Category Archives: TBR Reading Challenge

‘Caledonia Australis’ by Don Watson

caledonia

1984, republished  1997 (this review) and 2009. 255 p. & notes.

Actually, I hadn’t intended reading this Don Watson book at all.  I was reading the first chapter of his more recent, award-winning book The Bush and found myself reminded that before Watson was a Monthly correspondent, a commentator on public discourse or Paul Keating’s speechwriter, he was a historian.  His book Caledonia Australis was already on my bookshelves, and having recently had the experience of reading two books from the edges of a historian’s career as I did with Michael McKernan (see here and here), I decided to put the more recent book aside in order to return to Watson’s earlier book.  After all, I reasoned, it would do a disservice to the earlier book to read it after the larger, more mature work, honed by over thirty years of writing.  My assumptions were unfounded. I haven’t yet returned to The Bush but Watson’s Caledonia Australis,  a more consciously historical work, stands proudly on its own two feet.  Watson was a damned good writer in 1984, just as he’s a damned good writer in 2016.

We see in this 1984 book the subtlety that Watson would later display in his exploration of Paul Keating in his Portrait of a Bleeding Heart.  It does not have the trappings of an academic text: it does not have footnotes or an index and its reference list is only loosely tied to the chapters.  It does, however, make a strong historical argument which has maintained its currency- has indeed become stronger- since its initial publication in 1984 and reissue in both 1997 and again in 2009.

The first part of Watson’s book is not about Australia at all, but instead the Scottish Highlands.  I’d heard of the Highlands clearances, but I’d assumed that people were shifted directly from their Highland ancestral homes onto ships to the New World as part of a global diaspora.  But, as Watson points out, there was an in-between period where Highlanders were forced onto the coastal edges where they were forced to work in kelp-harvesting. Kelp was prized as an industrial additive for the soap, linen and glass industries and had become lucrative when imports of Spanish barilla (a salt-tolerant plant) were heavily taxed during the 1790s.   The shifting of the Highlanders to the coast and the attempted suppression of the language and culture of this ‘backward’ people was seen as an ‘improvement’ measure that, fortuitously for the large lords, freed up the land for the importation of sheep. When the duties on barilla and salt were reduced in the 1820s, the kelp market collapsed, and it was at this juncture that the ‘improvers’, especially on the isles of Skye and Mull,  looked to emigration and particularly the large, clan-based Scottish emigration schemes in Canada and Australia.

And so, by Chapter 4, we have ‘Highlanders at Large- the Kurnai at Home’. Both by an accident of timing and also as a result of clan networks, Scottish settlers explored and appropriated the lands of the Kurnai people of what we now know as Gippsland but which  Scottish explorer Angus McMillan christened ‘Caledonia Australis’.   Across the seas come the Highlanders, a clan-based culture, where the land was the basis of their identity, where history and legend were passed through song and dance, where the supernatural world co-existed with the natural one. And here in Chapter 4 they meet the Kurnai with a parallel culture, with similar qualities to their own:   clan-based, with land as the basis of their identity, history and legend passed through song and dance, with a co-existent supernatural and natural world. There was, however, no recognition of these affinities. Charged with their Calvinistic faith, the former Highlanders dispossessed the Kurnai, turning over their land to sheep just as had happened to them in Scotland.

In the second half of the book Watson hones in on Angus McMillan,  who has been lionized as one of the pioneers of Gippsland in both myth and physical memorials. McMillan is, in effect, the Highlander in Caledonia Australis writ large.

Angus_McMillan_portrait

Angus McMillan Wikipedia

Watson traces the rivalry between McMillan and the driven, publicity-conscious professional explorer Strzelecki in their competing claims to have ‘discovered’ Gippsland. The Highland temperament manifested itself in both exploration and frontier settlement behaviour.  Clan connections and a shared sense of righteousness drove the Scots settlers into their dogged but ultimately fruitless search for the White Woman of Gippsland. Their prickliness, pride and sense of mission had a much darker side as well.

