Monday, March 2, 2015
We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books.
“MAN OF SECRETS – THE PRIVATE LIFE OF DONALD McLEAN” by Matthew Wright (Penguin / Random House, $NZ40)
As I’ve remarked a number of times on this blog, there has to be a really compelling reason to produce a new book-length biography of somebody whose life has already been analysed in detail in earlier biographies. [Look up "Why Write a New Biography?" via the index at right.] If new and hitherto undiscovered material has come to light, or if archives have yielded hitherto inaccessible papers, then a new biography may well be justified. But if the new biography simply puts a new interpretation on familiar material, then the author had better be damned sure that he/she has something worth saying. Otherwise we might find ourselves entering the territory of popularisation or sheer rip-off. (I analysed this phenomenon in relation to five or six biographies of Oscar Wilde that sit on my shelves – ranging from the definitive to the popular rip-off.)
As Matthew Wright frequently notes in Man of Secrets – The Private Life of Donald McLean, Donald McLean has been the subject of two previous biographies, as well as featuring prominently in every history of nineteenth century New Zealand ever written. Way back in 1940 there was James Cowan’s Sir Donald McLean: The Story of a New Zealand Statesman which, despite Cowan’s undoubted skills as a storyteller, was a once-over-lightly, presenting McLean in the best possible light as befitted something published in New Zealand’s centenary year, when the process of nineteenth century colonisation was still seen as a wholly noble enterprise. Just eight years ago, however, there appeared Ray Fargher’s excellent study The Best Man Who Ever Served the Crown? A Life of Donald McLean (Victoria University Press, 2007). As I remarked when I reviewed it for the NZ Listener (12 January 2008), Fargher’s book is a “densely packed narrative” which deals comprehensively with the matters of politics and land deals in which McLean was involved. Fargher probably says as much as can be said in a biography on these subjects.
Matthew Wright is very much a populariser. Over 43 of his publications are listed opposite the title page of Man of Secrets. He sure churns ‘em out. He is always readable and usually sensible in his judgments, but most of his books offer to general readers subjects that have already been covered in detail by more scholarly works. Man of Secrets is no exception. The front-cover blurb promises us the story of a “Land buyer. Politician. Secret benefactor. Private lover. A man at war with himself.” Matthew Wright’s introduction freely admits that McLean’s public life has often been told, but he claims that here we will get “the real, living, multi-dimensional human being with his own wants, needs, insecurities, hopes and dreams” (p.9). Wright then proceeds to flag for us the character analysis he will present:
“The story of a desperately insecure man who tried to find validation in a love for a God that could never validate him, who felt desperate guilt for succumbing to what he regarded as the sins of the flesh, and who tried to redeem himself through relentless hard work. Then suddenly he found what he needed in his emotional and physical love for a woman, a love snatched away from him by tragedy. He never recovered; and the love he then showed for his adoptive place – Hawke’s Bay – and those who supported him in it did not compensate.” (p.10)
In effect, Wright claims that he will offer us a close-up of the private man as opposed to the public figure whose career is already so well known.
But is this what Man of Secrets really offers us? And does it say anything that was not already known?
Let me stick with the details of McLean’s private life as they are are presented here.
The first chapter rushes over McLean’s Scots background in a few pages – very odd given the baleful influence that Wright attributes to McLean’s unco dour and strict Presbyterian upbringing. Born in 1820, raised by a zealously religious uncle, McLean left Scotland forever at the age of 18, tried his luck in Australia, and was in New Zealand before he was 20. He rapidly learnt Maori – an asset that gave him a huge advantage over other British officials - and was already entrusted with the task of checking out land claims in Taranaki at the tender age of 24. Wright speculates (without examining the matter in any detail) that McLean may have spent some time cohabiting with a Maori woman, but there is nothing substantial to say about this, as there is no evidence available. Likewise, while he mentions the rumour that McLean may have fathered an illegitimate child, Eru Peka Makarini, who later died as one of Te Kooti’s partisans, Wright insists that there is no substance to the rumour (p.18; also pp.202-203). In a somewhat sensationalist fashion, this unsubstantiated rumour features on the back-cover blurb.
In the third chapter, there is a passing reference to Mclean’s uncle Donald McColl, who wrote God-soaked letters from Scotland, reinforcing McLean’s residual guilt. At pp.61-62, when he deals with Donald McLean’s meeting with Susan Strang, Wright mildly rebukes McLean’s earlier biographers for making so little of the Strang family. Wright says that because McLean’s marriage to Susan was so brief, documentation on her is slender and she has been sidelined in earlier narratives. But, says Wright, “The fact was that Susan became everything to McLean during 1849-50” (p.62). He talks up their affectionate letters, claiming they provide a “tool” for the biographer, making it possible to plumb McLean’s depths. Nevertheless, most of this chapter concerns the familiar story of how McLean, under Governor Grey’s guidance, set about purchasing the Rangitikei region from iwi for the government to re-sell to the New Zealand Company.
