Category Archives: The ladies who say ooooh

‘Charles Hotham: A Biography’ by Shirley Roberts

roberts_charles_hotham

1985, 201 p.

Even though I’m a historian of Victoria, I confess to drawing rather a blank when it comes to all but the most recent Governors of the state. La Trobe springs to mind immediately, but many of the others I ‘know’ only by things that have been named after them, especially hotels and public buildings.  I was aware that Hotham had taken over from La Trobe, and that he has been characterized as the villain in the Eureka Stockade story.  There’s a street named after him, a pub in Geelong and a mountain… but that’s about all I could have come up with before I read Shirley Roberts’ biography of Charles Hotham.

In her opening pages, Shirley Roberts announces that “Hotham appears as a man who has been most unfairly denigrated”. Clearly her intention in writing this book is to rescue him from this fate.  Of course, historians mount arguments about individuals all the time, making judgements “from the enormous condescension of posterity” as E. P. Thompson put it.  In this case, however, Roberts’ intention to scrub the mud from Charles Hotham detracts from her book as history. She accepts uncritically certain sources and cherry picks from others, and when actions contradict her argument she brushes them off as inexplicable or strange.

However, despite these flaws, Roberts has written what seems to be the only biography of a man whose short 15 month governorship coincided with a political flashpoint in a colony on the verge of receiving self-government.  It starts in a workman-like fashion, with a family tree – the kiss of death for a biography.  Probably the book would be written very differently today, with more emphasis on the networks of empire and the significance of patronage links, and a widening of the focus from white politicians to include protestors’ and women’s forms of influence. But given that we are reading the book we are holding, and not a book as we would wish it written 35 years later, she has captured well the far-flung nature of the British Empire, and the circuits along which colonial authorities and civil servants travelled.

Charles Hotham never aspired to be a colonial governor. He far preferred his naval role, and the command of ships and navy personnel without the complications of representative democracy and colonial elite structures. His work took him to Argentina, where the British Navy at first played a type of peace-keeping role between Argentina and what is now Uruguay, before intervening to protect their trade routes along the rivers that bordered the two countries. After the putative abolition of slavery, he was sent to West Africa (generally seen as a grave-yard posting) to harass slave shipping along the trade routes, especially en route to Brazil. He demanded, and received, loyalty from his crews in an established hierarchy of authority and obedience.

But these very qualities made his posting to Victoria, already seen as a problematic colony, even less appropriate and bound to end in tears. The discovery of gold had led to a deluge of new arrivals, the complete disruption of the bureaucracy, and a crying need for infrastructure. The economy was wobbly, and running at a deficit. In true economic technocrat style, he pronounced and held to hard-line economic prescriptions, announced and implemented without consultation. The colony, like those in the other Australian states, was holding its breath waiting for the legislation for self-government (see Peter Cochrane’s Colonial Ambition) and this return to authoritarian, centralized rule was not likely to please anyone – even those who had craved a more ‘governor’-like presence than La Trobe had cast.

Roberts explains the origin of Hotham’s world-view in terms of his naval background, but uses it to excuse his too-quick turn to repression, and recourse to delay through ordering a Royal Commission (that old standby to gain time). She portrays him as a man surrounded by flawed men, who let him down.

In filling out Hotham’s early career, which she does very well, she draws on a biographical sketch written by Hotham’s sister as a gift to his sister-in-law on their marriage. Although no doubt drawing Hotham in a good light, it has been gift to his  biographer, too. In her analysis of Hotham’s time in Melbourne, she draws strongly on the conservative, pro-Hotham Argus with little reference to opposing newspapers. As an author, she is mounting a pro-Hotham argument, although she does not make it clear exactly what or who she is arguing against.

I was very impressed with her ability to summarize a scenario or event clearly and succinctly, without overwhelming the reader with detail.  This was especially true of Hotham’s time in South America and Africa, which I knew absolutely nothing about.  She is not an academic historian – and the paucity of her reference list attests to this – and her book is more a matter of setting things out, rather than complicating by nuance.

Hotham only governed the colony between June 1854 and November 1855. This short period of time is largely dominated by the Eureka uprising, and Hotham’s role in it. This short, pragmatic book fleshes out his career more fully, and portrays him as more than just the villain of the Eureka rebellion. But Roberts’ determination to rescue Hotham from blame has led her to mount a polemic, rather than write a biography.  The reader should approach this book with admiration at the job she has done, and appreciation for filling in otherwise little known information. At the same time, however, this book needs to read with care and a raised, sceptical eyebrow.

And look at this – I was half-way through the book when I found this plaque at Flinders Street Railway Station!  So he did leave a mark on Melbourne after all!

