Category Archives: Book reviews

‘Zoffany’s daughter’ by Stephen Foster


2017, 138 p & notes

It must be all those Dickens and Trolloppe BBC miniseries. When you’re reading 19th century colonial letters and newspapers, you’re often engulfed with a sense of deja vu. You’ve seen these dilemmas before; the characters feel familiar- you can even picture the the actor who’s going to depict them when it comes to television…

Except that this feeling of deja vu is an illusion. The past is not just “us in funny clothes” as Greg Dening once said. (Readings/Writings p. 209)  If we’re trying to make sense of people’s actions in the past, there is a whole web of constraints and sensibilities that are largely invisible to us if we’re just relying on imagination and common-feeling. Especially when we’re writing as historians, rather than novelists.

The historian’s methodological self-discipline is exemplified by Stephen Foster’s book Zoffany’s Daughter. As a historian, he encountered a newspaper article from 1825 about the Horne custody case on the Isle of Guernsey.  As he tells it:

 The report seemed irrelevant to the research I was then pursuing – yet I paused, intrigued by a narrative that appeared at once remote and familiar. …Indeed, stories about child custody disputes today seem all too familiar(p.2)

And it is an arresting little story.  After their marriage breakdown, the Rev. Thomas Horne agreed to his wife taking custody of two of his daughters, and paid their maintenance. However, he later changed his mind and demanded the return of his daughters. Cecilia Horne (nee Zoffany – hence the title) hid her youngest daughter Laura and refused to reveal her whereabouts.  This is the story of the case.

As Foster suggests in an epigraph “Most of this story is true.  So far as I know, none of it is false. Much of it is fiction”.  He’s right- if you counted up the pages, much of the book is turned over to the invented journal of Cecilia’s older daughter,  Clementina, who was not part of the court case because her father, after some consideration, allowed her to stay with her mother.  There was a Clementina Horne, but there was no journal. These pages are pure Foster, but as a historian, he operates within the constraints of those invisible sensibilities and the factual parameters of the time.

“Remote and familiar” is how the story appeared to him, and “remote and familiar” is the balance that a historian needs to keep. It’s a balance that Foster explores in reflective chapters that are interspersed throughout this book. In this regard, Foster is very much a present narrator. He strolls onto the stage in these reflective chapters in the first person to discuss various elements of the historiographical challenge.  These are discussed more as discursive, personal, writerly challenges, rather than academic ones. The nature of gossip and its influence on the written record, for example, makes no mention of Kirsten McKenzies’ Scandal in the Colonies, a highly pertinent resource. In his chapter ‘On history and pictures’ he discusses the attempts to find a likeness of Cecilia Zoffany within his self-portraits and portraits of his family.  His chapters ‘On the history of child custody’ and ‘On the rule of law’ explain the colonial law about divorce and custody in operation at the time, and the distinctiveness of Guernsey law.  Methodologically, the most important chapter is ‘On small history’ where he defends the use of microhistory to illuminate a broader picture, pointing to the well-known examples of Ginsburg’s The Cheese and the Worms, Natalie Zemon Davis’s The Return of Martin Guerre (neither of which I have read, I must confess) and Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie’s excellent Montaillou (which  I have read).

One of the things that Foster does very well was to capture the differences between Guernsey law and society, and the English context which we think we know through Trollope and Dickens.  The French influence was deep-seated, and anti-Catholicism was more nuanced. On the other hand, I don’t know whether Foster gave enough emphasis on the rarity of a situation where a father would grant not only custody but maintenance as well to his estranged wife.  Fathers – or their extended family – kept the children if they wanted them, full stop. Foster acknowledges that the court case split the small Guernsey community, but I think that his sympathies are rather too strongly with the mother, Cecilia.  However, he has the humility to leave judgments about the significance of the case, its lessons (if any) for modern custody cases and the effect on the child to the reader.  Perhaps this is the 21st writer speaking, rather than the historian.

This is a self-published volume, which is an interesting choice by an academic historian, although Foster has also published with Pier9 (a Murdoch company).  Certainly his thanks extend to other well-known historians (Michael McKernan, Alan Atkinson) and the blurb from Ann Curthoys, the author of Is History Fiction? is well-chosen.  I was delighted to find full colour plates interspersed throughout the text, capturing well the Guernsey location at the time, and emphasizing Mrs Cecilia Horne’s connection with her painter father Johan Zoffany.

