Some time ago, in reviewing Peter Cochrane’s book Colonial Ambition, I made an offhand reference to Margaret Kiddle’s book Men of Yesterday and had obviously intended writing a more considered post about Kiddle’s book at some later date. Now that I come to write about it, I find myself flicking through my reading journals that predate this blog (which has largely usurped their function) and I am surprised and regretful that I didn’t write an entry about it. It was a book that deeply affected me at the time and the only explanation I can think of for its omission is that I must have considered it ‘work’ reading as distinct from ‘leisure’ reading. I’m increasingly finding that there is no boundary between the two- I don’t know whether that’s a good thing or not!
Men of Yesterday is framed by the poignancy of the circumstances by which it posthumously reached publication. Its author, Margaret Kiddle was a tutor at the University of Melbourne, but described and downplayed herself as “not an academic”. She died of renal failure, after years of illness and a decade of dialysis, at the age of 44 with her manuscript finished but unrevised. She left for her literary executors (including Max Crawford and John Le Nauze) a list of what she saw as essential revisions and this note:
I guess this is just another ‘Melba farewell’ but if not-
Max, as you will be going to Wisconsin, I suggest that if he will, John takes over the revision.
John- I should be very grateful if you would do it for me.
Acknowledgements: The file correspondence and comments on notes will help you- don’t forget to thank yourselves!…This book has been finished in dramatic circumstances- for publicity purposes cash in on them as much as you like- it may earn some money! (cited in MacKellar, see below)
But this was no ‘Melba farewell’– it was the real thing, and the book needs no cashing in. Margaret Kiddle was proud of her pioneer ancestors, and the book is almost an act of love to the experiences of her forebears. It is a very human book and it has attracted its share of critique. As the pointedly-titled thesis What Kiddle forgot reminds us, aboriginal dispossession and women’s roles were kept in the background, and it has attracted (perhaps unfairly) a reputation as a book of its time and historiography.
I’ve been reunited with Margaret Kiddle through a beautifully written opening chapter in a book by Maggie MacKellar called Strangers in a Foreign Land. It has been generously- indeed rather TOO generously??- downloaded into Google Books and the opening chapter, at least, is a cracker. MacKellar describes her rediscovery of Kiddle’s work as part of her own project on the Niel Black diaries and the book that follows is an edited and interwoven transcription of Niel Black’s diaries. In her introductory chapter she reprises early Port Phillip and Western District history, interweaving it with Major Mitchell’s acclamation of Australia Felix as the culmination of his journey that started just several kilometres from her own home. She explains, as all historians experience and many (too many?) describe, the rush of emotions in dealing with primary documents, with her consciousness of what she is reading heightened by the elemental summer smell of bushfire that seeps into the cloistered space of the State Library reading room. Despite my own as yet unresolved feelings about historians’ use of themselves in the history they are telling, I have no such qualms about edited diaries and letters. It is in the historian’s interaction and shaping of the primary documents that the engagement with larger historical questions emerges: it is obtuse to pretend that the historian is not there reading, absorbing, making connections and talking back to the material.
Just from the extracts available online, this looks a beautifully presented book. Time, and an awareness that I am becoming distracted, prevent me from reading further, but the opening chapter is a delight in itself.
Kiddle, Margaret Men of Yesterday: A social history of the Western District 1834-1890 Melbourne, Melbourne University Press, 1961
MacKellar, Maggie Strangers in a Foreign Land: The Journals of Niel Black and Other Voices from the Western District, Carlton Vic., Melbourne University Publishing, 2008