Monthly Archives: June 2012

‘Constance: The Tragic and Scandalous Life of Mrs Oscar Wilde’ by Franny Moyle

2011, 328 p

Look carefully at the cover of this book, because in many ways the cover sums up the challenge of writing this book.  Constance (Mrs Wilde) has often been relegated to a bit part in the much more flamboyant story of Oscar Wilde.  This biography is about her, in her own right, but even in the marketing of it, the name ‘Oscar Wilde’ dominates.  Look, too, at the picture of the family.  It is actually two photographs combined.  The photograph of Constance with her older  son, Cyril, was taken in 1889.  While it is a charming photograph, I was chilled throughout the book by the favourism that both Constance and Oscar showered on Cyril, at the expense of his younger brother Vyvyan who was about three at the time this photograph was taken.  It was, indeed, as if they had only the one child. Then, to the right of this artificially-compiled family portrait, is Oscar. I suspect (although I admit to not being absolutely sure) that this photograph was taken in 1892 .  If so, by this time, Oscar and Constance’s marriage was already under strain, with Oscar already enmeshed with Robbie Ross and he had already met, and been smitten with Bosie.

However, Constance did not linger at home alone in the shadows, as this book shows.  When she married Oscar, they formed what we would now call a celebrity couple, noted for their radical aesthetic tastes and pre-Raphaelite sensibilities.  Constance was a striking beauty.  She too wrote stories, and she was well-known for her adherence to the principles of the bohemian Rational Dress Society.  She had a number of strong female friendships, particularly with older women, and she thought nothing of packing her children off to stay with others- particularly the less-favoured Vyvyan- and vacationing with friends for months at a time.  Like many other late 19th century men and particularly women, she was attracted to Theosophy and spiritualism.  Moyle draws heavily on the correspondence between Constance and her brother Otto, and to her close friend Lady Mount-Temple with whom she often stayed.  Oscar is, of course, mentioned in these letters, but they are written to her own friends and relatives, not Oscar’s.

We all well know about the court case and Wilde’s imprisonment.  It’s well-trodden territory and yet Moyle is still bewildered by Constance’s easy encouragement of Wilde’s friendships with men, and again by Oscar’s erratic behaviour after his release from jail, especially in demanding money from Constance who had already been more than generous.  Moyle’s sympathies are very much with Constance, who despite changing her own and her children’s surname to “Holland” continued to love Oscar after his conviction, visited him in jail, and was equivocal about divorcing him although she gained a judicial separation from him eventually.  She died in April 1898 following surgery, anecdotally on her spine although it may have been gynecological, at the age of 42 and just over a year after Oscar had been released from prison.

The book cleared up one thing for me.  In Stephen Fry’s film ‘Wilde’ (and was ever a man born to play a part as this?), Oscar is shown visiting Constance’s grave on which is engraved ‘Wife of Oscar Wilde’. I commented while watching at the time that it was a brave statement to make, given Wilde’s broken reputation at the time.  In reality, Constance’s grave originally made no such claim.  It read instead ‘Here rests in peace Constance Mary, daughter of Horace Lloyd Q.C.’.  The inscription ‘Wife of Oscar Wilde’ was added in 1963 by her brother’s descendants.  I have mixed feelings about it, and I wonder how she would have felt about the omission in the first place, and its reinstatement many years later.

My rating: 8.5 /10

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library

Read because: It interested me.

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‘Islands in the Clouds: Travels in the Highlands of New Guinea’ by Isabella Tree

1996, 256 p.

I must admit that I’ve never really understood the appeal of the travel-book genre but this was the selection for my face-to-face bookgroup this month. Just as I would entreat my children “Just a little taste…”, so too I had to be nudged into reading this book, but just like broccoli, it wasn’t too bad after all- in fact I quite enjoyed it.

The book itself is a compilation of three different journeys to New Guinea: the first in 1986, the second in 1991 and the epilogue in 1993. The author tries as much as possible to erase herself from the narrative.  We do not know why she is there, what her expectations are, and what other experiences she brings to her observations.  The fact that she is a young woman traveling alone into remote and partially traditional tribal homelands is largely left unremarked, and the trips she describes are not lengthy at all- each one lasting barely a week.