Watson writes:

There were three types of squatters on the Australian frontier: those who thought that their right to the land was qualified by an obligation to treat the Aboriginal inhabitants with kindness; those who believed that their right was conditional only on extermination; and those who combined murder with kindness. (p. 223)

The squatters of Gippsland, Watson writes, were fickle and dangerous and McMillan exemplifies this third type of squatter. McMillan

-half steering his way, half being blown-arrived in the new province and from that moment seemed to embody every paradox the frontier could throw up: making its history and being made by it, writing its story and engineering its secrets, living through all manner of triumph and torment and leaving a legend which put his life beyond our reach, ending up a cliche, a block of stone (p. xix)

When the nephew of his patron Captain Macalister was killed by Aborigines, McMillan was most probably responsible for drawing together the ‘Highland Brigade’ of his neighbours and retainers who, bent on revenge, massacred between 60 and 150 Indigenous Australians at the Warrigal Creek massacre, and beyond.  Yet, this same man was also lauded for his “sympathetic interest” in indigenous people and became in the last years of his life the Aborigines’ protector.  Murder and kindness: a chilling combination.

In his introduction to the 1997 edition of this book, Watson writes that his original intent in writing this book was

to give a more sympathetic portrait of the pioneers than any I had ever encountered.  I wanted to give them blood as well as bones; religion, motives, choices, memories, identity, ancestors, an inheritance of their own (p.xxvii)

This doesn’t sound like the aspirations of a historian whose work, through this book,  became associated with those derided by the New Right as promoting ‘black armband history’. We know, from Watson’s later work on the deadening effect of managerial language and ‘Weasel Words’ that he is impatient and dismissive of ‘political correctness’. But, he argues, “It can hardly hurt a mature society to know that its founders were capable of evil as well as good.  An immature society can only benefit”(p. xxvi)

Hence the importance of McMillan:

The harder we look at McMillan the more we see the patterns of our collective experience and the elements of our contemporary dilemma.  The harder we look at him the more signs we see of the kindness and brutality, self interest and charity, memory and amnesia, decency and hypocrisy that has characterised public and private dealings with Aboriginal Australia from the beginning to the present day.  And the harder we look at the society McMillan came from the more we see how the dispossessed everywhere tend to follow the same path to material and spiritual poverty: in the nineteenth century the Australian Aborigines were not the only ones to be first cast as dangerous and unruly savages, and then left stranded between pity and contempt- and then thrown still further adrift from humanity by Social Darwinism. (p. xxviii)

No: this process had engulfed Highlander society, which in turn subjected the Kurnai people to the same fate.  The last words of Caledonia Australis are “..the irony was lost”. Irony, at its most powerful, does not need a spotlight or announcement, but emerges quietly and insistently out of the material itself.  Just as it does in this book.

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‘Their Eyes Were Watching God’ by Zora Neale Hurston

hurston

(1937), 1987 reprint, 286p.

One of my resolutions this year is to read more of the books I already have on my shelf (I even committed to the TBR challenge!). So far, I have failed miserably because this is, I think, the first book I’ve read from the groaning shelves.  I must have bought it secondhand at some stage because I’d heard of Zora Neale Hurston, although I was under the mistaken impression that she was a historian in the 1960s.

So the first surprise was  that Their Eyes Were Watching God was a novel. The second surprise was that it was written in 1937 and not in the 1960s as I had supposed.  The third surprise- and the one that discomfited me most- was the use of dialect in the dialogue. Let me give you an example, drawn at random:

“Ah often wonder how dat lil wife uh hisn makes out wid him, ’cause he’s uh man dat changes everything, but nothin’ don’t change him”

“You know man’s de time Ah done thought about dat mahself. He gits on her ever now and then when she makes mistakes round de store.”