Apart from the author’s repeated assertions about the state of McLean’s soul, his self-doubts and his Scottish upbringing, Chapter Six is the only chapter that truly focuses on McLean’s “Private Life”, as the book’s subtitle has promised. In August 1851, Donald McLean married Susan Strang in Wellington’s Presbyterian church. Wright quotes in detail from letters McLean wrote when business called the 30-year-old groom out of Wellington and away from his 22-year-old bride. They are seen as signs of his great and compelling love. However, even this chapter must perforce spend much of its length relating the story of a land deal. This is not to say that some of McLean’s outpourings were not passionate – and infused with his religious faith, as when, separated from his wife, he wrote:
“Another day is past and gone; and Susan, my pet, is left alone to Him Who ever hears her prayer. May she, this night, her wants declare; and may His gracious love prepare our souls for that last awful day, when we, before Him, must repair. And happy she whom faith sustains, to pass life’s trials without blame; trusting in God, and loving the man to whom she has given her heart and hand. Oh! Take her Father, in Thy care. She is more to me than I dare say.” (p.117)
Tragedy struck. First, in one of Donald’s absences, Susan had a miscarriage. She had the added burden of having to look after her mother who was dying. Susan became pregnant again, but in November 1852, after only 15 months of marriage, she died in childbirth, leaving Donald McLean with a son.
And this, really, is the entire “secret” that the title hints at – that McLean was so shattered by his wife’s death that he never really recovered. Throwing himself into work was a form of sublimation – or penance. True to Matthew Wright’s rather heavy-handed thesis, the following chapter is called “Labouring for Redemption”. Wright notes that McLean never remarried (unusual for a colonial man of means) and also suggests that he was led, by a governmental rebuff, “to ditch government service in favour of becoming laird of his pastoral Hawke’s Bay manor” (p.131) when he could well have gone back to Scotland. His work ethic was combined with a real commitment to the colony. Having been “Protector of Aborigines”, industrious McLean went on to be Native Minister and Defence Minister, got knighted in 1874 and might have had his eye on the premiership before he died, probably worn out from work, at the age of 56 in 1877. But his sharp practice was revealed when he put pressure on an official government agent to let him buy part of, and lease a huge part of, an estate he wanted in Hawke’s Bay.
Does all this add up to a hidden side of Donald McLean that we’d never heard of before? Not really. The circumstances of his short marriage and subsequent grief were narrated (albeit more briefly) in Ray Fargher’s earlier biography, although admittedly Wright does make them more central. I’m not altogether convinced that this biography really adds to our understanding of the man.
Judged on it own merits, however, and without odious comparisons to other works already in print, Man of Secrets has its moments and the story of McLean’s land dealings is probably worth telling to people who haven’t already read it. For, despite the “private life” material, it is McLean’s public doings that take up most of this book.
The book’s second chapter shows him in Taranaki, trying to validate the settlements at New Plymouth and Whanganui while working out the complicated entanglement of messy New Zealand Company deals. These had been made with iwi who had, in the “musket wars”, conquered or driven out other iwi who had real and more legitimate claims to the land. The portrait that arises here is of somebody astute and more capable of seeing and appreciating the Maori point of view because he did know te reo. He even performed such charities as using government money to buy medicine for Maori children when he had no commission to do so. But, says Wright:
“The risk he faced was being dubbed ‘racialist’, a derogatory term of that period which meant a British official who promoted indigenous folk over the intruders. In fact McLean never lost sight of his end-goals, or his belief in the ‘superiority’ of his own society. However, his softly-softly views, tempered with his clear familiarity with Maori, risked alienating those who did not fully understand him.” (p.48)
This judgment is essentially repeated in Chapter Five, an account of McLean’s negotiations for Maori land in the Wairarapa. Wright once again says that McLean was there to weasel land out of Maori but he did it with more finesse than other Europeans and was given a great degree of respect by Maori; and once again the government was being forced to do much of the dirty work that was left behind by shoddy and illegal deals which the Wakefield company had made with Maori. Wright claims that Maori wanted legalised settlements and “Part of their enthusiasm for getting lawful settlement was a reaction to the way Pakeha low-lifes were flooding into their region.” (p.74)
Chapters Six to Eight examine McLean’s part in contributing, by his land dealings, to the outbreak of the wars of the 1860s; and then finally his settling in Hawke’s Bay. Wright suggests that in Hawke’s Bay, McLean overreached himself only inasmuch as the rangatira with whom he most negotiated, Te Hapuku, was much more clever than he bargained for. Also he did not have the full support of the colonial government in this phase of his dealings, as Hawke’s Bay was not one of the areas which Governor Grey favoured for European expansion. To maintain his position, McLean had to negotiate his way through changes in colonial government, never knowing how much senior ministers would favour his methods. As war broke out in Taranaki, he had to face a parliamentary enquiry about the land purchases he had brokered there, which had sparked the conflict off. He had a major role in organising the “defence” of Pakeha settlers in Hawke’s Bay against the raids of Te Kooti. The ministry of Stafford wanted to relieve him of his duties, but the locals thoroughly supported him; McLean was able to raise kupapa (forces made up of cooperative Maori) to rival in size the government militias; and the ministry of Fox, who replaced Stafford, favoured McLean to the point of putting him on the front bench.