Her travel companion for much of her journey was Akunia, an Eastern Highlander man, who had had a Western education, courtesy of various aid and diplomatic  schemes. Over the years he had been involved in both local politics and development projects, and he provided another lens through which to view the places and events they encountered.  However, the author soon realized that Akunia’s expertise was largely limited to his own local region: once they moved the Western highlands, and even further into Irian Jaya, he was almost as much of a stranger as she was.  Perhaps even more so, because he knew enough to be apprehensive, and was at various times frightened, racist and dismissive.

In crossing into Irian Jaya (West Papua), they were indeed entering another country, and were not allowed to forget it.  All entry was by air only and under heavy border scrutiny.  However, once they moved away from the Indonesian-dominated coastal area into the highlands of West Papua, the tribal people were both amazed and delighted to find commonalities in customs and appearance between themselves and Akunai, a rare venturer from the other side of the border.  She makes no secret of her uneasiness over the Indonesia domination- and I believe that there is much to be uneasy about.

Her criticisms of the rapaciousness of the mining companies rang even more true for me having witnessed the ruthlessness of the mining lobby here in Australia against a democratically- elected, first-world government. A young democracy, wobbly on its feet, wouldn’t stand a chance.  Akunai and the author both share an ambivalence over the inevitability of consumerism and ‘progress’ at all levels: cultural, spiritual, environmental.  The violence, it seems, abated under the influence of missionaries, but there too is another conundrum.  I found myself reading the newspaper reports about the commencement of their election process this week with more interest than I would have previously.

The book is well-written and very easy to read.  It had a good useful map at the start, which would have been even more useful had her journey been marked on it. She integrated pidgin into her chapter headings and within the dialogue of the book, and although she provided a glossary, I found myself able to work it out for myself if I spoke it out loud.

So- this book, published under the  the Lonely Planet imprint, was a pleasant surprise really. Not enough, however, to tempt me northwards…

My rating:  7/10

Sourced from: CAE

Read because: it was the June selection for my face-to-face bookgroup

Earthquakes in Melbourne

The big news here in Melbourne is that last night we experienced an earthquake measuring 5.3 in magnitude, the largest in 100 years.

The Port Phillip Herald of 11 June 1841 reported an earthquake too:

On Sunday last, during the hours of divine service, a rumbling noise was heard in the earth, supposed to be the forerunner of an earthquake.  In the church it was distinctly heard, and the congregation alarmed; also in several parts of the town, giving rise to various speculations upon the subject.

And well might they speculate. Seismology as a discipline was at a rudimentary stage, with the development of monitoring equipment still some decades in the future. The good people of Port Phillip in 1841, who had only been settling in substantial  numbers since 1835, were not to know whether this new frontier was earthquake-prone or not. On the other hand, perhaps it was just a rattling good sermon…

‘The Caribbean’ by Gad Heuman

2006, 184 p. & notes

This is the second short history of the West Indies that I have read- so any comments I make about this book will be in reference to a grand total of TWO books!  However, reading two similar books within a short period of time does allow some comparisons to be made, and the very act of comparison highlights the differences in approaches that can be utilized in writing a short history.

This book forms part of a “Brief Histories” series published under the Hodder Education umbrella. Other books in the series cover Modern Greece, Czechoslovakia and Eastern Europe 1939-2000. I strongly suspect that it has been written as an undergraduate introductory text by its layout, level of generality and in the reference section which is divided at a chapter level into primary and secondary sources.

The Perry, Sherlock and Maingot book that I reviewed earlier focused on  political and economic forces, particularly those emanating from Europe, and their effect on the West Indies.  They highlighted the island nature of the West Indies, and heavily emphasized the maritime nature of the West Indian economy, and the place of the Caribbean within the jostling for naval supremacy between empires.   This book is almost a polar opposite.  It focuses on the topography of land on these islands, rather than the seas that separate them, and is largely a social history of the plantation system and the slave and coloured community that arose in response.