I was also really pleased to find that the notes at the back made clear the sources and documentary basis of his work as a historian in the book.  I’m sometimes uneasy, I must admit, with ‘creative non-fiction’ and the blurring of lines between history and fiction.  I appreciated Foster’s straightforwardness about what was invented, and what was not.  For me, it’s only when the author has signalled their awareness of the distinction, that I can really relax. And relax I did, with this book, and I was genuinely interested to find out what happened in the end, and satisfied with the fidelity of the ending.

Source: review copy courtesy of the author

My rating: 8.5



‘Anything is Possible’ by Elizabeth Strout


2017, 254 p.

The front cover of this book announces that it is “From the author of My Name is Lucy Barton“. That’s important, because the books are matching parts of the same scenario: the famous Lucy Barton has written a highly acclaimed book.  In My Name is Lucy Barton, which I reviewed here, Lucy the author is lying in hospital and her estranged mother comes to visit her. They speak past each other, rather than to each other, about the past and much is left unsaid.

In Anything is Possible, the back story is filled in. The events referred to obliquely which strike either Lucy or her mother dumb in My Name is Lucy Barton, are explored here in a series of tangentially linked short-stories. As with Olive Kitteridge (which I reviewed here) there are references between one story and another, and it’s as if a network map is being created here of small-town life in Amgash, Illinois. It’s about exclusion, regret, loneliness and willed blindness, and the inexorable march of one day after another.

The stories stand in their own right, but they’re more enjoyable for having read Lucy Barton beforehand. But there is of course a synergy between the two books, and the technique is very Kitteridge-esque, and I do wonder if Elizabeth Strout is going to break and do something different soon.

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library

My rating: 8/10

‘Six-Bob-a-Day Tourist’ by Janet Morice


1985,  86p.

It didn’t take long for Thomas Gardner of  117 George Street East Melbourne to enlist in what was to become  the Great War. Due to the time difference, news of Britain’s declaration of war reached Australia on the same day that it was made (5 August 1914). Just three weeks later, Thomas Gardner, aged 33, had joined the AIF, E Company, 7th battalion as one of the ‘Six Bob-a-Day Tourists’, the deprecating term given to the highly paid Australian soldier, whose generous pay outstripped that of many working men at home and the soldiers of allied countries.  Without wanting to diminish it in any way,  Tom’s story ticks all the WWI narrative features that have come to be associated with ‘our ANZACs’ : sent out to the Training Camp in Broadmeadows; the sea voyage; waiting around in Egypt; Gallipoli; Lone Pine; France; hospital in England; back to France; sent home; discharged on grounds of ill-health; dead.  You can read about Thomas Gardner’s war and see pictures of him at the National Anzac Centre website.

I was attracted to reading this book not so much for Tom’s story on the front, but for the interactions with his family back home.  Tom had been rather peripatetic in the years leading up to the war, travelling from town to town as a wood-turner, but he returned often to 117 George Street to visit his mother, sisters Mabel, Adeline and Edith, and niece Cecily and nephew Guy.  His widowed sister Mabel re-married in June 1914, just before war was declared.  She had matriculated from PLC, and after returning to Melbourne following her first husband’s death after just four years of marriage, worked as a secretary, learned Esperanto, and was involved in debating and literary societies.

As Morice notes:

Two months after their wedding, war was declared, and at home the verbal battles raged. Tom was a volunteer and his mother and two of his sisters took the patriotic stance. Mabel and [husband] Will, however, took the opposite view. Will did not volunteer partly because he had just married, but mainly because he and Mabel were both pacifists (p.45)

Mabel and Will were drawn to the lectures and anti-war stance of Dr Charles Strong of the Australian Church.  Mabel, and her childhood friend Eleanor Moore, were present at the inaugural meeting of the Sisterhood for International Peace at the Russell Street Australian Church, and became the correspondence secretaries for the Sisterhood. She also joined the Free Religious Fellowship, an organization with a literary base that included Vance and Nettie Palmer, Louis Essen, Frank Wilmot (Furnley Maurice) and Alan Villiers.  It was headed by Mr Frederick Sinclaire, the former minister of the Unitarian church in East Melbourne.  She used her elocution skills by lecturing on pacifism for the Peace Movement, and hosted sewing groups and letter-writing and pamphlet-printing sessions at her home in East Melbourne. During the conscription debates she attended meetings and marches for anti-conscription.