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From this place the Melbourne and Hobson’s Bay Railway Company’s service to Sandridge (Port Melbourne) was inaugurated by His Excellency Sir Charles Hotham K.C.B., R.N. Lieutenant-Governor of Victoria on September 12 1854, when Australia’s first steam train departed for Sandridge at 12.20 P.M.

My rating: 6.5/10

Sourced from: CAE bookgroups. You’ll have trouble tracking it down, I suspect.

AWW2019

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

 

 

‘The Lake House’ by Kate Morton

morton_the-lake-house

2015, 591p.

It was not my choice to read this book. Call me snobbish and superficial, but I’m even  turned off by the cover. There it is with its anachronistic photo of yet another woman’s back (although at least you can see her face here), and the fact that the author’s name is in a larger font than the title (one of my ‘amber lights’ warning of books that I probably shouldn’t read).  Kate Morton is a best-selling Australian author and has written several books, all with similar names and covers. Normally, I would steer well clear. However, this book was the selection for my bookgroup and because I am a very conscientious book-grouper, I read it.

It’s a mixture of a  historic big-house novel and a current-day police cold-case story featuring a middle-aged female detective. I’m rather guiltily partial to both genres. I’ve read my share of ‘big house’ books: I loved The Go-Between in Year 12, Rebecca, Jane Eyre, innumerable Victoria Holt books when I was 15, Molly Keane’s books and Atonement.  And in terms of cold-case police stories, after I finish writing this review, I’ll go off to watch Unforgotten on the TV to get my dose of intelligent female police detectives. All these indulgences are just that: they’re ‘down-time’ leisure, when I turn my mind off and just go with it. Which is how I think about The Lake House. It’s the sort of book you might read when you’re on a week’s holiday and want to just immerse yourself in a fairly-undemanding read.

There are two narratives interwoven through the book, one set in 1933 and the other in 2003, both based on the house Loeanneth and its mysteries. In 1933 it was the home of Anthony and Eleanor Edevane and their three daughters and baby son, Theo who mysteriously disappeared on Midsummer’s Eve.  The second narrative, set in 2003 centres on Sadie Sparrow, a London detective who has been stood down and told to ‘take a holiday’ after she spoke to the press about a missing-child case.  She travels down to Cornwall to stay with her grandfather and when she stumbles on the now-derelict Loeanneth, she is driven to find out what happened to the family who left it so abruptly after the disappearance of the little boy.

There are red-herrings and misdirections galore, and although some of them took me by surprise, I guessed the too-pat ending ahead of time.  I suppose that I should be pleased that I actually knew who dunnit by the end, instead of plaintively wailing “But I don’t get it…..”

The book contains every possible big-house and cold-case cliche and at just off 600 pages it certainly is a big baggy monster. There are whole plot lines that could have been omitted without loss, but the twin-narrative structure was well-constructed and sustained across the whole long book. It certainly romped along and drew me in so that I didn’t at all mind reading great slabs of it, which is probably the way you’d read it if it were a holiday read. But it’s not high literature, and I suspect that much of its appeal is that it is so recognizable and comfortable. I won’t be rushing to read another Kate Morton – there are too many other books that are more challenging to read and enjoy, and at 500+ pages, the rewards just aren’t there

My rating: 6/10

Read because:  CAE bookgroup choice.

AWW2019I have included this on the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2019 database.

 

‘Follow the Rabbit-Proof Fence’ by Doris Pilkington (Nugi Garmimara)

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1996, 135P.

Am I the only person in Australia who has not read ‘Follow the Rabbit-Proof Fence’ or seen the movie? I suspect that I am.

First published in 1996, reprinted in 2000 and released as a movie in 2002, it is the story of Molly (14), Daisy (11) and Grace (8) who were forcibly removed from their families and taken to Moore River Native Settlement in 1931. The three girls escaped and walked home 1600 km in three months through the West Australian desert, orienting themselves in the huge expanse by following the rabbit-proof fence, a long fence intended to stop rabbits from entering the West Australian pastoral district.

Doris Pilkington is Molly’s daughter, but she knew little of her mother’s history until her aunt told her. Pilkington, like her mother and aunt, was also part of the Stolen Generation. She, too, ended up at that same Moore River, having been separated from her mother Molly at the age of four, and not seeing her again for more than twenty years. She didn’t learn the story of her mother and aunt’s escape for another ten years after that. (You can read more about the writing of the book here).

