Tag Archives: History

‘The Little Community’ by Robert Redfield


1962, 168

I read this book alternating between a feeling of  “Toto,  I’ve got a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore” and “Aha!!”.   I felt like Dorothy because this book is steeped in the language, methodology and publications of anthropology.  It took a number of important studies of little communities, including those written by the author himself, and examined the ethnographic methodology and questions  they utilized.  These studies were all unfamiliar to me, and because of the publication date of the book (1962), they were all fairly dated.  The book was not so much about the content of these studies, as of the role of the anthropologist and his/her methodology in that study.

But when I felt “aha!” was when he spoke about the nature and limits of the “little community”.   His “little community” has four qualities, that may exist in different degrees:

  1. it is distinctive-  where the community begins and ends is apparent
  2. it is small enough that it can be a unit of personal observation that is fully representative of the whole
  3. it is homogenous and slow changing
  4. it is self sufficient in that it provides all or most of the activities and needs of the people in it.

So does Port Phillip count as a “little community”? I’ve been conscious all along of the small size of Port Phillip- about 5000 people (although there’s no hard and fast population figures).  But was there a clear sense of “we?”. I rather think there was, in the push towards Separation from New South Wales, and distancing Port Phillip from the penal origins of Van Diemens Land and Botany Bay. Certainly, the Port Phillip press tried hard to foster a sense of  “we” (although I think that provincial presses always do this).  I think that the relatively late date of settlement indicates that geographically it was a separate entity to the two older colonies.

Redfield speaks about a “typical biography” among members of a little community- the life-path that most people in the community followed. Prominent, middle-class, public-oriented men can be traced quite easily through their involvement in different organisations in Port Phillip.  I think that you could probably construct a typical biography for Port Phillip during  the 1840s that would be triggered by a migration, involve an economic enterprise of some sort,  a financial setback, and the building of a home.  In fact, I’m about to embark on “Letters from Victorian Pioneers” and I’ll see if I can find the barebones  of a typical biography for Port Phillip there.

But Redfield warns that the descriptor of “little community” doesn’t fit comfortably with a society undergoing rapid change, especially a frontier society.   I think that whatever homogeneity there was in Port Phillip was challenged as the 1840s went on.   Change was rapid, and becoming even more so.  As such, perhaps the term “little community” is of limited usefulness in describing Port Phillip, but as he says, the question is not so much “Is this community a little community?” but “In what ways does this community correspond with the model of a little community?”


1979, 278 p

One of the frustrations that I’ve faced in trying to understand Judge Willis has been to try to understand his mindset. Why did Port Phillip society of the time find him so unacceptable and demand his dismissal? Was he too radical? Was he too conservative? Was he neither of these things? This book focusses on early Victorian England which, although a hemisphere away from Port Phillip, was the milieu that informed the thinking of colonial judges and civil servants and was the lens through which their patrons and superiors back in the metropole viewed their actions.

In this book, Roberts attempts the heroic in trying to define and illustrate the workings of an unnamed-at-the-time set of varying beliefs and attitudes which he, along with other 20th historians, identifies as ‘paternalism’. He argues that, bolstered by Romanticism and literature, paternalism reached its apogee in 1844. It’s a slippery concept, though, despite his attempts to pin it down through analysis, for example, of the backgrounds of the contributors to the major ‘paternal’ journals and quarterlies of the day, or by the speeches and voting patterns of ‘paternalist’ MPs in the 1840s. He divided these parliamentarians into 6 categories: the Romantics, The Peelites, The Churchmen; the Country Squires; The Whigs and the Anglo-Irish, but even he admits that there is no consistency between their espoused position in speeches, and their actions. Paternalism, it seems, is only one of several influences. In fact, his concept is so hemmed in by qualifications and disclaimers that you start to wonder if what he is describing exists at all.

But, despite his difficulties in defining it, he posits that after 1848 ‘it’ was no longer functional: rendered less relevant by the rise of urbanisation, a self-conscious middle and working class and the mid-century intellectual developments of science, rationalism, empiricism and belief in progress.

I’m not sure that this book has taken me much further in understanding Judge Willis. It’s interesting that his major patrons are categorized as either Peelites or Whig paternalists- but I’m not really sure yet what, if anything, that means.


1989, 371p

I have rather mixed feelings about historical fiction.  On the one hand, it was probably historical fiction that led me to my love of history in the first place, and the type of history that attracts me always has a strong human and imaginative thread to it.  When there is a basic fidelity to the setting and the mentalities of the main characters, then I love it.  It can be playful with the facts, but not earnestly wrong.  I really relished Peter Mew’s Bright Planet set in- surprise, surprise- 1840s Port Phillip, and Patrick White’s historical fiction (e.g. Fringe of Leaves, Voss ) is solidly grounded in research and yet nuanced and sophisticated in its themes.

But I have my reservations too.  I agree with Inga  Clendinnen (my heroine) with her qualms over Kate Grenville’s The Secret River and the issue of historical fiction attempting to contribute to a historical debate. I am annoyed when something is just plain wrong- the research has been done and exhibited, but it’s WRONG! I dislike the arrogance of projection of modern mentalities onto characters set in the past.  I sometimes feel as if the story is suffocated by meticulous research that the author can’t bear to let go of.

Which leads me to Rose Tremain’s Restoration.  It is set, as you might guess, in Restoration England, complete with Charles II, the Great Fire and the Plague.  There’s a certain predictability about this- of course they are all such write-able events that no author writing a book set at the time could resist them!  I thought that Tremain captured the voice of a 17th century male writer well, and my admiration for it increased even more when I returned, as I do from time to time, to www.pepys.diary.com to read Samuel Pepys’ diary entry for the day.

But of course, ventriloquism is not the same as creation, and it added to my sense that I was reading a set piece, with hackneyed settings and events and a reproduction of a 17th century voice.  This probably sounds more scathing than I mean it to be: I enjoyed it well enough, happily persisted to the end, but I only rate it as a  ‘good enough’ read.