Her mother and sisters, as strong patriots, disapproved of her political activism but how did her brother Tom – serving in the same way that she was protesting-  feel about this anti-war political involvement? In a letter from November 1916, after the conscription proposal had been defeated, he wrote that he was sorry that politics had led to tension between Mabel and her sister Adeline:

I was very glad to see Hughes’s proposal ousted….If conscription had been carried, goodness knows where it would have stopped.  And you can tell Addie this- that were I a married man in Australia (I am not speaking of Belgium or France) and had children who were depended on me, I would not deem it my duty to enlist until every eligible single male had gone… Re your conscription remarks.  You are very violent, my dear, peace-loving sister.  Well, let me lower “me breff” while I tell you that a fellow named Tom who lived at 117 George Street, East Melbourne, also voted ‘No’. And he knew a lot of other fellows, who knew a couple of thousand other fellows who voted ‘No.’ So I’m blest if I know.  (p. 55)

This book features only Tom’s letters, not those sent by his family.  The book is organized chronologically, with the focus on Tom’s war, intersected by Mabel’s peace activities back home. Through Tom’s letters, we see him becoming increasingly disillusioned by the war, until by June 1918, at the age of 38 he described himself as “so nervy I can’t bother about anything.”  You just know that this is not going to end well.

At only 85 pages, this is not a long book, and it rattles along at a pace.  It combines imagined scenes with excerpts from Tom’s letters, illustrations, and contextual information.  The author,  the grand-daughter of Mabel, has rather delicately omitted the details of Tom’s encounter with venereal disease which is mentioned on the National Anzac page, and as a reader you can sense her sympathy for both Tom and Mabel.

The book is not easily available today, and you’ll need to turn to secondhand sellers if you want to find it.  It puts a very human face on WWI, and it complicates the image we have of the family left ‘at home’.  Family members could love and grieve for their ‘boy’ overseas, and they could campaign for peace back home as well. Some family members expressed their love through patriotism; others through fighting to put an end to war.


This is my first review for 2018 for the Australian Women Writers Challenge.

‘East West Street’ by Phillipe Sands


2016, 389 p & notes.

You’ve always wanted to read a book about the philosophical differences between the crimes of ‘genocide’ and ‘crimes against humanity’, haven’t you? No? Ah- but you should and you should read this book in particular.

The author Philippe Sands is an international lawyer who has appeared in all the big international courts: the European Court of Human Right and the International Criminal Court.  He acted as counsel for Australia in its case against whaling in the Antarctic, and for the Philippines in its recent case against China in the South China Sea. He’s spoken out against torture and for refugee rights.

But in this book, he is also a historian as well as a lawyer.  In a narrative rather reminiscent of an extended ‘Who Do You Think You Are’ he is impelled initially by curiosity about his grandfather, Leon. He had received an invitation to speak at a university in Lviv, a Polish town which had changed its name from Lemberg under the Austro-Hungarian Empire; to Lwow as part of newly independent Poland; Lovov when occupied by the Soviets in WWII; Lemberg against under Nazi occupation, and then Lviv when it became part of Ukraine, the name by which it is known today.  He knew that his grandfather Leon had been born in Lemberg in 1904, but little else.

However, his grandfather was not the only person known to him who was born in Lemberg. Hersch Lauterpacht, professor of international law was born in 1897 in the small town of Zolkiew, a few miles from Lemberg, and Rafael Lemkin, prosecutor and lawyer shifted to Lwow from Bialystock in 1921 as a 21-year old. These two men- Lauterpacht and Lemkin- attended the same law lectures by the same professors, but each developed diametrically opposed philosophies about international law. Lauterpacht developed the principle of ‘crimes against humanity’, rooted in individual rights and offences committed against individual men and women. In contrast, Lemkin developed the concept of ‘genocide’, rooted in the rights of groups, where the intention is to annihilate the population or community from which those individuals spring.   Both these concepts emerged in the Nuremberg Trials, attended by both Lauterpacht and Lemkin, when Hans Frank, the Nazi-appointed Governor General of Poland, faced trial.

The book, then, traces mainly through the lives of these three men: grandfather Leon, Lauterpacht and Lemkin. The setting is Lemberg/Lviv , drawn through a fine-grained, street-by-street analysis, most particularly during Governor General Frank’s period in office, when as Nazi henchman he announced the extermination of the Jews in Poland. Woven through these stories are those of other lesser characters:  Miss Tilney of Norwich who organized the rescue of Jewish children into England ;The Man in a Bow Tie – a shadowy character involved with his grandmother; The Child Who Stands Alone – a mystery reference in a letter; and The Girl Who Chose Not to Remember, one of Leon’s nieces. The narrative switches back and forth, with Sands telling of his ‘Who Do You Think You Are’ encounters with descendants and documents, interwoven with a historical account based on archival sources both personal and governmental.  There are black and white pictures throughout the text, embedded in the narrative right where they are most relevant.

