Category Archives: E-readers

Uplifting Quotes for the Uninspired Historian #10

It is hard to think away out of our heads a history which has long lain in a remote past but which once lay in the future.

F.W. Maitland ‘Memoranda de Parliamento (1893) in Selected Essays (Cambridge University Press, 1936) p. 66

F. W. Maitland– now where have I heard that name before? I’m only too well aware of how limited my knowledge is of ‘older’ historians, but the name seemed familiar. I have been reading about Sir Peregrine Maitland in Upper Canada and I thought that perhaps I had the two mixed up.  But then I realized that a picture of F. W. Maitland was on the cover of the conference program at the legal history conference I attended at Cambridge a few weeks ago- in fact, he was the Downing Professor of the Laws of England at Cambridge between 1888-1906.  That surprised me: the quote above seems somehow more reflective and almost postmodern than I would have expected from a 19th century legal historian.

F.W. Maitland was a philosopher at heart, who went into the law for largely pragmatic reasons  and came to history rather late in his prolific, but rather short, academic career.  At the age of 25, and as part of his quest to earn a Trinity Fellowship  he wrote and self-published a treatise called ‘A Historical Sketch of Liberty and Equality as Ideals of English Political Philosophy from the Time of Hobbes to the Time of Coleridge’.   Much of his academic work elaborated on this foundation, whereby he unearthed, transcribed and commented on the broad sweep of English law, right back to Roman and Anglo-Saxon law.  From this he developed a sweeping vision of social relations and modernity both in Britain and the Anglo-world, and on the Continent.   While solidly a records-based historian, grappling with legal, highly technical documents, his works revolve around the larger philosophy of ideas exemplified by de Tocqueville, Adam Smith, Montesquieu and Marx. Although a prolific writer- over 5000 pages- much of his work was conducted in spite of ill-health through tuberculosis, and he died in 1906 at the age of fifty-six.

On the 4th January 2011  a memorial to him was placed in Poet’s Corner at Westminster Abbey, the only professional historian to be honoured in this way.   Quite apart from his interest in history and law,  and his clear, evocative writing, his approach to history itself speaks to me.  He was deeply conscious of the dangers of anachronism:

The history of law must be a history of ideas. It must represent, not merely what men have done and said, but what men have thought in bygone ages. The task of reconstructing ancient ideas is hazardous and can only be accomplished little by little.  If we are in a hurry to get to the beginning we shall miss the path. [… ]Against many kinds of anachronism we now guard ourselves. We are careful of costume, of armour and architecture, of words and forms of speech. But it is far easier to be careful of these things than to prevent the intrusion of untimely ideas. […]  ‘The most efficient
method of protecting ourselves against such errors is that of reading our history backwards as well as forwards, of making sure of our middle ages before we talk about the “archaic”, of accustoming our eyes to the twilight before we go out into the night.[…] Above all, by slow degrees the thoughts of our forefathers, their common thoughts about common things, will have become thinkable once more. F. W. Maitland, Domesday Book,  p. 356, p. 520

He knew the importance of starting in the right place to find the essence of the structure.

Too often we allow ourselves to suppose that, could we get back to the beginning, we should find that all was intelligible and should then be able to watch the process whereby simple ideas were smothered under subtleties and technicalities. But it is not so. Simplicity is the outcome of technical subtlety; it is the goal, not the starting point. As we go backwards the familiar outlines become blurred; the ideas become fluid, and instead of the simple we find the indefinite. F.W. Maitland, Domesday Book p. 9

References:

Alan Macfarlane (a renowned social anthropologist in his own right) F. W. Maitland and the Making of the Modern World. It’s downloadable as a PDF here and it displayed brilliantly on my e-reader- being able to read long PDFs in a book-like form without having to print off- now this is what an e-reader does really well.

A You-Tube video Alan Macfarlane lecturing on F.W. Maitland in 2001 in the Department of Social Anthropology, Cambridge University.  There’s no bells and whistles here- it’s just a straight out, softly-spoken, chalk and talk lecture that assumes familiarity with Maine, Montesquieu etc (an unfounded assumption in my case!) but it convey’s Macfarlane’s deep admiration of Maitland and the significance of Maitland’s work.

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‘The Mary Smokes Boys’ by Patrick Holland

2010, 239 p.

Rather odd name- The Mary Smokes Boys– until I realized that ‘Mary Smokes’ is the name of a country town in Queensland in which the book is set.  The author of this book, Patrick Holland, hails from Roma, inland of Brisbane in Queensland, and in writing this book, he combines his childhood hometown with that of Esk,  the fictional home of the comediennes The Kransky Sisters. In my head when reading this book, I thought of the cold nights of  Toowoomba and those small country towns with their single main street, dogleg railway line and strung-out fibro cottages that you pass on the Melbourne-Queensland run, where you think “But what on earth do people DO here?”