So far, so familiar, but still a story worth telling.
But there is one paragraph in Chapter Six which may be quoted at length to get the flavour of Wright’s viewpoint as an historian. It goes like this:
“The three purchases he [McLean] organised in Hawke’s Bay between December 1850 and early 1851 were unprecedented giving the Crown some of the largest blocks yet sold in the North Island under the Treaty. They were also subject to Treaty claims in the 1990s. The historical work undertaken to support the cases was pioneering, but as more than one commentator has observed, there were differences between the style of interpretation and the more balanced demands of general historical enquiry. The problem from the academic perspective was that Treaty history was ‘overwhelmingly presentist’ [this is Giselle Byrnes’ phrase], evaluating past events in terms of late twentieth century values, rather than the factors that applied at the time. McLean’s adventures in Hawke’s Bay during 1850-51 highlight the point; a 1994 report commissioned by the Waitangi Tribunal concluded that the Waipukurau, Ahuriri and Mohaka sales were ‘calculated to disadvantage’ Maori. But non-Tribunal analysis of the same evidence has made the point that McLean had future sales in mind, offering more concessions in 1850-51.” (p.90)
Dare I say that in much of Wright’s writing, including this book and including the above paragraph, there is a muted reaction against the current orthodoxy concerning McLean’s land transactions and the old Maori Land Court? Since the 1980s, and with the establishment of the Waitangi Tribunal, both McLean and the court are routinely seen as factors depriving Maori of land by dubious means. Part of Wright would like to establish the older colonial pieties, seeing McLean and the court as a necessary assertion of legality. In quite other ways, the more sophisticated writings of Peter Wells (The Hungry Heart, Journey to a Hanging) are doing something similar – saying that not all was negative in Pakeha colonisation.
Fair enough. Prevalent historical orthodoxies always do have to be questioned and re-evaluated. But I’m still not sure that Man of Secrets tells us much that we have not heard before.
Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, we recommend "something old" that is still well worth reading. "Something old" can mean anything from a venerable and antique classic to a good book first published four or more years ago.
“THE CENCI” by Percy Bysshe Shelley (first published 1819); and “A TALE FOR MIDNIGHT” by Frederic Prokosch (first published 1955)
Often reading is serendipity. You read a book on one topic, and your curiosity leads you to read another by the same author, or on the same topic, or on a similar and related topic.
Here is my experience with the two works I’ve chosen as this week’s “Something Old”. For years a copy of Frederic Prokosch’s historical novel A Tale for Midnight has sat on my shelves unread – a most respectable hardback copy, printed in 1956, with its dust-jacket intact. The novel is based on a notorious murder case from Renaissance Italy. In 1599, a daughter and son, in a conspiracy with their stepmother, were accused of murdering their father Count Francesco Cenci. Because the dramatis personae were aristocrats, the case aroused much interest and partisanship. Eventually, after multiple confessions (some extracted by torture), daughter, son and stepmother were all found guilty and were all duly executed. I was about to read this novel when the dust-jacket blurb reminded me that Shelley had written a play about the same case, so I decided to read Shelley’s version first; and I deal with it first here.
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When I was a graduate student, I knew a woman who was writing a thesis on the failure of Romantic drama – this was the problem of why it was that many of the best-known English Romantic-era poets (Byron, Keats, Shelley) attempted to write verse drama, but that none of their efforts ever actually became part of the stage canon. They have tended to languish as the bits of the “collected works” of these poets that few people ever get to read, apart from Eng Lit graduate students. (Unlike the slightly later French Romantic-era drama, where verse plays by the likes of Victor Hugo and Alfred de Musset have held the French stage and are still often produced.) I was so in thrall to the idea that English Romantic verse plays were failures as true drama that I tended to steer clear of them. I was thus both surprised and pleased to find that Shelley’s The Cenci, if not the greatest play ever written, is still a pretty good drama. Although it has been only very, very rarely produced in the 200 years since it was written, it would probably do reasonably well if some enterprising producer were to present it in the appropriate style (uncut text, clearly Renaissance-era settings, and fair warning to the potential audience that it is both a verse play and written in 1819). At least this is my impression from reading it, although maybe I do not have the practical insight of a dramaturg.
The Cenci is five acts of blank verse. It distantly echoes the versification of Shakespeare, to whom all the English Romantic poets were on some level indebted, and it is absolutely chock-full of situations and even turns of phrase that Shelley has plundered from Shakespeare, Webster, Beaumont and Fletcher and others whom the Romantics thought apt models for verse drama. The ear (or reading eye) doesn’t have to be all that keen to identify sections as near-pastiche.
