‘This House of Grief: The Story of a Murder Trial’ by Helen Garner

garner_grief

2014, 288 p.

This has been yet another of the  books  that I’ve purchased and had sitting in its little brown paper ‘Readings’ bag waiting for a self-indulgent Christmas-time read, long after everyone else seems to have read it. Helen Garner seems to evoke strong reactions in her readers. I don’t think that it’s just that she chooses controversial topics: I think that it’s Helen Garner herself that some readers object to.  As for me- I wish I knew her, although I suspect that she’d bridle against the thought that she could be claimed by a reader, and I think I’d feel a bit intimidated by her. I like the way that she puts her head on one side and considers hard…but then comes to a decided opinion.  I like her occasional tartness and her willingness to revisit her own judgments.

Any Melburnian could tell you about the Farquharson case- an appalling “accident” on Fathers Day 2005, where three young boys drowned when the car driven by their father after an access visit went off the road and ran into a dam. The father suffered a coughing fit, he said; an explanation accepted at first by his ex-wife at the first trial, but she later changed her mind. It was a convoluted legal process, involving a trial, an appeal and then a retrial and Helen Garner attended it throughout, drawn by equal parts of fascination and incredulity.

The subtitle to Garner’s book is “The Story of a Murder Trial” and the book largely consists of her observations of the theatre of the court as this performance of administering justice wends its slow, deceptively soporific way through questions that go to the heart of love, family, obsession and betrayal.  What a good observer she is-  the square faces that people pull when they’re trying not to yawn; the impatient ‘come along’ grasp of a sister pulling her adult brother through the press pack that sets itself up along the Melbourne footpath outside the court for the nightly news. Garner has her opinions: she judges.  I wonder if the witnesses who appeared in the stand have read this book and found themselves stripped bare by her eagle eye.

She’s very good.

aww-badge-2015-200x300I’ve posted this to the Australian Women Writers Challenge for 2015.

‘The Character of Credit’ by Margot C. Finn

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The Character of Credit: Personal Debt in English Culture 1740-1914 2003 364 p

I noticed a few weeks back as part of the discussion about childcare funding that the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry has suggested that instead of big business being asked to pay a 1.5% levy, workers could be offered a HECS-style loan for childcare.  Not only do we put ourselves into HECS debt for the training to get a job, it seems, but we wade even further into ‘HECS-style’ debt for childcare to ensure that we can keep working to pay off that original HECS debt.   In a home-owner society like middle-Australia, it’s almost taken for granted that there will be a mortgage, but it’s becoming the new normal for rising generations to have an extra debt as well- that little ol’ HECS debt, bubbling away in the background.

I realized after reading Margot Finn’s book The Character of Credit, however, that the universality of indebtedness might not be a recent thing. Instead, as she demonstrates so ably,  debt was interwoven into the networks and relationships in British society from top to bottom.  They weren’t borrowing from banks: they were borrowing from each other, and the relationship was personal. In deciding if someone’s personal worth,  you’d check out his or her clothes, marital relations, spending patterns and perceived social status- and the people who were lending to you would be doing the same thing.

The book has three parts.  In the first, Finn begins by examining the treatment of debt in the 19th century novel and as you might imagine, Dickens and Trollope get a good airing, but many others as well- in fact, once you’re alert to it, you see these relationships of debt and obligation everywhere.  She explores a wide array of exchange activities: instrumental gift giving, customary retail sociability (where people of means would intentionally only pay their accounts once a year, often impoverishing the humble shoptrader in the process),  reliance on unwritten debt agreements and  purchasing by people (i.e. women) who did not have legal agency. She then moves onto autobiographical accounts and diaries, which largely support the view put forward by the novelists that the webs of overlapping indebtedness ran right throughout society from top to bottom.