“Whut make her keep her head tied up lak some ole ‘oman round de store? Nobody couldn’t git me tuh tie no rag on mah head if Ah had hair lak dat.” (p.79)

The book is very dialogue heavy, and it’s all like this. How, at a time when ‘black-face’ is now unacceptable, should a modern reader react to this? Actually, not just a modern reader: many African-American activists at the time found it confronting too.  Here’s Richard Wright reviewing her in 1937:

Miss Hurston voluntarily continues in her novel the tradition which was forced upon the Negro in the theatre, that is, the minstrel technique that makes the “white folks” laugh. Her characters eat and laugh and cry and work and hill; they swing like a pendulum eternally in that safe and narrow orbit in which America likes to see the Negro live: between laughter and tears…In the main, her novel is not addressed to the Negro, but to a white audience whose chauvinistic tastes she knows how to satisfy.  She exploits that phase of Negro life which is “quaint”, the phase which evokes a piteous smile on the lips of the “superior” race.  (http://people.virginia.edu/~sfr/enam358/wrightrev.html)

 

However, Hurston, as an anthropologist, rejected this characterization of her work. She was intent on documenting and celebrating black culture through its language, humour and speech patterns, and some thirty years after its publication,  it is this aspect of the book that has inspired feminist and Afro-American women writers in particular. For myself, I found that I could let go of my misgivings about the way the dialogue was depicted once I ‘heard’ it in my head like a film soundtrack, rather than reading the words on the page.

Janie, the main character of the novel, has three husbands. She was encouraged to marry the much-older Logan Killicks by her grandmother, who as a former slave feared for a grand-daughter unprotected by a man. In a flush of infatuation, she leaves him for Jody Starks, a pushy entrepreneur, intent on developing a black community under his own leadership as mayor. But when Jody belittles her, she leaves him too for Tea Cakes, a younger man who she sees as the love of her life and soulmate, although he draws her into a peripatetic life far below that she had enjoyed as the mayor’s wife. Over time, though, this relationship also becomes an emotional rollercoaster, but she does not waver in her love for him.

I can see why writers like Toni Morrison and Maya Angelou have been influenced by Hurston’s writing, because Janie is a full-realized, nuanced female character, far beyond the stereotype that the dialogue evokes in my mind.  The book is strong in its structure, with a frame story within which the plot moves confidently.  It is a book entirely within a black and female consciousness, with hints of magical realism.  No wonder it has been designated a ‘modern classic’ and well worth taking off the bookshelf.

‘Savage or Civilized? Manners in Colonial Australia’ by Penny Russell

You may remember a number of years back when Prime Minister Paul Keating had the audacity to place his hand on Her Majesty’s back to gently steer her in a crowd.

lizardofoz

He was quickly dubbed “The Lizard of Oz” by the English press, always quick to jump on colonial brashness with a snort of derision at ex-convict temerity (a taunt which carries little significance in Australia itself).  Historically, however, the colonial/convict trope was far more influential, as demonstrated in Penny Russell’s book Savage or Civilized? Manners in Colonial Australia.

This book is about the complicated rules and the even more complicated lived experience of colonial manners (p 5)….Manners are not only about the different observances of form and ritual that make a past (or a foreign) society seem quaintly strange.  They are also about the ways we acknowledge and respect the humanity of others, extending due consideration to their feelings, preferences, prejudices and sense of how things should be done.  The ultimate rudeness is to deny a fellow human being that degree of consideration. (p. 14)

Not everybody cared about manners, but this book concentrates on those who did.  It explores what she calls four ‘contexts’: the pastoral frontier; convict society; the domestic world and the new public space that opened up in the the latter part of the nineteenth century.  The book is not necessarily chronological, as these ‘contexts’ were continuous throughout the late eighteenth and nineteenth century time period, but there is nonetheless a chronological trajectory in the narrative.  She describes this as “layered” rather than chronological, and is at pains to stress that she is not discussing the rules of civility as spelled out by the imported ‘politeness’ literature that flooded the empire, but instead looks at

how manners affected the daily lives of individuals, how they played out not in principle but in practice, not in precept but in people. (p 13)

In other words, the sort of history I enjoy most.

russell_savageorcivilized

2010, 362 p.

In Part One, she starts on the frontier, that site of colonial theatricality so well explored in Inga Clendinnen’s Dancing With Strangers.  Handshakes, in particular, are the focus of attention (as they are also in Tiffany Shellam’s Shaking Hands on the Fringe). In each section, she presents a small number of characters to exemplify the arguments she is making, almost as if she is bringing them onto the stage for us.  Robert Dawson was an employee of the Australian Agricultural Society who was viewed as a “good man” and the author of The Present State of Australia in 1830 where he sought to rescue the reputation of Indigenous people at Port Stephen. It was, however, a respect overlaid by paternalism, praising docility, tractability and goodwill- and in the final analysis, he took their land. Neil Black, on the other hand, felt adrift within the moral wilderness of settler society, rejecting the commonly-held premise that a young gentleman could break out of the expectations of his class and status and then take them up again at will.