This book falls well within the Australian rural gothic genre- think Chris Womersley’s Bereft, Sonya Hartnett’s Surrender, Gregory Day’s The Patron Saint of Eels, Elizabeth Jolley’s The Well, Craig Silvey’s Jasper Jones  and Rosalie Ham’s The Dressmaker.  It has often been pointed out that the late 19th century literature that so much fed into our image of ourselves as Australians – the Henry Lawsons and Banjo Patersons- was often grounded in a rural setting, despite the fact that Australians then were heavily urbanized.  It’s still true- overwhelmingly Australians live in urban areas, and yet much of our literature is based on small-town life that somehow we feel as if we know, even if it’s just from the window of a car, driving through.

The sense of place and the slow, almost aimless pace of life in a small country town are captured well in this book.  It is in three parts, and it tells the story of Grey and his sister Irene who grow up in Mary Smokes with a shiftless and pathetic father after their mother dies in childbirth.  They are poor, limited, and largely defeated right from the start.  Their mother is a gaping absence in all their lives, and Grey and Irene’s brother/sister relationship develops over time from resentment, solicitude, dependence to eventually something that verges on the edge of  an unhealthy physicality.  The Mary Smokes Boys are the group of marginal, bored, similarly unmotivated boys who grow up in Mary Smokes, who drink too much and dabble in dodgy petty crime and work in dead-end and casual agricultural labouring jobs.  As might be expected in a Queensland town, there’s an aboriginal presence  with wary and unarticulate relationships between white and ‘half-caste’ boys who are connected by the intimacy of time and shared childhood experience.

The tone of the book is laconic- so much so that when big plot shifts occur, they are told in that same, slow, understated narrative voice.  Although events were foreshadowed for some time, as a reader I found myself having to re-read to make sure that something so big had actually happened. It was a pity, too, that big events were often marred by rather clichéd writing, right at the climax, with tears ‘burst[ing] from his eyes’, knives being driven into hearts, and clunky dialogue.

The real strength of the writing comes in the descriptions of landscape, weather and the slow pace of country life. For instance, there’s a description of an all-night shift in a country petrol station that unspools slowly, dreamlike, as travelers emerge out of the darkness of the highway and are swallowed up by it again.  As you read it, you know that at times you’ve been one of the customers passing through the fibro petrol station with its dried-out food and dog-eared magazines that Holland has described so well.

I read this book on my e-reader. It was reasonably priced for an e-book ($9.95), which is about the price that I think an ebook should be, instead of $20.00 which is the price they are asking for some other e-books.  However, I’m still not sure that I don’t read differently, and with less satisfaction, on the e-reader.  I wonder if somehow my sense of the pacing of a book is influenced by one page looking very much like the one that preceded it. I sense a lack of progress through the book, and I think that it’s because you can’t see the pages that you’ve read becoming thicker on the left hand side as you progress through the book.  It’s possible that my judgments about books read in this mode are negatively skewed as a result.

My rating: 7.5/10

Reason read: Australian Literature online bookgroup (even though I finished it long after everyone else)

‘Roughing it in the Bush’ by Susannah Moodie

When I first started thinking about expanding my thesis to include Upper Canada and British Guiana, I thought that I’d read a bit of Canadian literature to ease myself into it.  I asked around a bit and several people suggested Susanna Moodie and her sister Catharine Parr Traill.  To be honest, I hadn’t heard of either of them.

It’s strange jumping into another country’s history with as little background as I have.  I find myself wondering about parallel books in Australian history and literature- do they exist? have I read them? did I like them?  I expect that Roughing it in the Bush would be categorized as biography/autobiography/emigrant literature.  Emigrant literature was very important to Upper Canada which was consciously trying to attract as many British migrants as possible to bolster the British identity of the colony, which was challenged by the French/Canadians of Lower Canada to the right and the Americans from the south.  Was there such a thing in Australia, I wonder?  I can think of edited books of diaries and letters, but these are not necessarily crafted as literature (hmmm.)  Flipping through Project Gutenberg Australia, there are all those travel books like A Lady’s Visit to the Gold Diggings of Australia (never read it) or My Experiences in Australia: Being Recollections of a Visit to the Australian Colonies in 1856-7 (never read this one either) or this sounds good Cooee: Tales of Australian Life by Australian Ladies (and no, I haven’t read that either).   But I’m not really sure whether these qualify as emigrant literature- written specifically for people back home who are considering emigrating, as distinct from merely visiting, to Australia.

For this is what Roughing it in the Bush declares itself to be, right from the outset.  And a rather gloomy prognostication it is, too

In most instances, emigration is a matter of necessity, not of choice; and this is more especially true of the emigration of persons of respectable connections, or of any station or position in the world. Few educated persons, accustomed to the refinements and luxuries of European society, ever willingly relinquish those advantages, and place themselves beyond the protective influence of the wise and revered institutions of their native land, without the pressure of some urgent cause.

Emigration may, indeed, generally be regarded as an act of severe duty, performed at the expense of personal enjoyment, and accompanied by the sacrifice of those local attachments which stamp the scenes amid which our childhood grew, in imperishable characters, upon the heart. Nor is it until adversity has pressed sorely upon the proud and wounded spirit of the well-educated sons and daughters of old but impoverished families, that they gird up the loins of the mind, and arm themselves with fortitude to meet and dare the heart-breaking conflict.

