Eyeless at the Gallery

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I went to the National Gallery of Victoria a couple of weeks ago for their Italian Masterpieces exhibition and  I SAW THE PAINTINGS. “Why the capital letters, bold type and red letters?” you might ask.

Because there was a large group of schoolgirls from one of Melbourne’s more prominent private schools who didn’t see a single painting.  Instead, they were clustered in the middle of the exhibition room in small circles, their heads bent over their Ipads and their backs to the paintings.  I’m not sure what the assignment was, but they were all typing something onto what looked like a notecard on their screen.   Occasionally one or two looked at the written panel beside the painting.  At no time did I see a girl turn around,  look at a painting, step back to view from a distance, move forward to view close up, nudge a friend and point something out or interact in any way with anything other than her Ipad.

Their attendance at the gallery, in the presence of such beauty and treasure, was completely unnecessary.  They may as well have stood in their own schoolyard.

I don’t know what the instructional design principles  were of that assignment, but it failed in every regard.

By the way, the exhibition closes next weekend. Well worth seeing. Leave your Ipad at home.

‘The Ordeal of Elizabeth Marsh: A Woman in World History’ by Linda Colley

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303 p. & notes, 2007

Now THIS is the sort of history I want to write!  I’ve had this book on my shelves for years, ever since I began writing my thesis.  It takes just the approach that I want to use:

…this is a book that ranges between biography, family history, British and imperial history, and global histories in the plural.  Because of the tendencies of our own times, historians have become increasingly concerned to attempt seeing the world as a whole.  This has encouraged an understandable curiosity about very large-scale phenomena: the influence of shifting weather systems on world history, ecological change over time, patterns of forced and voluntary migration, the movement of capital, or commodities, or disease over continents, the transmission of ideas and print, the workings of vast overland and oceanic networks of trade, the impact of conflicting imperial systems and so on.  These, and other such grand transcontinental forces, were and are massively important.  Yet they have never just been simply and inhumanly there.  They have impacted on people, who have understood them (or not), and adapted to them (or not), but who have invariably interpreted them in very many different ways.  Writings on world and global history (to which I stand enormously indebted) sometimes seem as aggressively impersonal as globalization can itself.

In this book, by contrast, I am concerned to explore how the lives of a group of individuals, and especially the existence of one particular unsophisticated but not unperceptive woman, were informed and tormented by changes that were viewed at the time as transnational, and transcontinental, and even as pan-global, to an unprecedented degree.  I seek to tack between the individual and world histories ‘in such a way as to bring them into simultaneous view’. (p. xxxi)

Linda Colley is an acclaimed historian of Britain and empire.  Her book Britons is heavily cited in discussions of Britishness ( although may I admit in a very small voice that I have this book on my shelves, too, waiting to be read?)  She writes big histories, but in this book she brings it back to individuals and their families.

So who was Elizabeth Marsh?  As in many cases when writing biography of a person who is not a public figure, the source material is patchy and in several instances, contestable.  From genealogical sources, Elizabeth Marsh can be located as a woman who lived from 1735 to 1785, who had two children, and was a wife, daughter and niece.  From her own writing in published travel narratives, we know that she was kidnapped by the Moroccan Sultan, Sidi Muhammed, and that she travelled extensively along the eastern coast of India.  From her uncle’s scrapbooks and journals, we learn of her extensive family networks and its mobility across the world.  A map on the opening pages of the book shows just how wide-ranging these family travels were: the Caribbean, the Americans, Britain, France, Spain Italy, Brussels, Hamburg, Menorca and Madiera, India, New South Wales, Marrakech, Tunis, Cairo, Sierra Leone and the west coast of Africa.

And yet there is so much that we don’t know about her, right down to the question of her appearance.  Her mother was Jamaican, but there is no way of knowing whether Elizabeth or her mother were coloured.  Elizabeth tells us that she was not sexually compromised during her kidnapping but can we believe her? She is largely silent on the nature of her relationship with George Smith, who accompanied her on her travels in India.  Nor can we know how her marriage to James Crisp, her fellow-abductee in Morocco, worked.  Colley speculates and imagines but she is upfront about the guesswork and supposition that she has utilized in piecing together Elizabeth Marsh’s life.

