterious fillings  for lunch, and a piece of chocolate caramel slice and a lemon tea tea-bag for afternoon tea and I’d be right!

Edward Gibbon Wakefield and all the other Wakefields.

One of the joys of research- and yes, it IS still a joy- is that sometimes you are led into a direction that you didn’t anticipate.  I’m not talking about the siren-songs of distraction that keep your head turning from side to side, but a genuine surprise that makes you stop to re-evaluate what you’ve already found from a different perspective. The other day  I was speaking with a friend who is a librarian, who enjoys the act of finding and building order into material, and he said that he could not tolerate the anxiety that the next resource he turned over might upend the whole thing. I don’t see it that way (yet?): I am still open to surprise and fluidity.

As a result, regular readers might have detected that I am wandering recently into the swamps of colonial constitutional history- not a destination I would have expected or relished-  and it is here that I have stopped for a little while with Edward Gibbon Wakefield (EGW from hereon) with two books that I’ve just read.

Edward Gibbon Wakefield (to the extent that he is known at all)  is most often associated in Australia for his connection with the settlement of  South Australia in 1836 under his theory of ‘systematic colonization’.  Put very briefly, this involved encouraging immigration to the colonies across all strata of British society, but ensuring that labourers remain available as a mobile labour force by selling land at a “sufficient price” that too high for them to purchase until they had been in the colony for a number of years. I was aware that there were Wakefieldian settlements in New Zealand, in Christchurch in particular, and so I was rather bemused by all the Wakefieldian graves in Wellington.

Wakefield family graves, Bolton St cemetery Wellington

Memorial plaque to Col. William Wakefield, Bolton St cemetery.

The works that I have read on New Zealand, namely Paul Moon’s Hobson  and Peter Adams’ Fatal Necessity portray the Wakefieldians as insistent self-interested lobbyists, who needed to be watched carefully. I was also aware that Wakefield had been imprisoned for kidnapping an heiress- indeed, it was during this period of incarceration that he wrote his Letter from Sydney (penned from his cell in Newgate!) which spelled out his systematic colonization theories.

Paul Bloomfield: Edward Gibbon Wakefield: Builder of the British Commonwealth, London, Longmans, 1961, 378 p.

The first of the two books I have read recently is Paul Bloomfield’s Edward Gibbon Wakefield: Builder of the British Commonwealth. This book, written in 1961, has been described in a paper by Ged Martin as “the high-water mark of uncritical admiration of Wakefield and his work ” as the title might suggest. He starts his book with the abduction, told in racy and engaging prose- and why not, because it’s a good story.  It was, however, an episode that cruelled Wakefield’s career from that point on, as the scandal attached to it ensured that he could never put his name to any official policy that drew on his principles, and  he had to content himself with background lobbying and influence instead.  There are relatively few footnotes, although there is a bibliography and useful index, and there are frequent references to novels and literary characters, as if Wakefield himself sprang from fictional origins.  This is something that I find myself having to resist in my own work.  The 19th century novel is so pervasive and its representation in film and television provides such a ready visual backdrop that it’s easy to switch to a fictional shorthand.  As such, Bloomfield depicts the abduction as a youthful aberration that denied Wakefield the acclaim he deserved.  The emphasis is mainly on Wakefield’s lobbying in England amongst Parliamentarians, although it does follow him to Canada and New Zealand as well.

He made an interesting observation (especially in light of my recent posting and resultant comments about Christmas with the cousins)

One day someone will publish a study of the difference made in English sentiment by the change from a fifteen million population composed of large families to a fifty million population in which most parents have no more than two children.  We have only to look into the lives of the prolific Quaker cousinhoods, including the Wakefields, to see what an advantage their special community-sense was to them, what a source of strength it was to them to live in a clime of mutual aid. (p. 205)

The second book that I’ve read recently on Wakefield does just this.