In The Cenci, 26-year-old Shelley recounts a version of the Cenci family drama with his own emphases. The focus is on Count Francesco Cenci’s utter depravity and villainy in his incest with (i.e. rape of) his daughter Beatrice and his deliberate ruining of his son Giacomo, about whom he spreads false rumours in order to alienate Giacomo’s wife’s affections and deprive Giacomo of his property. Beatrice Cenci, by the Fifth Act, has become the dominant character and is promoted by Shelley to stoic tragic heroine as she walks calmly to her execution. So stoic is she that she rebukes other members of her family for being weak enough to make confessions under torture.
The Catholic faith of the main characters is not exactly caricatured in this play. The pious oaths of Giacomo and Beatrice and their sympathetic stepmother Lucretia, and their appeals to God, are things of dramatic power. Given Shelley’s declared atheism and ingrained English anti-Catholicism, however, the concept of God is subtly questioned (everybody from Cenci to Beatrice to the pope invokes God to justify his/her actions) and the institutional church comes in for much stick. Pope Clement VIII never appears on stage, but Cardinal Camillo becomes the mouthpiece of the church Although he is a reasonably sympathetic character during the trial scene in Act Five, Cardinal Camillo has in earlier acts explained greasily to Cenci’s aggrieved and anguished children that the pope cannot have Francesco Cenci punished for his many sins because that would be intervening in what should be the sacred bond between parents and children. The implication is, however, that the pope has so often received lavish gifts from Francesco Cenci that he neglects his moral duty because he doesn’t want to miss this great source of revenue. Further, one Orsini, designated a “prelate”, has romantic designs on Beatrice and connives at the Cenci offspring’s murder-plot against their father because he hopes to profit from it; but then in the last act he runs away to avoid the punishment the others are facing.
I am not trying to talk this play up too much. It has that flaw which was apparently in the DNA of English Romantic drama – characters tend to declaim at length rather than interact in real conversation. One feels sometimes that it is halfway towards being a series of dramatic monologues like the ones Tennyson and (more frequently) Browning were to produce later in the nineteenth century. I find somebody called Leonard Ashley, in a 1960s anthology which included the play, saying that the characters “move with declamatory despair in rooms interior-decorated with black velvet, in prefabricated ruins.… they are creatures escaped from Gothic novels.” Quite.
There is also the matter of a certain evasion about the incest that is supposed to have taken place. (As an essential part of the play, this element may have been another reason why it was not considered for production in the 19th and early 20th centuries). Of course, it is not ever identified by name as incest, the closest identification being Beatrice’s complaint (Act Three, Scene One) “I have endured a wrong, / Which, though it be expressionless, is such / As asks atonement, both for what is past, / And lest I be reserved, day after day, / To load with crimes an overburthened soul” (i.e. she is afraid that, having raped her, her father will now attempt to establish her as his concubine or mistress). “Expressionless”? Well, maybe – but the fact is that this “expressionless” crime is one that sets Shelley off, through the mouth of Beatrice, in long flights of verse about damnation, hell, desolation, and the desire for suicide – all of which are entirely appropriate to her feelings about what she has suffered, but all of which somehow avoid the brute fact of sexual violation and become exercises in the Romantic-Gothic macabre…. Or perhaps I am here unfairly criticising Shelley for not clearly naming something that simply could not be clearly named in published texts in his era.
There is too in the play the problem of the character of Francesco Cenci himself. Of course he is a heartless villain – how else can you consider a man who commits incest and, without provocation, wages war on his own children? But there is no way that such a character can be given any psychological nuance. In the first act, at a public banquet, Cenci laughs with glee when he receives news that two of his sons have been killed. One fears that this is only a step away from the cackling, moustache-twirling villain who would later appear in Victorian melodrama.
So this play is not the great tragedy that Shelley probably intended, but it is more than a dead duck and is at least worth a reading.
It has another interest, which is more purely historical. From the historical record itself (court documents etc.), it is a moot point whether Beatrice Cenci ever was the victim of incest. The story of her rape by her father was introduced, by her trial lawyers, late in the trial of Beatrice and her confederates, when they stood accused of parricide. Obviously the lawyers’ intention was to gain sympathy for her, answering one unspeakable crime (murder of a father) with another (incestuous rape). There is little doubt that the historical Count Cenci was as bad as he was generally painted, but this particular crime may have been a fiction – just as some of the characters in Shelley’s play are fictitious. But the point is that Shelley’s version of events was influential enough to lead nearly everyone who followed him to take the incest as read.