It is, of course, a far more recent book than Perry et al , which came out in first edition in 1956.  Recent scholarship is reflected in Heuman’s book in terms of indigenous people, resistance, agency and women. He devotes a chapter to  the Tainos people, the Amerindian people who moved to the Caribbean c 2000 BC to establish a relatively sophisticated, hierarchical agricultural society- a group largely dismissed in a couple of pages in Parry et al’s book.  Heuman highlights the resistance to plantation conditions and the apprenticeship system conceded grudgingly in the wake of the abolition of slavery, especially among women.  This book explores the nuances of colour, especially among the Free Coloureds who, despite the legal equality with whites  granted just prior to the abolition of slavery, always found the social and economic  line between slave and coloured more permeable than that between coloured and white.

The book does not have a strict chronological order, and it takes the Caribbean as a whole rather than carving out separate French, Spanish and Dutch spheres of influence.  As Heuman notes in the preface:

All these territories have experienced similar histories of slavery, colonialism and exploitation and share a common history, despite their linguistic cultural and geographic differences (p. xii)

He argues that although they developed at different times and under different European powers, slave societies in the Caribbean followed a similar trajectory.  What happened in Barbados was repeated in Jamaica and Saint Domingue (Haiti) in the 18th century, and Cuba and Puerto Rico in the 19th century.  Likewise, the planter class structure was largely replicated across different settings, despite the different nationalities represented.

Slavery, emancipation, resistance and revolution take up the body of the work, and form the narrative skeleton of the book.  I must admit to skim reading the latter parts of the book dealing with the twentieth century,  which  in terms of page numbers alone is less detailed than the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.  The book draws on primary sources and visual representations as a way of providing a far more human perspective than Parry et al’s book.  It does not particularly engage with the historiography of the Caribbean, beyond the fairly recent challenge to Eric Williams’ reappraisal of slavery and abolition through his Capitalism and Slavery published in 1944.

There are only limited footnotes in each chapter, although a ‘further reading’ list is provided at chapter level as well as a more general bibliography.  And it has a beautiful, clear, well-labelled map!


‘Blood’ by Tony Birch

2011, 264 p.

Every Friday night we settle down in front of the TV for the ABC Friday night splatter-fest.  I’m usually quite nonchalant about the gore except when it depicts eyeballs (a long standing phobia), torture and violence to or about children.  These things are likely to propel me out of my chair to quickly escape to the kitchen to make a ‘hot drink’, calling out “Is it over yet?” before I return.

Reading about (as distinct from watching) torture and violence about children upsets me too.  I found Rocks in the Belly a difficult read, and while it’s not so much about violence to a child (mmm…maybe?), it seems that most people who have confronted the book  We Need to Talk About Kevin shudder at the thought of watching the movie as well.

Blood by Tony Birch fits into this category as well.  It is told from the perspective of  a thirteen year old boy, who along with his younger half-sister, is falling through the welfare and schooling gaps largely through the weakness of his drunken, dissolute mother Gwen.  They move between caravan parks, motels and sleeping in the car, ricocheting between country towns, cities and states as Gwen takes up with one dropkick after another.  There is a brief hiatus of normality when she dumps the kids with her  own father, himself a recovering alcoholic with the rigidities and stripped-down asceticism of a life dominated by poverty and AA meetings.    “Is it realistic that two kids could be so invisible to the authorities like this?” I asked Mr Resident Judge who knows about such things.  Ah yes, he replied.  The  transience opens up too many questions that are too hard to address. Should these children be taken into care? Are they being abused? (I think I’d answer ‘yes’ to both questions)

Birch sustained the voice of thirteen year old Jesse well, with short sentences and a mixture of naivete and knowing too much.  You sense that Jesse is turning, no longer pretending that he doesn’t know how his mother earns her money, and becoming hardened to the wrecks of masculinity that she is drawn to. It is only his sister Rachel who anchors him.  There’s a lot of dialogue in the book, and it would transfer well onto the screen.  The descriptions of  blasted, tawdry broken-down landscape are  evocative- rather too evocative.  It’s a little bit like the world of Tim Winton’s ‘The Turning’, viewed from a child’s perspective.