Philip Temple, A Sort of Conscience: The Wakefields, Auckland, Auckland University Press, 2002 (paperback edition 2003), 541 p.

A Sort of Conscience is more nuanced than the Bloomfield account, and it spreads its analysis further into the Wakefield family as a whole- the brothers and sisters, nieces and nephews, many (but not all) of whom ended up embroiled in one way or another with Wakefieldian enterprises.  Although fundamentally positive towards Wakefield, Temple acknowledges the flaws of personality amongst many of the Wakefield siblings and while not dismissing the abduction completely, argues that even more disquiet amongst influential people was prompted by  Wakefield’s involvement in a dubious legal case about his first wife’s lucrative will, some ten years prior to the abduction escapade.  Like Bloomfield, Temple shows that Wakefield was forced to operate in the background when his policies were implemented, but this seems fortuitous as he was overbearing, interfering and careless of details.

Temple draws heavily on family correspondence, which seems to be voluminous, especially once the family spread across the globe.  Many of the letters were addressed to Edward Gibbon Wakefield’s sister, Catherine, who married a minister and stayed behind in England- in fact, Temple quips at one stage that his book could easily have been called “Dear Catherine”.   You can detect in the family a bifurcation between the family members who moved from the Quaker to Evangelical affiliations, and those who became caught up in the entrepreneurialism and politicking of EGW as he sought to have his theory of systematic colonization embedded into colonial policy.  However, you’d have to say that the politicking won out, as more and more siblings and nephews travelled overseas to New Zealand in particular, where Wakefieldianism was implemented in its purest form.  EGW himself ended his days there, although in Wellington rather than Christchurch (the settlement which most closely approximated his theory. )

Wakefieldianism is often presented as a monolithic and inflexible policy, although frustratingly vague in important details like the price that should be charged for land to make sure that settlers remained labourers for a few years instead of moving straight on to being self-employed farmers.  I was interested, then, to see that Wakefield himself was more pragmatic and open to change than I expected once he actually moved to the colonies settled under variations of his theories.

This book is, like Bloomfield’s, ultimately sympathetic to Wakefield, although with more serious qualifications, as the ambivalence of the title suggests.  By following him more closely to the colonies, and by broadening the scope to the Wakefield family as a whole,  Temple captures well its mobility and the emotional tenor of lobbying and patronage in early 19th Britain and its colonies.  The book has been very well received, winning the Ernest Scott Prize in 2003, the Ian Wards prize for historical writing, and the Biography category of the 2003 Montana New Zealand Book Awards.

‘James Stephen and the British Colonial System 1813-1847’ by Paul Knaplund

If ‘Yes Minister’ were true (and who’s to say it isn’t?) ‘The Policies of Rt. Honorable James Hacker MP’ might more correctly be described as ‘The Policies of Sir Humphrey Applebee’.  Likewise, when considering the colonial policies of Peel and Russell, as I did recently,there is a Sir Humphrey-like character at work there too: Sir James Stephen, the Permanent Undersecretary of State for War and the Colonies.  He acted as Permanent Undersecretary between 1836 and 1847, but his involvement with the Colonial Office extended from 1813 when he commenced work as legal counsel there.  As a result, he served under, by my reckoning, thirteen different Secretaries of State, several of whom had multiple rides on the ministerial merry-go-round.

The Stephen family is a prominent English family, many of whom worked as colonial judges and legal officers, and hence moved in the same orbit as Judge Willis.  Another branch of the family extended into ‘arts and letters’ through Sir Leslie Stephen (of the Dictionary of National Biography fame) and his daughter Virginia Woolf.  The family ethos was strongly Evangelical, with links to the Clapham Sect and the anti-slavery movement.

When you’re looking at the Colonial Office records, there are little glimpses of Sir James Stephen in many places.  As part of his drive to introduce more efficiency into the Colonial Office, he introduced a stamp system by which a document would move up and down the bureaucratic ladder, from civil servant to civil servant, up to the Secretary of State and back down again, with each initialling and dating in the designated spot on the document as it made its progress through the Colonial Office.