I was surprised that much of the book was history- it took up to p. 75 (in a 135 page book) for the girls to escape.  This history started with white invasion, tribal leader Kundilla (I’m not sure whether he was a historical figure or a narrative device); whalers; Swan River; and the decline of Aboriginal society.  She emphasizes the Mardudjara people as the traditional owners when white settlers brought their cattle, and describes the ‘coming in’ to the stations. Her focus is particularly  Jigalong station between 1917-1931. I was reminded here of Ann McGrath’s 1987 history Born in the Cattle which provides a nuanced account of Aboriginal cattle workers, the texture of station life, and the symbiotic relationship between pastoralists and workers.

From p. 75 on, the story fits into a more familiar ‘Voyage and Return’ narrative. Once the girls have started on their trek, she uses historical documents to support her narrative e.g. the correspondence of A. O. Neville (Protector of Aborigines) and copies of telegrams that criss-crossed W.A. The girls are by no means lost: they know where they are, and so do many other people in the homesteads, who offer them hospitality and then go on to report them to the Protector. In the end, the bureaucratic decision is made that it would be too expensive to retrieve them, and they are just let go.

In many ways, the postscript is most damning. Molly, along with her two daughters, was sent again to Moore River. She absconded again taking her 18 month old daughter and leaving Doris  behind. She retraced the walk that she did nine years earlier to return to Jigalong, only to lose her remaining daughter as well, when she was taken by the authorities. Both Daisy and Gracie would have been viewed as ‘successes’ under the assimilation policy of the time. Both married and were employed as domestic help. Daisy ended up moving to a Seventh Day Adventist Mission after her husband’s death.

This book has been a favourite on school reading lists for many years. Larissa Behrendt has written an essay for this school audience, which raises some interesting points.

I imagined that this book would be more emotional and angry than it is. The front-loading of history at the start of the story does make it somewhat abstract, and there is a flatness in the telling that I didn’t expect. I’m sure that on the screen, the landscape would be stark and featureless, but in the book more emphasis is placed on how Molly ‘reads’ the country, rather than on what it lacks. I look at some of the blurbs for later editions and the movie, which highlight ‘adventure’ and ‘courage’. These things are here in the book, but so too is unspoken love and knowledge for country, a quiet and stubborn determination, and a slow-burning injustice.

My rating: 7/10

Read because: CAE bookgroup choice.

AWW2019

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

 

‘We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves’ by Karen Joy Fowler

Fowler_WeAreAll

2014, 336p.

One of the problems with writing a book that is almost completely reliant on a big narrative twist in the middle is that you can’t really review it, without spoiling it for others. So, I won’t do either- review it, or spoil it.

The book is told in the conversational narrative of an American woman looking back over her childhood, which was ruptured when her sister left.  And I’ll leave it at that.

How would I have reacted to this book without the ‘great reveal’, I wonder? Probably not as favourably, because there’s a sort of shocked delight in going back over your assumptions when you’ve had them turned upside down.

Once you’ve read the book, do an image search for the front cover. It’s interesting that some of the front cover designs give away the story much more than the cover on the version I read (above).

Read because: it was a CAE bookgroup selection

My rating: 7/10

‘The Time Traveler’s Wife’ by Audrey Niffenegger

Niffenegger_TimeTravellersWife

2004, 519 p.

I used to read many more books that I do now, particularly between the years 2000 and say 2007, when I had an extended period of ill health. When this book was produced with a flourish as our July read for book group,  my heart sank a little as I had read it back in 2005. But fourteen years is a long time between reads, and although I remembered the gist, I didn’t remember the details.

It’s a time-travel book. I quite enjoy time-travel books that have a relationship at the heart of them until I try to explain them, and then the whole construct falls apart. It is the story of Henry, who travels back and forth through time, and his love for Clare, who would become his wife. The structure is confusing at first, with the chronology jumping back and forward, with Henry at varying ages as Clare plods through her allotted life span as Henry appears, disappears and reappears again.  I often found myself having to turn back to check the date of the chapter, and there was not enough difference in tone and language between the alternating narratives of Henry and Clare. The book has many references to literature and poetry which don’t really rescue it from what is often very domestic and every-day. The ending was a long time coming, with ‘just one more chapter’ being tacked on to the last.

Did I like it any more in 2005? It seems not: in fact, I seem to have mellowed in my old age. This is what I wrote in 2005:

I should have been warned off this book by the Women’s Weekly Great Read sticker on the front. It’s an interesting idea: a chronodisplaced man pops in and out of the life of the woman who is to be come his wife, but worthy only of novella treatment – not a whole 500 page tome! So much of this was banal: getting dressed, eating, mundane conversation lived by an adolescent randiness and panting and always-wonderful sex.  It will probably make a nice enough movie, but it doesn’t need all this print to support it. It’s a first novel, and one badly in need of a judicious prune.  5.5/10

Ouch! I was surprised by how much sex there was in the book, which seemed rather gratuitous in the end.  Perhaps I would enjoy the movie more? After all, that Christopher Reeve movie ‘Somewhere in Time’ was a favourite when I was about 20.  Still, I’m pleased to see that my opinions about books generally hold firm over more than a decade, and that I won’t have to go back to re-read all the books I didn’t like.