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Which brings me at last to Frederic Prokosch’s historical novel A Tale for Midnight. A brief word about the author, as is my custom. An American of Austrian descent, Frederic Prokosch (1906-89) was one of those authors who made a big reputation with his first works, was hailed by the literary elite, but then saw his reputation fade away in his own lifetime so that he is hardly remembered today. In the 1930s, his poetry and his first novels The Asiatics and The Seven Who Fled were praised by the likes of T.S.Eliot, Andre Gide and (later) Albert Camus, Gore Vidal and Anthony Burgess. But gradually (and with some honourable exceptions) Prokosch’s later works came to seem like potboilers. Interest in him was briefly aroused again in the 1980s when, in old age, he published a “memoir” called Voices, supposedly based on Prokosch’s conversations with some of the greatest writers of the century. But the interest came from the fact that this “memoir” was soon proven to be largely a work of fiction, although its admirers now praise it as a great work of “fictional memoir”, whatever that may be.
Among the “honourable exceptions” in the declining arc of Prokosch’s literary reputation, I would place Prokosch’s adept historical novel A Tale for Midnight (1955), his own telling of the Cenci case so very, very different from Shelley’s version. Certainly this forgotten novel has a melodramatic opening sentence - “Our tale begins in darkness and ends in darkness.” - which, like the novel’s title, appears to announce something Gothic. But compared with Shelley’s version, it is not Gothic at all. It is more like colourful documentary. This is in part because (again unlike Shelley) Prokosch went back to the original historical records of the trial and drew upon them extensively.
In Prokosch’s version, Beatrice and her stepmother Lucrezia are indeed wronged women and Count Francesco Cenci is indeed a disgusting person. He is a gross man who spends much of his time visiting whores, or paying shepherd boys and Roman rent-boys for casual sex. The lower half of his body is covered in itching sores which he makes his daughter rub when he needs relief. The first quarter of the novel deals with his murder. Cenci has fled from Rome to a distant castle in order to avoid mounting debts, dragging wife and daughter with him. The castle is cold, cheerless and forbidding. He makes his wife and daughter virtual prisoners as he goes about his immoral life. Beatrice pines for the sophisticated society of Rome. When she dares to complain, or does something that displeases him, her father beats her mercilessly. But he does not rape her. There is no incest.
Tired of continual abuse, Beatrice and Lucrezia (with the tacit approval of Beatrice’s brother Giacomo, who still lives in Rome) finally agree to kill Cenci, who is making their lives a misery. Beatrice is quite unlike the impassioned and high-principled violated virgin whom Shelley created. She is as cunning and conniving as her father – and fairly cold-blooded. She seduces a senior servant, the seneschal Olimpio, and frequently has sexual intercourse with him (she eventually becomes pregnant to him) with the specific purpose of enticing him into killing her father.
At last the deed is done. Olimpio and confederates smash in the sleeping Cenci’s head with a hammer and then clumsily attempt to make it look like an accident as they throw his corpse out a high window. But the novelist notes: “None of them paused to consider, none of them troubled to calculate, and all through the house they scattered the telltale hints of their crime.” (Book One, Chapter 10, Part iv).
It doesn’t take long before they are accused of murder and the remaining three-quarters of the novel deal with the consequences – the rounding-up of witnesses; the methodical and commonsensical investigation by the prosecutor Moscato (who uses torture as a matter of course); the mutual betrayals and accusations of witnesses and culprits; the trial; the executions. Throughout all this Olimpio (who doesn’t exist in Shelley’s more fictitious version) is as important a character as Beatrice. And, apart from a little remorse towards the very end, Beatrice remains cold-hearted and calculating. In one scene, she doesn’t even flinch when somebody who has contradicted her testimony is tortured in front of her. As for the incest, it is thought up by Beatrice’s defence lawyer as a late ploy to gain sympathy for her when the evidence against her has become overwhelming. This appears to be borne out by the trial records, where incest is mentioned only in passing and at a point where the defence was trying to make an appeal against the verdict.
As always, I do not want to talk up this novel too much. It is not great literature. There are moments, when Beatrice and Olimpia conjugate, that could win prizes in the Bad Sex Awards: “The sirocco was blowing, hot and humid, and he threw his clothes off impatiently. He hurled himself on his lady like a man athirst in the desert; his lips moved ravenously across her body, sipping the savour from her skin.” etc. etc. (Book One, Chapter 7, Part iii). Prokosch can’t resist the big descriptive passages where he wanders off into accounts of carnival time in Rome or the contents of a baker’s shop or the long procession to the scaffold. He also strives, without success, to give his tale some sort of symbolic force. A big flood washes things out into the open (like the murderers’ crime being revealed). Then the plague hits Rome (physical manifestation of the city’s moral corruption).
But in the end I liked the gallop of it, the plausibility of it, the quick staccato style of so many passages. In short, I found it a “good read” and considerably more believable than Shelley’s play.
So what are we left with here? A high-flown Romantic play, which justifies a murder and plays with one of the Romantics’ favourite interests – incest (Shelley must have been talking to Byron about Augusta…). And a competent historical novel which doesn’t see nobility in any of its characters, but which has greater respect for the historical record.
I think I’ll choose the latter.