The book starts and finishes with the Nuremberg Trials, and here Sands writes as a lawyer, but in thoroughly accessible language.  You may not believe me, but he is able to write about the Trials that underlines their novelty, tension and the uncertainty of both approach and outcomes.  I was perplexed at first to see that John Le Carre had written a blurb for the front cover of the book, but having finished the book, I can see why.  It’s a damned good read that keeps you turning the pages.

I can’t speak highly enough of this book, which won the 2016 Baillie Gifford prize (the re-badged Samuel Johnson Prize).  It draws together personal story-telling, historical narrative and legal analysis seamlessly, and is quite frankly, one of the best books I’ve read in ages.

‘In the Shadow of Gallipoli’ by Robert Bollard


2013, 224 p.

I know that historians often get railroaded into a title for their book by marketing-oriented publishers, and I can’t help thinking that the title of this 2013 book was chosen with one eye on the then-upcoming centenary of Gallipoli in April 2015. There is, in fact, very little about Gallipoli in it at all. The content is far better conveyed by the sub-title ‘The hidden history of Australia in World War I’.  Although even that isn’t particularly accurate either, because much of what is written in this book is not ‘hidden’ at all: Jauncey covered much of it in 1935 and Ernest Scott (available online) covered the rest the following year in his Volume 11 of the Official History of Australia in the War of 1914-1918.

Nonetheless, given the hoopla which surrounded Gallipoli in 2015,  it was important that there be a corrective to the view that the whole of Australia wanted to rush off to fight on foreign fields and the equally erroneous idea that Gallipoli was the ‘birth of a nation’.  This book is an eminently readable counter-balance, aimed at a general audience, that examines the division and acrimony at home in Australia during the war.

There are eight chapters, titled with a quote and descriptor.

  1. ‘To the last man and the last shilling’: Patriotism triumphant
  2. ‘If you want the 44-hour week, take it!’: The strike wave begins
  3. ‘Wherever green is worn’: Irish discontent
  4. ‘I will curse the British Empire with my dying breath’: The first conscription referendum
  5. ‘Fifteen years for fifteen words’: The empire strikes back
  6. ‘Solidarity for ever’: The Great Strike of 1917
  7. ‘We’ll burn the town down!’: The second referendum
  8. ‘Plunge this city into darkness’: The peace turns ugly.

It seems to me that historians write about Australia during the war through a prism which, while recognizing other contemporaneous influences, hones in on one particular focus.  Judith Smart focuses on women; Jauncey focuses on pacifists; McKernan on mainstream churches, and here Bollard picks up on the unions in particular. Chapter 2 takes readers back to the ‘working man’s paradise’, the Harvester judgment and arbitration. He refers in many places to the Broken Hill – or as he terms it the ‘Barrier’ -miners, and his chapter on the Great Strike is probably the strongest in the book. I liked the final chapter, too, where he examines the role of returned soldiers in the strikes that exploded during the wars immediately following the war.

With the focus on unions and resistance, this is a very political book, with few individuals (other than politicians) stepping forward to centre stage.  It is a book of organizations more than people, drawn from newspaper reports and government files.  His reference list is fairly dated, and women don’t get that much of a look-in here, other than as part of a crowd, and there are no families.

But what he does really well is tell a good story. The narrative is chronological, it is very clearly written, and it’s a seductively easy read. It’s a good antidote to the hefty, celebratory WWI books with big single-word titles that have burdened the nation’s bookshelves over the past few years.

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library (e-book)

Read because: in preparation for my talk to Heidelberg Historical Society on the conscription referendums of 1916 and 1917.


‘Neither Power Nor Glory’ by Paul Strangio


2012, 392 p.

I was too young to vote at the 1972 Federal election that brought Gough Whitlam to power. Until Gough came along, it seemed to me that politicians were always grey men in hats, exemplified for me by Arthur Calwell, Whitlam’s longstanding predecessor, who seemed to come from a political gloom that seemed to have stretched for decades.  As the daughter of a small business owner, but with much more progressive tendencies than my parents, I would not have dreamed of voting Labor at either federal or state level until the 1970s.  I didn’t  like Calwell, and at state level I didn’t particularly like Clyde Holding (1967-77) either.

While reading this history of the Victorian political Labor Party, written by Paul Strangio, the vision of the grey men in hats came back to me in all their depressing drabness. The author unashamedly wears his Labor sympathies, but it’s not at all a triumphalist history.