Part Two, “High Society”makes the point that British manners were themselves evolving at the beginning of the 19th century. Although there was still a belief in a social pyramid, this view was challenged by the rising bourgeoisie and evangelical domesticity which placed great store on reputation, good name, and ‘credit’.  The networks between the colonies ensured that this strategically reimagined ‘England’ was a common reference point as the colonies erected their own strictly-policed social boundaries to mirror what they conceived to be the situation at ‘home’.  Government House in the colony served as a microcosm of these relationships , as Russell demonstrates with the example of the much-studied Lady Jane Franklin in Tasmania (a theme she also explored in her book This Errant Lady which I viewed here.)  When Sir John Franklin fell out with his private secretary Alexander Maconochie, it not only caused a split in society, but also leached into the personal relationships within the domestic sphere, as the two families lived in close proximity.  Professionalism was another arena of conflict, as she shows with her example of two doctors: Dr Farquahar McCrae (the brother-in-law of Georgiana McCrae in Port Phillip) and Dr William Bland, an emancipist who had been transported to the colonies for a duel.  When the two doctors disagreed about the appropriate treatment for a patient, the dispute was played out through the newspaper columns of the Sydney Herald, spilling into a meeting of the Benevolent Asylum Society, one of those philanthropic organizations through which middle-class men underscored their respectability.

Part Three examines ‘Domestic Worlds’, and while I found this an emotionally engaging section, I did find myself wondering whether enough was made of the effect of colonialism on domestic relationships.  This was not so much with the dissatisfied governess Margaret Youngman, who reminded me of Sybilla in My Brilliant Career, which was itself an Australian working of the governess story.  It was more with the the story of Mary Ann Tankard who was deserted by her older, often-absent husband, and the wife of the Reverend Andrew Ramsay who was left behind to ‘keep up appearances’ while her husband sailed back to Scotland to deal with church business. Both these stories of desertion could have easily been mirrored by deserted women in England.

The final section moves more into the second half of the nineteenth century and the burgeoning of a public and  political sphere where women and aspiring working men  became more visible.  Transport and urbanization brought the courtesies of meeting strangers to the forefront of public discourse, especially for ‘girls’ during the 1890s.  The fiesty Annie Britton, who was arrested for parading in the volunteer uniform of Captain Gilbee, brought the captain’s family into the public arena, while the arrival of the Duke of Edinburgh brought colonial manners under the censure of the ‘home’ reading public- or at least, it was imagined that it would-just as Paul Keating was to do 130-odd years later. In the midst of the celebrations Henry Parkes, chair of the organizing committee, stepped forward to shake the Duke’s hand.  Parkes was himself of dubious background and doubtful morality given the indecent haste with which he married his mistress after his first wife’s death, and the new Governor the Earl of Jersey and his wife later ensured that the new Lady Parkes was excluded from Government House.

As Russell notes in concluding her book, hers is not a discussion of ‘real’ Australian values and nationalism- not then, and not by historians later. Instead, these carefully and sensitively drawn people and their dilemmas and social and domestic dramas

…were telling representations of the hundreds of thousands of individuals who moved into, and sometimes out of, the Australian continent; tiny atoms in the sprawling world of settler colonialism, but constituent atoms nonetheless.  At the end of the nineteenth century, as much as at its beginning, many if not most colonists understood themselves a privileged members of the Anglo world, and yearned to blend unnoticed with a cosmopolitan community upon terms of cultural and social equality, not to be marked out an uncouth barbarians or brash colonials. (p. 259)

aww-badge-2015-200x300My review is linked to the Australian Women Writers Challenge site.

It’s also 1/20 of my TBR20 Reading Challenge- my vow to read twenty of the books I already have on my shelves.