The book commences with a short introductory summary of Elizabeth Marsh’s life and clear identification of the themes that run through it:  her life; her family; her worlds; herself; history and her story.  There- it can be done in just thirteen pages!!  (says she, whose introduction threatens to engulf the whole thesis].   There are only six chapters and a conclusion, organized chronologically and each taking up a separate continent on her travels.   Without fail, each time I thought “Jeez, I could use a map here”, I turned the page and there it was.

But the book is much more than a biography (i.e. writing about the life of an individual) : it is history in its own right, with much to say about mobility, networks,  sea-consciousness and the British navy, trade and the intersection of the domestic and intimate with the commercial.  Each step of Elizabeth’s own life is embroidered with contextual and supplementary information so that as a reader you’re better able to judge the exceptionality or conventionality of what you have just read.  Is this distracting? Possibly, if you’re after a straight biography, but there was only one occasion where I felt that she was wandering a bit too far offtopic.

At times Colley moves into the present tense when describing Elizabeth’s lived experience, returning to past tense in her analysis,  with occasional shifts back into the present tense when describing her own insights as researcher and investigator.  These changes in tense are handled so adroitly that you’re barely aware of them.  They add to the immediacy of the narrative, and the feeling as if you’re being addressed by a researcher steeped in expertise and well in control of her material and eager to share it with you.

Do I regret leaving it so long to read this book?  Not really. I think that I would have been intimidated by it earlier in my own research, and reading it at the stage I’m at inspires me with an example, right there on the page, of the type of historian I’d like to be.

Other reviews (by a veritable Who’s Who of authors):

Claire Tomalin in the Guardian

Megan Marshall in The New York Times

Hilary Mantel in the London Review of Books (a lengthy but excellent review)

Lisa Jardine in the Times Higher Education Supplement

Warrior of the Mind- Inga Clendinnen

When I read this interview by journalist Jana Wendt with Inga Clendinnen – my most revered historian- I didn’t know whether to smile or weep.

To be honest, I did both.

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The War That Changed Us

Next Tuesday 19th August the ABC will be showing the first of the four-part documentary ‘The War that Changed Us’.  It combines the stories of six real-life Australians involved in different ways with WWI,  with analysis and commentary provided by many of the historians I have reviewed on this site.

It promises to be a more nuanced approach than the ra-ra ‘War that Made Us Australian’ type approach that I find so uncomfortable.  Its six main characters are two soldiers Archie Barwick, Harold ‘Pompey’ Eliot, army nurse Kit McNaughton, anti-war activists Vida Goldstein and Tom Barker, and pro-war pastoralist’s wife Eva Hughes.

The documentary was created and co-written by Clare Wright (whose book The Forgotten Rebels of Eureka I reviewed here) and features interviews with Janet Butler (who wrote Kitty’s War  the much acclaimed study of Kit McNaughton, who features as one of the six characters in this documentary, and reviewed here), Marina Larsson (who wrote Shattered Anzacs, reviewed here) and Bart Ziino (whose presentation to the recent Royal Historical Society Conference The Other Face of War: Victorians and the Home Front I wrote about here).  So, as you can see, this is very much a documentary informed by familiar voices.

You can see a sneak preview of it here:

[And hopefully- surely- it will be more satisfying viewing than Anzac Girls which so far has been bitterly disappointing pap]

 

 

Ben Wilson ‘The Making of Victorian Values: Decency and Dissent in Britain 1789-1837′

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2007, 389 p & notes

One of the basic questions in writing history is how to define the period under examination.  Sometimes historians use seminal events- particularly military ones- as markers.  Others use famous people: “the age of Beethoven” or “Austen’s world”.  Centuries can be used as markers, stretched out to form “the long 18th century” or “the long 19th century”. A recent approach, reflecting no doubt the effect of sociology on history, has been to look at generations.