In Part Two, she turns to institutional and governmental records to examine the changing history of imprisonment for debt.   Indebtedness was seen as misfortune, not a moral failing, and the debtors’ prison was not so much a punishment as a place of asylum for the debtor from the duress being placed on him by his creditors.  Many of the people there were of relatively high status: it wasn’t worth pursuing a debtor who had nothing.  Just as Dickens showed us with the Marshalsea in Little Dorritt, there was a flow of people and goods in and out of the prison which was, indeed, a sanctuary.  The prisoners there literally ran the prison, taking responsibility for conditions and behaviours- and get this! they even levied fines on people who left the toilet seat up in the water closet!!!

In Part Three she traces the change in attitude in the 1840s as debt came to be seen as fraud, not misfortune, and the implications for punishment.  The summary small-claims courts were established to support this changed conception, and were marked out from the other courts in that married women were allowed to appear and give evidence.  In this chapter she draws on legal cases and records from tradesmen’s protection associations.

The book covers 1740-1914, and so much of the material in this last chapter took me beyond my own period of interest (i.e. up to 1845). It was this ‘modern’ view of debt from 1842 onwards that my own judge, Judge Willis, was wanting to adopt, and it very much fitted in with his campaign of ‘sifting to the bottom’ of financial impropriety.  I’d read in several places where he expressed a wish for the English system, and now I understand why.

There’s a very detailed, informed and nuanced review of the book here which takes some issue with the arguments raised.  I lack the knowledge to give anything other than an impressionistic review. I admire the way that this beautifully written book combines a close reading of the novels she has chosen in the first section, with a confident use of legal documentation in the second and third sections.  There would be few writers, I suspect, who could combine the literary and the legal so well.

‘Restless Men: Masculinity and Robinson Crusoe 1788-1840′ by Karen Downing

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Basingstoke, Palgrave Macmillan, 2014, 175 p & notes

ISBN9781137348944 (hbk.)

Allow me to rave. I’ve just finished reading Karen Downing’ book, Restless Men and I’m in awe of its breadth, intellectual complexity and insight that has made me look again at the writings of the immigrating men who came to Australia’s shores.  I always think that’s a good sign in a history: you re-read documents and stories that you’ve encountered before with new eyes, and find yourself giving a little nod in acknowledgment to the historian as you do, wishing that you could nudge her and say “Look- there’s another example!”

History is full of restless men. Constantly active, averse to being settled, they have been explorers, traders, pirates, crusaders and invaders, the forgers of empires that have come and gone across time, heroes and villains.  Such men- if not the drivers of history, at least its colour and movement- have been so ubiquitous that constant activity seems to be part of the essential character of men themselves.  Fiction, too, is full of restless men. From the ancient Greek hero Odysseus to the crew of the Starship Enterprise, imagined men have been forced, coerced and have chosen to leave home in the name of patriotism, protection, profit and pleasure.  The most enduring of these literary figures is the protagonist of Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, first published in 1719. (p. 1)

Again and again, Downing finds examples of young (and not so young) men braving the seas to the colonies who identify with Robinson Crusoe, a book that they had read in their childhood which had become a wider part of the contemporary consciousness of the 19th century.  Wild escaped convicts (think William Buckley) were dubbed real-life Robinson Crusoes,  William Joyce, a young mechanical engineer fired up by the letters he had received from Port Phillip from his brother declared in his memoirs that “I felt I was going to be a sort of Robinson Crusoe” (and so he brought a huge amount of luggage out with him lest he run out!); explorers called themselves Robinson Crusoe.   Defoe’s book itself did not make men restless, but it captured the tension in men’s lives of the time between material circumstance and dreams, traditions and adventures, wildness and domestication.

In structuring her book, Downing deliberately eschews a straight cause-effect relationship, and a similarly simplistic here-to-there trajectory.   Nor is she treading a well-worn path: her book is an exploration of masculinity that doesn’t engage in the question of separate spheres, or the construction of male identity vis-a-vis women.   Instead, she focusses on the ideas of manliness between men.