Where it was felt that a comment should be made, the edge of the document was turned over to make a dog-ear, and the civil servant or politician would make an annotation written at right angles to the rest of the document,  asking a question, or making a comment to the next person up the chain.  If the issue raised was a curly one, it might bounce back and forth between two civil servants with comment and counter-comment until it moved further up or down the bureaucratic ladder.

On occasions, James Stephen would write a longer memorandum that would be attached to the document in question.  In the archives today, these memoranda stay with the original correspondence, each carefully hived off into the files for the each specific colony.   This colony-specific focus tends to obscure the fact that, in any given week, the Colonial Office was dealing with the small dramas and mind-numbing minutiae of British colonies across the globe.  Yet there were commonalities among the types of issues that crossed the CO desks, and the response to them was underpinned by a broader, consistent theory of empire, largely embodied in Sir James Stephen’s bureaucratic contribution.

This book takes as a whole James Stephen’s attitudes and advice on colonial policy across the portfolio and over the thirty-odd years that he was at the Colonial Office.  There is, of course, contradiction and change in his opinions as the empire itself changed: I’m sure that Stephen would have agreed with the aphorism attributed to John Maynard Keynes (“When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?”). Nonetheless, there are  bedrock beliefs in James Stephen’s annotations and memoranda that Knaplund draws out in this book.

One of these was his suspicion of colonial adventurers on the lookout for quick profits.  In particular, he was wary of the Wakefieldians who returned his distrust with the sobriquets ‘Mr Mother Country’ and ‘Mr Over Secretary Stephen’ and very public ridicule.  He was insistent on safeguarding humanitarian principles in relation to slavery, transportation and prison policy, and indigenous policy.  He was particularly distrustful of the West Indian plantation owners and their influence on the local legislature and judicial system.

His mode of operation was to always support the governor on the ground in the colony rather than laying down prescriptive policy from the Colonial Office.  As long as no-one other than the colonists were being hurt by what he perceived as bad policy, he was happy to let it stand.  The colonists themselves would realize their own error, he reasoned, and the Colonial Office would be in greater odour for intervening rather than letting the colonies reap what they sowed legislatively.

He was also supportive of self-government, probably moreso than his political masters.  He viewed self-government as an inevitable developmental process, arguing that the colonial children would soon grow into adolescence and demand a more adult relationship with the mother country.

He was, apparently, a painfully shy man, describing himself as “virtually without skin” and rather ascetic by nature, eschewing cigars after having just one and enjoying it too much.  He was a prodigiously hard worker and the breadth of his knowledge of events and personalities across the empire is mightily impressive.  He was in many ways the corporate memory of the Colonial Office, even though the Secretaries of State that he served under sometimes disregarded or over-ruled his advice.  Nonetheless, his is another voice in the chorus of Colonial Office policy, and one that cannot be overlooked.

‘A Life of Propriety’ by Katherine M. J. McKenna

Katherine M.J. McKenna A Life of Propriety: Anne Murray Powell and her Family 1755-1849 , Montreal & Kingston, McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1994 , 260 p. & notes

Judges’ wives don’t tend to get much of a look-in in the judicial biographies written about their husbands. As you might expect, in such books the emphasis is on the judge and his interactions on the bench and amongst his judicial peers and government officials.  The wife and children- if they are acknowledged at all- tend to cluster off-stage in the folds of the curtains.

Not so in this book, which consciously focuses on Anna Murray Powell, the wife of  Chief Justice William Dummer Powell, of the Kings Bench Upper Canada. It was her husband’s position that gave Anna Powell her own prominence within York (Toronto) society, but I suspect that she would have been the subject of biography in any event.  The Powell family were prolific letter-writers, and more importantly, the letters were saved and now are scattered between archives in Ottawa, Toronto, Boston, New York and Washington.  Anne herself generated about 2,500 pages of letters alone, written over a span of 50 years, most particularly to her brother George Murray in New York.  These are rich letters for the social historian- full of family news and waspish commentary about York society- and they provide a solid basis for a study of Anna Powell and her family in her own right, not just as the wife of the Chief Justice.