Snarky Footnote: Some contemporary reviews saw Prokosch’s novel as slick sensationalism and, in the days when paperback reprints often had lurid covers, A Tale for Midnight was sometimes reprinted with covers offering erotica. In fact, I found a website offering for sale one such paperback reprint as an example of “classic sleaze”. On the other hand, Thomas Mann remarked of the novel when it first appeared: “This is a most impressive and powerful work. I cannot conceive of a more memorable treatment of the Cenci theme.” Find the novel if you can (probably in a second-hand bookshop) and then decide which designation you prefer.
Nicholas Reid reflects in essay form on general matters and ideas related to literature, history, popular culture and the arts, or just life in general. You are free to agree or disagree with him.
STOPPING THE CLOCK
“Right class. We have finished our study of the Russian Revolution. As you now know, the reformism of the late tsarist era came too late to really transform Russian society, and then the stresses of the First World War led to the overthrow of the tsarist regime in February 1917. But the Provisional Government was too weak and divided to be able to assert its authority and to address the needs of the Russian people. Therefore Lenin and the Bolsheviks were able to seize power in October and November 1917 and establish a new regime on a firm footing. So that ends our study of the Russian Revolution. Next week we will move on to the causes of the Second World War.”
“Wait! Wait!” I want to call from the back row. “How can you say that a history of the Russian Revolution ends there in 1917?”
I want to hear something about the civil war that then raged in Russia for most of theearly 1920s and the role of Trotsky and the New Economic Policy when real Communism proved to be a failure and the dementia and death of Lenin and the struggle for power that ensued and the emergence of Stalin and the establishment of his dictatorship. Surely a real history of the Russian Revolution can only end with the logical outcome of the Bolshevik coup – a totalitarian state and all its works – by about 1930. No, I’m not suggesting that you have to tell the whole history of post-1917 Russia to tell the story of the revolution, but I am saying that to end in 1917 is to narrate only the end of the first phase of the revolution.
What is the phenomenon I am commenting on here?
It’s what I call “stopping the clock.”
History is a continuum. It never stops. Therefore, there is no neat point at which the consequences of some momentous historical movement or event can be said to have concluded. Logically, some would say, to give a full account of the Russian Revolution, one would have to discuss its repercussions up to the present day. (Immediately one thinks of that answer often – but probably erroneously – attributed to Chou En-Lai when asked what he thought of the importance of the French Revolution: “It’s too soon to say.”)
But I am not saying that all of subsequent history has to be retailed to give a truthful account of a set of historical events. I am saying that it is unsatisfactory to end an historical narrative at a certain point because it appears to give a satisfactory and dramatic conclusion, when it is no conclusion at all.
Why do popular versions of an historical movement so often “stop the clock” in this way? Because, I would suggest, they are mimicking the ways of fiction where a train of events has a neat beginning, middle and end. A vast audience is so used to narratives that provide “closure” in this way (to use a disgusting and demotic Americanism) that they have come to expect it in historical narrative.
There is nothing new in this “stopping the clock” phenomenon. It often occurs when popular histories are promoting some ideological or nationalistic agenda and want to end on a note of triumph.
“So Henry V goes to France with a little army in 1415 and really whallops those Froggies at the Battle of Agincourt and we’ll end our story there with that famous victory, showing once again that English soldiers can always beat French ones.”
“Erm, yes Mr Retro Chauvinist English Historian, but aren’t you ignoring the obvious fact that Henry V’s triumph was short-lived and within less than 14 years (Joan of Arc and all that) the French had rallied and whalloped the English right back, driving them out of most of France? The Hundred Years War basically ended on French terms, and you’ve only stopped the clock at Agincourt because you don’t want to remember that.”
“The Catholic Church was horribly corrupt in its practices and abuse of power, but fortunately the Reformation came along and Luther and Calvin and Knox purified Christian practice and worship and stripped away non-Biblical traditions and now you can read the Bible in your own language and follow your own conscience in a church relevant to your own culture.”
“Yer what, sunshine? Aren’t you stopping the clock in about 1540-something, without noticing how fissiparous Protestantism quickly proved to be, how it established itself only when it could lean on the coercive arm of the state, and how its net effect was to secularise much of Europe, not to spread a purified form of Christianity? Obviously you haven’t read Reid’s Reader which gives a good review of Brad S.Gregory’s The Unintended Reformation [which you can look up on the index at right].”
Etcetera, etcetera, etcetera.
The lesson I am preaching is a very simple one. The terminus ad quem of any historical narrative is often the most revealing part when one wishes to work out an historian’s viewpoint or biases. Where you end serves as a sort of “moral” telling the reader what you think is most important about a story and what lesson can be drawn from it. But where you end is always artificial, given the never-ending nature of history. Where the clock stops in an historical narrative is not of itself history.
Monday, February 23, 2015
We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books.