My rating: 6.5 out of 10 (I told you that I had mellowed)

Sourced from: CAE as a bookgroup selection.

 

‘An Australian Son’ by Gordon Matthews

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1996, 230 p.

There are spoilers in this review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My rating: 7

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

 

‘Samuel Pepys: The Unequalled Self’ by Claire Tomalin

Tomalin_Pepys

2002, 380 P plus notes

There are some biographies where you think that there’s no point in anyone else even picking up their pen to write another one. Claire Tomalin’s biography of Samuel Pepys falls into that category.  This isn’t the first time I have read this book, because I read it in 2005- certainly long enough to have forgotten much of the details. That was before I had been to London myself, and before I had started my own academic work in biography. I very much enjoyed it in 2005 and enjoyed it even more fourteen years later.

I think that I first became aware of Samuel Pepys in a school reader, where his eyewitness report of the Great Fire of London was reproduced. I’d always associated him more with the events that he wrote about (the fire, the plague etc) rather than as a person in his own right. But as Claire Tomalin points out, perhaps his most striking and original achievement was to see himself, his actions and his motivations, as a topic in themselves. One of the most opaque things over time and culture is to sense how people saw themselves, especially when such a question was so often overlaid with religious language. In Pepys we have a man holding himself up to his own scrutiny, laughing at himself, and at times writing what he knew could be used against him politically.

Pepys’ diaries covered only nine of his seventy years. It’s not really clear why he started writing them, but it was a very deliberate act when he purchased a notebook and carefully ruled up each page – all 280 of them- and drew 20-30 evenly spaced lines on which to write. He wrote in shorthand, with some proper nouns written in English, and breaking into pidgin Spanish when he wanted to describe some of his (all too frequent) amatory adventures.

Although Pepys’ diaries of course provide the richest source for Tomalin’s work (and indeed, the work of any Pepys scholar), this biography devotes about 1/3 of its length to the 1660-1669 period of the diaries. The other 2/3 deals with his life before beginning the diaries, and then after the diaries. This seems a judicious weighting, and one which placed the journals, important though they are, into the context of his whole life.

The book starts with a lengthy list of ‘who’s who’ which I found myself turning to frequently. As Tomalin highlights, when Pepys was starting out on his career, contacts were everything in making it possible for this son of a tailor to end up as a high-level civil servant and Member of Parliament. Even though I’m not in the habit of taking my history from Academy Award winning films, the recent film The Favourite exemplified the trails of patronage that could bring distant cousins into orbits far beyond their expectations.

What struck me particularly on this second reading, and particularly in days when watching the so-far unsuccessful attempts at political change in Venezuela, is just how dangerous it is when a country undertakes a huge political change. I’m not talking about elections, which in our case are just variations on the same, but the big political about-faces. Pepys experienced a number of such changes, at an uncomfortably close quarter to royal power, but without the means or patronage to have any influence at all on events. He saw the execution of Charles I; he supported Oliver Cromwell when he was a young man; he managed to switch to Charles II in time; he escaped suspicion (just) after the Popish plots; and he acquiesced when William took the throne. The people he aligned himself with survived, and so he did too.

Although the book is largely chronologically arranged into 3 parts (Part I pre-diaries; Part II 1660-1669 diary entries; Part III 1670-1703), its chapters are thematic as well e.g. work, marriage, science. She does not cite at length from the journals themselves, choosing to comment on them instead of reproducing them.

At times Pepys seems like us: at other times, not. His infidelities and what now reads like rank sexual harassment are uncomfortable reading; his domestic violence to his wife and servants is not endearing. But I found myself laughing when his enraged wife threatened his manhood with red-hot fire tools when she found out about his affair with the maid, and his own awareness of his hypocrisy, failings and weakness keeps him human.  Tomalin has given us a fully rounded man, and I just can’t imagine anyone else doing it better.

By the way, the first time I read this book, I was fascinated by the Pepys Diary page, which is still going. Each day an entry from the diaries is posted in full and people, who have a wealth of information about Pepys and London, annotate the entries.  Another site which I’ve enjoyed, although it’s aimed at children is an interactive site  fireoflondon.org.uk

My rating: 9.5/10  This is biography at its best

Sourced from: CAE bookgroups.