My own research takes an individual life as its starting point: that of John Walpole Willis, born in 1793.  I’ve been interested in some time in the mental furniture with which his mind would have been stocked, having grown to adulthood in pre-Victorian times, yet living most of his professional life under Victoria’s reign.  As a judge, his pronouncements from the bench seem steeped in Victorian rectitude, but he was himself born in Georgian times.  Using the British royal family as periodization (Georgian, Victorian) is convenient, but it doesn’t explain how any qualitative change from one era to another occurred. How did the rambunctious disorder and ribaldry of Georgian times turn into the moralistic earnestness of Victorian times? How did this affect the way that people thought? Continue reading

RHSV Conference: The Other Face of War: Victorians and the Home Front

[A personal reflection]

A good  conference has a scope broad enough to bring multiple perspectives to the topic, but it is also defined closely enough for the threads and themes that emerge out of individual papers to weave something larger.  The Royal Historical Society of Victoria (RHSV) conference on Friday 8th August and Saturday 9th August 2014 succeeded on both counts. Continue reading

Julie Szego ‘The Tainted Trial of Farah Jama’

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2014, 256 p.

Our attention span for court cases is very short indeed.   There might be a splash of publicity during the committal hearing, then nothing is heard for some time.  The actual case, some months later, might attract attention if it is particularly salacious or graphic.  The sentence is given, then the main characters subside back into obscurity and you’re left thinking “Now, what was that case again?”.  Usually.  But sometimes there is something about a case that snags the attention of a passing journalist or essayist, who picks at the threads and expands our gaze beyond that particular case into society more broadly.  This book does just that.

Farah Jama was a young Somali man who was jailed for raping a woman thirty years his senior in a nightclub.  He insisted that he was not at the nightclub and that he had never seen the woman before.  The woman could not recall seeing any African men at the club that night, and could remember nothing at all about the attack.  Farah was convicted solely on DNA evidence and eighteenth months later his conviction was overturned.

In this book, journalist Julie Szego traces through the crime, the case and the circumstances that led to the overturning of his conviction.  On the way she finds herself on the edges, and eventually outside, the local Somali community as Farah becomes increasingly resistant to her questioning. He becomes determined to take his own story back with an eye to his own book somewhere down the line, and sees her as a competitor.  She finds herself bridling against his anti-woman stance, even while she can understand it on one level.  Her investigation takes her into the management practices and risk management policies of the Macleod Forensic Laboratory where the DNA was tested, and the organization’s defensiveness after several previous errors in dealing with DNA.

I think that the first book of this kind I read,  where the journalist wades into the backwater of a crime, was Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood.  I’ve read several others in recent years: Helen Garner’s Joe Cinque’s Consolation and The First Stone, Chloe Hooper’s The Tall Man and Anna Kreins Night Games.  It strikes me, looking at this list, that these later books are all written by women, and they all share an ambivalence and tentativeness about coming to a firm conclusion.  This is probably because defamation lawyers are lurking, but also I wonder if there’s not a reticence to be too black-and-white, too certain.

It’s a strange genre in that generally readers know the outcome before they even crack open the book.  The books do not appear on the shelves until some time afterwards, and they often follow a flurry of newspaper and television coverage at the time of the crime and then at key points in the resulting trial.  The writer herself (or himself, in the case of Capote) becomes part of the story as well and often has to face her own prejudices and doubts. There’s often a larger picture as well: the football culture, black/white policing relations, the sharp edge of perfection, feminism and in this case, Somali ‘integration’.

This book is an easy read, told in an easy conversational style. There are chapters, but the narrative is presented in small segments within a broadly chronological structure.  The focus shifts from one participant to another, and in this case, there are no baddies as such, only powerlessness and an underlying question of racism.  Questions are raised, of course, about the dubiousness of the prosecution in the first place, and the reliability of DNA evidence.

Sometimes I watch television reports of the sentencing statements given from the bench after a particularly newsworthy crime.  The judge often mentions that the accused “showed no remorse” as a factor for increasing the sentence. That seems odd to me. Why would a person who claimed that they had not committed the crime- especially to a stranger- be expected to show remorse?  Perhaps a detached, abstract sympathy, but no remorse.

Farah Jama has every right to be angry.  I guess that we can take some small comfort that everything worked out in the end, although we have no right to expect him to feel that way.  The ease with which any questions about his original ‘crime’ were deflected is unsettling.

awwbadge_2014I’m posting this review to the Australian Women Writers Challenge.