“ANNIE”S WAR – A New Zealand Woman and her Family in England 1916-19” edited by Susanna Montgomerie Norris with Anna Rogers (Otago University press, $NZ45)
Does anybody still remember the quaint fad from the earlier twentieth century of burying time capsules? In a (supposedly) hermetically sealed container, various items from the present would be buried in the foundations of a new and important building. The idea was that hundreds of years hence, archaeologists would unearth the said capsule, open it and be delighted to find a snapshot of the age in which it was buried, where fads, crazes and trivia were mixed with more important things.
In reading these selections from the wartime diaries of Annie Montgomerie, I feel I am opening a time capsule. Annie was neither a great intellect nor a particularly perceptive person. Many of the opinions she expressed were the commonplaces (or prejudices) of her class and time. Yet it is still fascinating to read what she wrote, as it tells us so much about that time.
Let’s put her into context.
Susanna Montgomerie Norris is the granddaughter of Annie Montgomerie. With the help of the professional editor Anna Rogers, she has brought long sections of her grandmother’s diary to publication. Military historian Glyn Harper provides a brief forward, linking the diary to the war whose centenary we are still commemorating. There are helpful marginal notes throughout explaining topical references, and two selections of photographs. But the text’s the thing.
In 1916, in the third year of the First World War, Annie Montgomerie (aged 49) travelled from New Zealand to England on the Remuera, with her husband Roger (aged 50), their two sons Oswald (20) and Seton (18) and their two daughters Winifred (22) and Alexandra (14). The plan was for Oswald and Seton to enlist for war service, and for their father Roger to find some work related to the war effort.
In the event Seton joined the new RFC (Royal Flying Corps) and saw service on the Western Front while Oswald went off to the Middle East in another branch of the imperial forces. Winifred found work as a nurse, Alexandra was still at school, and Annie’s husband went through a number of positions including work in forestry. The Montgomeries stayed in England until the war was over. Throughout that time Annie, who socialised, shopped and vented her opinions, kept her diary. The first entry in this 240-odd page selection is dated 23 June 1916 and was written as the Remuera left Wellington. The last entry is dated Christmas Day 1919, written as the Ruahine pulled back into Auckland harbour and the Montgomeries resumed their lives as New Zealanders rather than as “colonials” living in England. They had stayed in England for a year after the war ended, and a few letters from Annie’s husband suggest that there were tensions over money and difficulties in arranging their return to New Zealand.
The Montgomeries were clearly an upper-middle-class family. Roger was related to a former Governor of New Zealand. In England, Annie was glad to receive invitations to receptions at the Foreign Office or at other government ministries and she claimed aristocratic connections. In her entry for 22 January 1918 she refers to Sir Edward Carson, leader of the Ulster Unionists, as “my friend”. There are references to visiting titled hosts. The Montgomeries were the sort of family who looked up the Tatler to keep up with the news of their society friends.
The daughters are mentioned only sparingly in what we are given of Annie’s diaries, and the older son Oswald is hardly noticed. But the younger son Seton is always on his mother’s protective mind. Seton emerges as the second most important “character” in this diary with his frequent letters to his mother. A macabre one dated 15 March 1917 has him describing the experience of training in a “gas chamber” where the effectiveness of soldiers’ gas helmets is tested. He details his apprenticeship as a pilot in the RFC and his first solo landing. (He crashes into a hedge, of course!)
When one reads some of Seton’s letters from the front, one wonders how much he was presenting a stiff-upper-lip image so that his mother would not be too worried for him. For example on 10 January 1918 he writes nonchalantly: “My personal contribution to the National Day of Prayer was a successful shoot on a Hun battery. At the time Jim was watching the crowd at St Paul’s I was being chased around the heavens by Archie [anti-aircraft fire], and at the same time doing my best – through the battery – to blow a few Huns and their guns out of position. Archie does not worry one all the time; he looks you up when he has nothing better on, and that is usually once an hour with luck.”
Seton gets involved in, but survives, a ferocious dogfight with enemy planes on 11 March 1918. Regrettably, we do not hear about this in Seton’s own words, but only in a summary provided by the editors. Seton finally gets a “Blighty one” (wound that enables him to be invalided back to England) and tries to step back from front-line service and get qualified as a flight instructor. Of course his mother (who at such moments reveals herself to be something of a dragon) believes the examiners who do not immediately accept him in this capacity must be “meddlers”.
So we hear a lot about Seton, who was apparently his mother’s darling.
But it is Annie herself who dominates this selection. Of course she enjoys the attractions of London, taking her daughters and her sons (when they are on leave) to meals at Whitely’s and the Lord Mayor’s Show and on shopping expeditions and to the theatre to see Chu Chin Chow and Gerald du Maurier and H.B.Irving and Gladys Cooper and George Robey as well as being impressed by D.W.Griffith’s film Intoleranc and laughing at Charlie Chaplin’s film Shoulder Arms. She gets angry at the sight of prostitutes openly plying their trade in Piccadilly. She has harsh things to say about the English. But on 7 February 1917, she is delighted to get a good position to see a royal procession, including “Queen Mary’s smile and all”. She goes to War Loan demonstrations like the one on 15 February 1917 in Trafalgar Square (where “our Mr Massey spoke a few words, or rather roared them, but he isn’t an inspired orator.”) She is a mother, a tourist, a socialiser and a staunch supporter of the British Empire.