Jesse and Rachel see ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ at a theatre (a rather implausible scenario- surely a late night cable movie in one of the tatty motel rooms that they’d been left in would have been more likely?)  Birch uses the film as a motif, and the two children draw comfort from the characters of Jem and Scout.  But Gwen is certainly no Atticus, and this book has little of the redemption or sense of community in TKAM.   I’m not sure whether the allusion to the movie adds much to Birch’s narrative: while it throws up a strong contrast, there is an element of riding on the coat-tails of a much more nuanced book as well. There is the theme of blood, too, from which the book draws its title: the shared blood of commitment, the blood of  family ties, and the blood of violence.  And yet another motif is the tarot cards that the feckless Gwen plays with, that provide as much (or little) direction as anything else in her life.

Despite the plaiting together of these motifs, there’s nothing tricksy about this book.  It is straightforward and simple, with few flashbacks and a single narrative voice.  I found myself wanting to know what happened, but I knew within one or two pages that it wasn’t going to end well.  I found it easy to put down after each of the five sections, and was almost reluctant to pick it up again because it was painful and raw.

It is short-listed for the Miles Franklin. While I reacted at an emotional level to the book- grief for these children, anger and an element of self-righteous disgust at their mother- I’m not really sure whether the book carries the complexity sufficient for the Miles Franklin.  And I cringe at the thought that it might represent ‘Australian Life in all its stages.’

My rating: 8/10

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library

Read because: It is short-listed for the Miles Franklin

‘All That I Am’ by Anna Funder

2011, 363 p.

No wonder this book is garnering award after award.  So far it has won the Indie Award Best Debut Fiction and Book of the Year Award, the Australian Book Industry Award for best literary novel and Book of the Year, the Barbara Jefferis Prize for “the best novel written by an Australian author that depicts women and girls in a positive way or otherwise empowers the status of women and girls in society”  and it has been shortlisted for the Miles Franklin and the Prime Ministers Prize .

This is Anna Funder’s first foray into fiction, but she does so with one foot still in the non-fiction camp.  Her earlier, much acclaimed non-fiction book Stasiland explored individual lives within the pervasive and intrusive panopticon of  East German communism.  This book traverses similar territory in a fictional mode by imagining the lives of real-life socialist dissidents who sought refuge outside Germany during  Hitler’s rise.  Ernst Toller, Dora Fabian, Hans Weserman, Berthold Jacob and Ruth Becker are all real-life historical characters, and indeed Funder herself knew, and was friends with, Ruth Becker (by then Ruth Blatt) in Sydney before her death in 2001.

But the book is most certainly fictional in terms of its structure and in its exploration of the emotional space of love, fear and betrayal.  It uses the device of two alternating narrators.  The first is the elderly Ruth in Sydney, whose memories of the 1930s are bleeding into her present-day life as an increasingly frail post-war immigrant who has had a successful career in teaching, but is sliding towards a lonely and regretful death.  A week earlier she had received a manuscript from an American university that had acquired a box of documents written by Ernst Toller, the poet, in 1939  that had been addressed to her.  The narrative swings between the present-tense description of an old woman in the drug-induced half world of pain and confusion, and the past-tense reminiscence evoked by this manuscript, received from a time fifty years earlier.

The second narrator is Toller himself, in 1939, in the act of writing that very same manuscript in a hotel room in New York.  His narrative, too, swings between the present-tense in describing the act of rewriting an earlier autobiographical manuscript to acknowledge the impact of Dora Fabian and other dissidents in his life, and the past-tense narrative that was to become the document delivered in Sydney  sixty years later.  He dictates to a young female notetaker, herself wracked with fear for her brother, marooned on the refugee ship the St Louis which was denied entry to Cuba, America and Canada.