Anna Murray Powell was born in Wells, England in 1755 to parents of a middle class background.  She emigrated at the age of 16 with her Aunt Elizabeth, who had herself emigrated to the New World at the age of thirteen and established a thriving millinery business in Boston.  On a trip back ‘home’, Aunt Elizabeth was horrified by the new ideals of middle-class female domesticity becoming popular in England, which did not sit well with her own ideas about female independence and business activity.  She did not have children of her own, and as seemed to be common at the time, ‘adopted’ her nieces and brought them back to Boston to manage her business.  What might have been a good solid business experience for a young man was greeted by Anne and her sister with reluctance and resentment.  She was mortified by working in ‘trade’ and she carried this sensitivity about her pre-marriage working life throughout her life, and indeed it may have contributed directly to the stiff-necked and inflexible ‘propriety’ that she demanded of her family, and all other York inhabitants in her social circle.

The book is divided into four parts. Part I ‘Learning and Living the Lessons of Propriety’ is largely biographical, tracing Anne’s childhood and adolescence, prolific childbearing years (nine births) and her establishment of her status within York society.  The narrative then bifurcates into a gender-based analysis of her family relations.  Part II ‘The Intersections of Male and Female Gender Roles’ examines Anne’s relationship with the men in the family: husband, brothers and sons.  Part III ‘The Transmission of Female Gender Roles’ examines education, marriage and childbirth within women’s lives in Upper Canada, and closes with a fascinating analysis of the lives of her three daughters.  Part IV ‘Conclusion’ deals with her life as widow and elderly matriarch- an aspect of women’s lives that is often dismissed in a few sentences- a life-stage which, as we (I) embark on an increasingly-lengthened old age will probably attract more historical scrutiny than it may have received in the past.

The book draws heavily on Barbara Welter’s 1966 article ‘The Cult of True Womanhood’ (American Quarterly, 18, 1966 p.151-74), a fairly dated article for such a recent book, and a choice that was questioned by several of the reviewers I have read.  McKenna cites Davidoff and Hall’s Family Fortunes, but it is the True Womanhood trope that she returns to most often.

Despite Anne’s strict insistence on ‘propriety’ and her incorporation of it into her own identity, you have to admit that her children were a bit of a disappointment.  The ‘good’ sons tended to die tragically, leaving the family with the duds.  Among her daughters, there was one ‘good’ daughter who trumped her mother in the fertility stakes, popping out ten children in an alarming succession. Another daughter remained the unmarried maiden aunt, a companion to her mother and built-in helpmate to her spawning sister.  The most fascinating chapter was that concerning the ‘unnatural’ daughter, Anne Murray Powell Junior.  It is  a very nineteenth-century take on the difficulties with parenting a wilful and troubled adolescent daughter.  The story of Anne Jnr.’s infatuation with John Beverley Robinson, the future attorney-general, has been told by other historians, but I suspect not with the sensitivity that McKenna brings to the situation.  It all ends tragically, and although the expectations and language of these unyielding 19th ‘pillars of society’ in their treatment of their daughter might not sit well with us today, the experience of parenting, loving, and losing transcends these differences.

Anne Murray Powell’s voice through her letters to her family is strong, censorious and inflexible.  Her letters are laced with a religious sentimentality which does not quite cover the snippiness, complaint and smugness that she expresses in almost the same breath.  Through the richness of the family archive, and through McKenna’s own insightful treatment, you feel as if you have been in the presence of a formidable woman.  I think I prefer her at a distance.

Sourced from : La Trobe University Library

Read because: it’s set in York at a time very close to my own research interest.