The ordinary motives for the emigration of such persons may be summed up in a few brief words;–the emigrant’s hope of bettering his condition, and of escaping from the vulgar sarcasms too often hurled at the less-wealthy by the purse-proud, common-place people of the world. But there is a higher motive still, which has its origin in that love of independence which springs up spontaneously in the breasts of the highsouled children of a glorious land. They cannot labour in a menial capacity in the country where they were born and educated to command. They can trace no difference between themselves and the more fortunate individuals of a race whose blood warms their veins, and whose name they bear. The want of wealth alone places an impassable barrier between them and the more favoured offspring of the same parent stock; and they go forth to make for themselves a new name and to find another country, to forget the past and to live in the future, to exult in the prospect of their children being free and the land of their adoption great.

Susanna Moodie emigrated to Upper Canada with her husband John in 1832.  In the depression that followed the Napoleonic Wars, and as part of joint Colonial Office/local government encouragement of British immigration,  half-pay military officers were lured to Upper Canada on the promise of land grants.  This she saw as particularly unconscionable

A large majority of the higher class were officers of the army and navy, with their families–a class perfectly unfitted by their previous habits and education for contending with the stern realities of emigrant life. The hand that has long held the sword, and been accustomed to receive implicit obedience from those under its control, is seldom adapted to wield the spade and guide the plough, or try its strength against the stubborn trees of the forest. Nor will such persons submit cheerfully to the saucy familiarity of servants, who, republicans in spirit, think themselves as good as their employers. Too many of these brave and honourable men were easy dupes to the designing land-speculators. Not having counted the cost, but only looked upon the bright side of the picture held up to their admiring gaze, they fell easily into the snares of their artful seducers.

Certainly she and John were inexperienced, but it surprised me that at first they came into contact with several people who had emigrated to New South Wales for a couple of years, returned to England, then come across to Upper Canada.  I am aware of serial migration as a more recent phenomenon (I’m thinking here of Jim Hammerton’s work) but I hadn’t been particularly conscious of it for the 1820s and 1830s.   They were heavily reliant on their servants and in a small cabin they were forced into closer intimacy than they may have wanted.  I’d heard that Upper Canada had been denigrated as a place where gentlemen had to share their table with their servants, and that was certainly the case here.  Just as in Australia, there were complaints that servants were scarce, ‘uppity’ and too ready to seize their own opportunities in a new land.

The early part of the book involved travelling up the river to their destination- there’s that river-consciousness again– and their horror of the cholera that raged in the settlements they passed.  Cholera?!  I obviously labour under a misapprehension about Canadian weather- there’s heat and bushfires here, as well as snow.  I hadn’t been conscious of this same concern about health in early Australia.

Their first block of land certainly didn’t seem to be in what I think of as ‘bush’: they were deluged by their neighbours, mostly Yankees, who were boorish, acquisitive and relentless borrowers.  It was with some relief that they shifted further into the bush, even though there they had to battle with bushfires (a quite exciting chapter!) and isolation.  Her difficulties were compounded by her husband’s absence when political dislocations during the 1837 Rebellion caused half-pay officers to be enlisted for military duty, leaving her to cope with the farm alone with her servants.  There is a degree of familiarity and ease with the surrounding Indians which contrasts strongly with the wariness and repugnance of Australian settlers to the Aborigines whose lands they had appropriated.

Chapters in the book are topped and tailed with poetry- rather awful stuff- and halfway through the book her husband jumps in with his perspective.  The final chapter was odd, too- it was written by her husband, by now a public servant in Belleville,  full of facts and figures about Canadian progress and some interesting (for me) political analysis.  But frankly, I enjoyed her chapters much more.  Her descriptions of landscape are deft, and she conveyed well the heat and the cold, the loneliness and the sense of community at logging bees and their social interaction with their ‘equals’ (as distinct from those Yankees).

I can’t really think of an Australian parallel book to this.  I haven’t read Louisa Ann Meredith’s books My Home in Tasmania, during a residence of nine years or Over the Straits: A Visit to Victoria, which sound similar to this, but these were written in diary form as a stylistic choice.  The book that it reminded me most of, albeit in a different time and read many, many, many decades ago, is Mrs Aeneas Gunn’s We of the Never Never. Both Moodie and Gunn wrote in the first person, with dialogue, description and an emphasis on relationships.

Australian readers- can you think of other early, autobiographical novelistic books that might be similar?

E-reader update

This is the first book that I have read on my E-reader, and this is exactly the sort of text that I bought it for- an old book now in the public domain, which would nestle in the ‘special collections’ library of anywhere I could borrow it from here in Australia.   The reason I purchased an I-River Story was to have a keyboard for notes, and that function worked well enough, although it was clunkier to shift between memo and book than I anticipated.  I found it good for reading in bed- none of that grappling with the left hand page when reading lying on your side, and I certainly felt more relaxed reading it in this format than gingerly turning pages in an old volume.