Chapter 1 Confined by the Gout- Perceptions of Men’s Physical Health describes the perception that civilization and industrialization were seen as a threat to men’s bodies, with the health-giving colonies often seen as a panacea.   Chapter 2 The Ecstasies and Transports of the Soul- Emotional Journeys of Self-Discovery turns to men’s letters, journals and memoirs to capture the tropes of fiction (and especially Robinson Crusoe) in describing the emotion of leaving home.

Chapter 3 My Head Filled Early with Rambling Thoughts- Raising Boys and Making Men examines the theories of boy-raising current at the time. She looks particularly at the literature they imbibed as part of their education that valourized restlessness at the same time as driving them into conformity. Chapter 4 Satisfied with Nothing But Going to Sea- Seafaring Lives and Island Hopes examines a response to this restlessness through seafaring in empire, focussing particularly on island experiences and the Bounty mutineers in particular.

Chapter 5 To Think that This Was All My Own- Land, Independence and Emigration grounds (literally) this restlessness into the promises held out for land, adventure and independence by the emigration literature and colonization proposals of the early 19th century.  Chapter 6 The Middle Station of Life- the Anxieties of Social Mobility  explores the uneasiness between the dreams held out to restless men and the confining, restricting effect of the brittle distinctions of rank and order that were replicated in the colonies.  In Chapter 7 A Surprising Change of Circumstances – Men’s Ambivalent Relationship with Authority this ambivalence is extended into an examination of the debates about crime and punishment and loss of autonomy- a particularly loaded debate in an ex-penal colony. Chapter 8 The Centre of All My Enterprises- the Paradox of Families explores the paradox that many of these restless men were, like Robinson Crusoe, torn between wanting to establish and maintain a family as much as they wanted to escape familial obligations.

As you can see, this book traverses unusual and unexpected territory.  There are themes that run across it as well – adventure, land, independence- with their different and contested meanings.  It ranges broadly across a wealth of writing, and while limiting her view to the Australian colonies, her argument works for the other settler colonies as well.

Early Port Phillip teemed with these restless men and I’ve met them during my own work on Judge Willis- the young Burchett boys, some of the financial adventurers among the Twelve Apostles, and a whole host of the first generations of Port Phillip arrivals.  They brought their restlessness with them, and it affected the nature of a new colonial society. At the same time, I’ve taken her argument and held it against the mobility of the colonial civil servant, and found it a useful counterpoint.

This is an academic text but I’m regretful that the expense of this book means that only those with university library borrowing rights are likely to read it: even the Kindle edition is prohibitive- how can that be?  It’s a shame, because it’s an enjoyable read in its own right.

aww-badge-2015-200x300I’ve review this as part of the 2015 Australian Women Writers Challenge under the history/biography/memoir category.

Bohemian Melbourne exhibition

bohemianmelbourne

Well, as usual I am writing about an exhibition in its last days, and what is even more annoying is that I went to see it months ago, before Christmas and forgot to blog it!  If you want to see it, you’ll need to put your skates on.

Some time ago I reviewed Tony Moore’s book Dancing With Empty Pockets and I see that he has been a subject adviser for this exhibition at the State Library of Victoria.   As a proud Melburnian, this is  a satisfyingly home-based exhibition, with plenty of familiar names and places.  It starts with Marcus Clarke, complete with his cabbage tree hat which I was surprised to see was a much more stylish construction than I imagined. (I can’t believe that I’ve lived this long without ever seeing a cabbage tree hat- or perhaps I just didn’t realize what it was I was looking at.)  It’s all very masculine in the first section, with bohemian gentlemen’s clubs and bonhomie. Women  are thin on the ground until the 1930s onwards, when they emerge in the artistic enclaves and on the stage.  Lovely Mirka Mora gets a look-in, there’s the definitely weird Percy Grainger (whose own museum is well worth a look if it’s open when you’re going along Royal Parade) and look- there’s Red Symons (and what does it say about Bohemia that an ex-Bohemian ends up the morning host on ABC local radio?)