This narrative quadruple act is complex, and throughout the book I found myself marvelling at how deftly she managed it.  I found her characters thoroughly convincing at the emotional level: in fact, it was only an epigraph by W. H. Auden that marked Part II that stopped me in my tracks with the realization that it was very much based on real-life people.  I resisted the temptation to rush off to Google the characters; indeed I have not yet done so (and probably will not do so) because I’m happy for them to exist in the rounded, fleshed out fictional form in my mind.  Somehow, to see them rendered into black-and-white again will flatten them somehow.  I note, however, that Simon Schama the historian in his review of the book in the Financial Times  felt that the “knottily knitted time line snags the narrative at every turn” and that there were “points where the research somehow clots the blood flow of the plot rather than transfusing it with vitality.”  Yet he suggested that the real-life Ruth’s later life story, which is sketched only briefly in Funder’s book, is even richer with fictional possibilities, thus wanting to draw her back to real-life again.  I don’t agree with him.  Schama warns that “the ball and chain of history can hobble the gait of the imagination if the novelist isn’t ruthless about knowing when to cut it loose” and yet I feel that Funder has been completely disciplined (in both senses of the word) by restricting her focus to the political and emotional claustrophobia of the time, instead of paying homage to the historical ‘afterwards’ of her real-life characters.

Yet her book is very much about the historical issue of memory and forgetting.  “I am a vessel of memory in a world of forgetting” says Ruth the narrator. “Most people have no imagination. If they could imagine the sufferings of others, they would not make them suffer so” wrote Ernst Toller. But as Ruth the narrator (and I suspect, Funder the author) says:

   Imagining the life of another is an act of compassion as holy as any….But Toller, great as he was, is not right.  It is not that people lack an imagination.  It is that they stop themselves using it.  Because once you have imagined such suffering, how can you still do nothing? (p. 358)

It is also a book about the weight of an individual against the wider scale of history.  At a personal level,  we grapple with our measure of those we love-

When you are in love with someone, you cannot see around them, you cannot get their human measure. You cannot see how someone so huge to you, so miraculous and unfathomable, can fit, complete, into that small skin. (p 150)

And yet we ourselves have to think about our own value in the world:

Though it is the hardest thing, to work out one’s weight and heft in the world, to whittle down all that I am and give it a value. (p. 299)

This is a beautifully written book, although there are the odd jarring notes.  The awkwardly introduced date of Toller’s narrative was clumsy and heavy-handed, and  I don’t think that she handled the authorial problem of bringing her two first-person narratives to a close very well because she had painted herself into a narrative corner.

But in other places, her descriptions are crystal sharp, as for example, in this description of a Weimar nightclub-

The doors of the TicTacToe opened into a floor-length leather curtain drawn against the cold.  We parted it.  The entry level was on a mezzanine; below us lay a vast, ornate room hollowed out into the earth.  I moved to the balcony rail.  Pools of light shone on a hundred tables, bright circles into which hands moved, gloved or ungloved, for a drink, to ash a cigarette, touch an arm.  The air was filled with trumpet notes and smoke, the chinking sounds of cutlery, laughter, something smashing at the upper bar.  At my shoulder a vase of lilies breathed, open-tongued.  P. 105

I’m not sure whether this book will win the Miles Franklin, even with the slightly widened criteria that allow an ‘Australian’ sensibility without necessarily being set in Australia.  I’m not sure that the Sydney section of the book is a sufficiently sturdy anchor to describe it as ‘Australian’, but I am not cynical enough to  think that the Australian section was included only with the Miles Franklin in mind.   It’s a beautifully written opening up of the imaginative space around real-life people, and it should be celebrated as such.

Read because: It is short-listed for the Miles Franklin Prize.  Also posted on the 2012 Australian Womens Writing Challenge

Sourced from: La Trobe University Library

My rating: 9/10

‘The Dutch Slave Trade 1500-1850’ by P.C.Emmer

2006, 153 p. & notes. Translated by Chris Emery.

One of the things that surprised me when looking at the history of slavery in the West Indies (and the map of Caribbean slavery I showed in a recent blogpost) was the involvement of  countries that I don’t readily associate with slavery or the West Indies for that matter-  Sweden and Denmark for example.  I was aware of the English, French and Spanish involvement, the long classical history of slavery, and the participation of Africans themselves, but I didn’t think of Scandinavian countries  which somehow seem so ‘white’ and Northern European.