Instead, it’s a rather sad one. Even during 1914-5, during the first months of World War I and a high point of Labor Party influence, Victoria was the only state not to have a Labor government. Even though Victoria is often now viewed as the most progressive state in Australia (along with ACT), the Labor party in Victoria has had a chequered and ruptured history.

Although this book starts in 1856, the date of Victoria’s independence from New South Wales, things only start to hot up in the 1890s when Labor members began being elected to the Victorian parliament, albeit in very small numbers.  For the early years of Victorian Labor’s history, there was not a great deal to distinguish the Labor party from the relatively progressive Deakinite Liberal party (a situation that I suspect might occur today should former Liberal premier Rupert Hamer miraculously rise from the grave).

Much of the shuffling in the first 40 years of the 20th century involved the balancing of power between Labor, the Nationalist/Liberal Party, and the Country Party.  The first Labor government lasted all of 13 days in 1913 while the Liberal party patched up a split in its ranks.  In 1924 a Labor government took power with Country Party support, and this time it lasted from June until November, at which point the Country Party again reconciled with the Nationalists, and together they defeated Labor in the Legislative Assembly. Nonetheless, in that small window of government, the Labor party extended assistance to unemployed workers, called Royal Commissions into the police strike of 1923 and the prices of bread and flour, and was involved in the soldier settlement scheme.

There was a brief minority Hogan Labor government in 1927-8 and another minority victory in 1929 when, quite frankly, no-one really wanted to be in government anyway as the Depression loomed. The United Australia Party won the 1932 election, and then there was another little mini-Government headed by John Cain Snr in 1943 that lasted four days- again, until the ructions between the conservative parties sorted themselves out yet again. Cain had a second stint as premier in 1945, but could get little legislation through either house, where he held a minority position. It was not until 1952 that Cain could form his third government. Although he was again hampered by the Legislative Council, he managed to get through progressive legislation in a range of areas. But by then, the Labor party split over the influence of the Communist Party again condemned the ALP to decades in opposition – until 1982 in fact, when John Cain Jnr. won government.

In between these tussles for parliamentary control, and quite apart from being a bystander to conservative party powerplays,  there were two other internal struggles that kept the Labor party roiling.  The first was the influence of  businessman and underworld figure John Wren, referenced in the title of this book Neither Power Nor Glory, which of course alludes to Frank Hardy’s barely fictionalized story of political machinations with the Labor Party, Power Without Glory.  Then there was the split itself over the question of Communist influence in the unions, and Santamaria’s Movement and the formation of the Democratic Labor Party, which by combining with the Liberals, kept Labor in opposition for so long.

This book is full of names and acronyms, and the text is fairly dense. Nonetheless, even though I only intended reading it up until the 1916/17 referendums, it captured my interest sufficiently that I happily read until the end.  As you might expect, it is a very political book, and unless you had an interest in politics, I think you’d find it heavy going.   It’s also a book that absolutely cries out for a list of acronyms at the front.   I found myself using the index a lot, particularly the entries for each year, which acted as a form of timeline.

It’s a fascinating and rather depressing story of the perils of minority government and the tragedy of internal splits.  Paul Strangio spoke about the book at the Royal Historical Society back in 2013, and you can get access his lecture through RHSV’s podcast page (and find some other good podcasts while you’re there!)

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library

Read because: I was initially interested in the WWI section, but then kept on reading.

Rating: 8 (but it won’t be to everyone’s taste)


‘Tales from a Broad: An Unreliable Memoir’ by Fran Lebowitz BUT BEWARE!


2004, 346 p.

Well, that’s five hours wasted, never to come my way again.

I read an interview conducted with Fran Lebowitz in the Age. Apparently she’s coming out to Australia, and I liked the sound of her sardonic humour. “A modern day Dorothy Parker” they said.  So I looked up the library catalogue and they had one book by Fran Lebowitz. I borrowed it.

What a mistake – on all levels.  A mistake to borrow it.  A mistake to persevere with such a vapid, self-absorbed book. A mistake not to ditch it and move onto something more enjoyable or uplifting or educational or worthy.  And worst of all: it wasn’t even THE Fran Lebowitz!

The plot (huh!): A New York literary agent and her husband shift to Singapore for his job, which was initially for a three-month stint, but extended into a three-year undertaking. Fran and Frank are absorbed into the expatriate community there, where they grapple with maids and sit around pools and bars drinking and gossiping.  Colonialism is alive and well….

It’s too silly to write any more. I feel robbed, on all levels.

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library e-book

Read because: I made a mistake

My rating: 2/10