All good fun, although I must admit that I found the layout confusing and somehow missed the chronological thread of it all which, in this case, was important.

I see that the State Library have a self-guided walking tour of Bohemian Melbourne too.  Might be a pleasant Sunday afternoon stroll sometime.

‘Burial Rites’ by Hannah Kent

BurialRites

2013, 352 p.

The problem with coming to a much-talked-about book after the wave of publicity and interest has broken is that there’s not really much else left to say about it.  I’ve just dabbled in some of the reviews and it’s hard to get away from the fact that Kent received a very large advance for the novel; that she’s young and doing a PhD in creative writing, and  that it has been translated into twenty languages.    Ben Etherington has written an interesting piece in the Sydney Review of Books  about the marketing context that has many links- well worth reading.

As probably everyone knows, the book is a ‘speculative biography’ of Agnes Magnusdottir, who was executed for murder in Iceland in 1829. Awaiting sentence, she is interned on a remote farm, where enforced proximity draws her into the circle of her keeper’s family.

Everything that I would want to say about the book has been said before.   Reviewers speak of the historical setting, and I’ll talk about it too. Historical documents preface each of the chapters, that not only lend verisimilitude, but also act as a fence to constrain this speculative biography.  The research is obviously deep, and  its occasional didacticism can be excused when writing about such an unfamiliar historical setting.  Just as in history-writing itself, the endpoint is known, and it’s the author’s task to make it plausible and real.

Many reviewers rave about her descriptions of settings, and I need to join with them in praise. Her descriptions of setting are so evocative that you can almost see it. It’s a very cinematic book, and of course it has been optioned for a movie.  In your head you can see the opening scenes and hear the voice-over already.

I was struck in the opening pages by the story-ness of it.  Of course, story-telling is one of the themes of the book, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was reading the sort of book I might have read as a teenager, where all the people and events were set out in place, then ‘action’- the story proper began.   I still can’t decide whether it’s slightly clunky and old-fashioned, or very clever and self-reflexive. The device of the priest worked to usher in a first-person story-telling narrative, but I didn’t find myself particularly interested in him as a character.

And yes, several reviewers have squirmed under the buffeting of poetic imagery, and at times I felt rather overwhelmed by it as well.  But then she’d capture an image in a couple of words so cleanly and sharply that you’d nod and forgive her everything. I enjoyed the viscerality of her descriptions as Agnes is released from her cell as she smells herself and the grunge of captivity.  I felt the smoky fug of too many people in a small cottage  that evoked  shades of Halldor Laxness’ Independent People.

Then there’s the cover. Is it trite to talk about the cover? I don’t think so- it was part of my experience of settling down with a real-life, hold-in-the-hand book to read a bit more.  You won’t detect it on screen, but the cover has a beautiful pearlescent sheen, inside and out, and I often found myself running my hand over it as a thing of beauty.

aww-badge-2015-200x300This book has already been read so many times under the Historical Fiction category in the Australian Women Writers Challenge that I feel a little redundant putting it under the 2015 reviews as well.  Never mind.  Two years on from its publication, it should be standing on its own two feet. It does.

Abbott’s blues

Will there be a leadership spill? Personally, I’m watching the ties.  You know, the blue ties that Julie Gillard warned us about.

Well, she wasn’t wrong

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I’m watching the men in blue ties coming out to offer their support for Abbott in varying degrees of warmth.  I’m watching, too, to see if they break ranks with their ties.

Snappy young Christopher Pyne this morning…..hmmmm.

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So watch the tie.  Remember, you heard it here first.

‘Colonization and the Origins of Humanitarian Governance’ by Alan Lester and Fae Dussart

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2014, 275 p. & notes

When I read Rowan Strong’s book on Anglicanism and the British Empire recently, I found myself somewhat surprised that historians coming out of  a different academic stream- in this case, the history of Christianity- were  wading in the same waters that I splash around in through studying colonial communities through a transnational lens.  There were similar questions and concerns, but when I checked the bibliography, I found that the author had drawn from a largely unfamiliar body of literature written by strangers (to me!). Why hadn’t I heard of any of these people before?