In reading this book, it seems however, that the Dutch people themselves do not suffer any widespread moral malaise about slavery. As the author, P.C. Emmer of Leiden University writes:

The Netherlands was clearly guilty. Between 1600 and 1860, almost without exception, the Dutch allowed Africans to be bought and traded, and they would never have treated each other or any other Europeans in such a way.  Admittedly they share that guilt with some of their Europeans neighbours.  But, if we start from the premise that the Dutch, both past and present, see their country not just as any country but as a particularly moral and principled oasis in the middle of a wicked world, then their guilt has surely incurred a debt of honour. (p. 147)

This slim book examines the Dutch slave trade as a historical event, but the book itself is firmly located within the current historiography that deals with memory, commemoration and reparation.  In his foreword, the author mentions:

Incidentally, several scholarly observations about the slave trade have aroused high emotions in the past, as indeed have some conclusions in this book.  Twenty years ago I had to climb onto a table to make myself heard among students, who accused me of falsifying history and of being a reactionary and a racist. (p. ix)

In reading this book, I was reminded of the response to John Hirst’s Convict Society and its Enemies, a similarly punchy book.  Hirst argued that right from the planning stages of the First Fleet there were slippages in the intent and practice of New South Wales as a penal colony, and that the system had freedoms and rights designed into it from the start.  It’s a prickly argument to run: Hirst admitted that there were cases of brutality, but that the extreme had become seen as the norm, and that the historical record of a more prosaic, adaptable system had been obscured.   Likewise in this book, Emmer clearly states that slavery was wrong, but that it was never as large, politically influential, or financially lucrative as in other European countries.  For both historians, the major point is conceded, and rather than spending time reiterating it, the argument moves to the nuances of a more complex treatment.  It’s not so much down-playing, as moving to a different line of argument, but their opponents might see this as dismissal or special pleading.

Emmer points out that the Dutch used few slaves on their own holdings in the Dutch Antilles, which were not suited to large-scale plantation agriculture, or in what was to become New York. They first became involved supplying slaves, purchased in Africa from African slave traders, for the Spanish gold and silver mines, but this expanded over time to a market in supplying slaves sourced from the African slave-traders for the Dutch plantation colonies of Berbice, Essequibo, Demerara and Suriname.  The first three of these were later to become British Guiana in the territorial merry-go-round after the Napoleonic Wars (and hence my interest in them).

The middle part of this small book focuses on the trade itself: the crossing from Africa to the West Indies, then the nature of plantation slavery in the Dutch colonies.   However, unlike the English and French colonies, the West India Company and Dutch plantations were not profit-making enterprises, and formed only a marginal part of Dutch commerce.  When the end of slavery came, it was with a whimper because the trade itself was unsuccessful, and any reparations to slave-owners were easily covered by a system of forced-farming in Java, where villages were forced to pay a tax of coffee and sugar, thereby bolstering the coffers of the treasury in the Netherlands.

The relative economic insignificance of slavery to the Dutch economy (especially compared with the English situation) raises the question of why the Netherlands did not take a strong lead in the abolition of the slave trade, and then slavery itself.  The reality is that slavery did not end in the Dutch colonies until 1863, long after the other slave-trading European countries had done so, and that it was only English pressure that led to half-hearted acquiescence to the abolition of the slave trade in the early 19th century.  Emmer attributes this to a defensiveness on the part of Dutch politicians, who did not share the English openness to change but instead adopted a shield of conservatism and self-preservation.

Emmer locates the slave trade among other ‘debts of honour’ that the Netherlands owe- a phrase that he thinks particularly apposite given the Dutch emphasis on finance. These debts revolve around treatment of Dutch Jews during WWII; about actions in Indonesia; and the Dutch slave colonies.  He raises a number of difficulties to the question of reparations, but suggests instead that 1 July should be commemorated as the date in 1863 when slavery was finally abolished in Dutch colonies.

I have no idea how the politics of this plays out in the Netherlands, and how and if the situation has been complicated by the increase in far-right politics in Europe.  You can find a good review of this book, and Emmer’s response to the review at Reviews in History.     There’s also an article available here online that gives a taste of Emmer’s approach.