This was not at all the case with this book, which felt very much like ‘home’ for me.  Alan Lester and Fae Dussart have written a couple of  papers together, and Alan Lester is perhaps best known for his concept of ‘imperial networks’ of people, goods and ideas- a concept that I’ve found really useful.  Lester is a Professor of Historical Geography at the University of Sussex, where Dussart is a Visiting Research Fellow, lecturing in Modern British and Imperial History (originally from the University of North Carolina).   Looking through their bibliography, I found very familiar names- Catherine Hall, Zoe Laidlaw, Antoinette Burton, Julie Evans etc.   These are my people!

Their book explores the paradox that at the very time that the British Empire was embarking on its violent dispossession of indigenous land across multiple sites, it was also professing humanitarianism and a deep desire to ‘do the right thing’.  Is it possible to reconcile two such disparate impulses?

Lester and Dussart choose to use the term ‘humanitarian’, even though other historians  have chosen other terms more commonly used at the time (for example, Jessie Mitchell’s In Good Faith? uses the term ‘philanthropy’) .  But in the opening chapter of this book, it is clear that their observations extend beyond the 19th century settler colonies when they discuss present-day humanitarian campaigns and organizational structures.

As in Strong’s book, they draw a longer timespan for humanitarianism than just the 19th century evangelical movement, while acknowledging its fundamental importance for the settler colonies under discussion  They describe humanitarianism as a chain, with donor/philanthropist/recipient links, noting that it is always an unequal power relationship. Actors at each point perform roles for the benefit of those next along the chain with missionaries, protectors or aid workers on the ground always having to perform dual roles for the benefit of donors above them and recipients below them (p.11).

The book combines biography and geography.  Humanitarian governance during the 19th century was mediated through the men (for it was, in this case always men) who took it upon themselves to govern the empire.

To get to know what feelings and behaviours, what affects and effects, a humanitarian moral code engenders, one has to try to understand these men at various levels of governmental structures as complex individuals with varying capacities in a world of dynamic social relations that they only partially comprehended and controlled, but sought to improve, in the process raising their self-esteem and the esteem in which they were held by others.

The book emphasizes the importance of the sequential locations of its main ‘characters’, and by picking up on Doreen Massey’s idea of ‘place’ as the juxtaposition of intersecting trajectories, highlights the fact that these mobile men of empire encountered differentially contrived sets of relations between Britons and ‘others’ in the colonies they administered.

It traces the genesis of humanitarian governance as it moved from the idea of  ‘emancipating’ and  ‘ameliorating’ the conditions of slaves in the West Indies through to ‘conciliating’  ‘protecting’ , and attempting to  ‘develop’ the indigenous peoples in the expanding British empire.  It focusses in particular on the Protectorates established as secular schemes in the Cape, Port Phillip and New Zealand, and the experience of the men working, often for the very noblest of motives, in a program- for Port Phillip at least-  that always had eventual assimilation and dispossession as its ultimate intention.

The book opens with Sir George Arthur, whose career took him from Honduras, to Van Diemens Land, to Canada and then India and then closes with another George- Sir George Grey, who career traversed South Australia, New Zealand and the Cape Colony.  Historians in these erstwhile colonies often have a very different ‘take’ on the slice of career spent in their homeland, and the nuanced approach in this book gives them a coherence not easily detected in colony-bound biographies.

I really enjoyed this book, and not just because it is right in my area.  Many of the chapters have been published in article-form in different journals, and I enjoyed having them integrated into a single text like this.  It was easy to read, and the interweaving of observations about current-day humanitarianism was insightful.  Once again, it’s damned expensive in both hard cover and even in e-book form ($65A), so it’s one for the  academic libraries, I guess.  A shame really, because I think its appeal could well stretch further than that.