Dire news does come from the front (the Montgomeries arrived in England when the Battle of Somme was being fought). Dangerous things happen in London too. On 3 September 1916, the family experience their first Zeppelin raid: “Roger and the girls saw one Zep focused in a searchlight and later on all saw it blaze up and fall to Earth. And we couldn’t feel sorry for them either. To look out of one’s window on the sleeping city and see those fiends up there dealing out cruel death to helpless men, women and children dries up one’s human feeling.” There are many similar passages in which Annie shakes her fist angrily at the horrible Hun in the sky. Later, Zeppelins are replaced by the more efficient long-range German Gotha bombers and there are so many raids that we are reminded how much Londoners experienced the latter years of the First World War as a foretaste of the Blitz in 1940, even if the First World War raids were on a smaller scale.
I must make it clear that if I were in a mocking mood, I could have great fun deconstructing this diary in terms of Annie’s dated vocabulary and attitudes. Passing through the Panama Canal on 14 July 1916, she writes unselfconsciously: “the darkies, men and women, were a huge interest to us and the scantily clad sometimes naked nigger children amused the family muchly.” She is fully implicated in current prejudices and fully accepting of the wildest rumours that circulated in wartime. The entries for 25-29 September 1916 reveal her participating in “spy mania” as she summons constables to investigate what she thinks are secret signals being flashed by spies. They turn out to be the lights of a lift in a nearby building. She whines about how unfairly and inequitably conscription is being organised in England when her boys are doing their bit and she writes (8 November 1916) “they [the British government] haven’t the pluck to enforce it in Ireland.” Clearly those Irish deserve a jolly good thrashing for rejecting conscription. When Annie hears of the (first) Russian Revolution, she writes on 16 March 1917 “I wish we could strike our Unseen Hand traitors as they have done theirs.” The notion of the “Unseen Hand” was a popular fantasy at the time that German agents were systematically “corrupting” powerful and influential people in England and hence sabotaging the war effort. [Ironically, when Annie refers to the “Red Revolution” on 16 November 1918, she is reacting hysterically to industrial unrest in England, not to the Bolshevik phase of the Russian revolution.] Of course she hates and loathes those Germans who still live in England. On 16 July 1917, she writes: “Went down Moscow Road to hateful German cobblers shop to try to get sprigs for Roger’s boots; can’t get them anywhere else. Managed to get three small parcels. Just hate going to that vile place and speaking to the slimy, creepy-looking creature.” It is her husband Roger who writes on 22 November 1918: “Would like to see someone slate Lord Hugh Cecil in the papers re conscientious objectors, which he rightly deserves.” Hugh Cecil was a politician who fought not to have conscientious objectors disenfranchised. Annie’s husband (and I am sure Annie herself) believed that conscientious objectors should be given no quarter.
So, in their casual obiter dicta, we have a couple who were British Empire-lovers and were as thoughtlessly racist as everybody was else one hundred years ago.
Paradoxically, though, this woman who loves British royalty and the culture of London is also often ready to show how much of a New Zealanders she is. The English are, in her view, vastly inferior physical specimens when compared with the healthier colonials who have come to their rescue in wartime. Annie Montgomerie can do her block when it comes to matters touching New Zealand servicemen. As she interprets it, the whole failed Gallipoli campaign was a matter of bungling British high command sacrificing colonials – and she does not hesitate to write negatively of an English national hero. Following in the newspapers the enquiry that was held into the campaign, she writes on 9 March 1917: “The daily papers are full of the Gallipoli Commission report. So went into smoking room after breakfast to digest them. The report only confirms what I have said from the very beginning about it: I am thankful those muddling blunderers are uncovered at last. They can’t be hung but they should certainly be prevented from ever holding a position of responsibility again, in justice to those poor boys who had to bear the brunt of their ghastly ignorance and ineptitude… After tea had a great argument in the lounge about the Gallipoli business and its muddling instigators. These English people will hold Kitchener up as a little tin god. They won’t look at his feet of clay at all. They won’t look anything in the face, that is the unpleasant fact, and they will never learn. Narrow-minded, stiff-necked, smugly self-satisfied crowd of blind idiots.”
She is often bitter at news of the death of New Zealand soldiers, like her reaction when she hears of the death of a Kiwi her daughter knew. She writes on 20 April 1917: “While in town watching crowds of ‘Tommy Atkins’ coming from Victoria Station – just made me bitter. They all, or nearly all, looked rough uncouth creatures, yet they were back safely and that splendid young life was stilled forever. And those commonplace, middle class-looking English crowds get on my nerves. They don’t look worth dying for, indeed they don’t, smug, ordinary-looking lot. To be truly British you don’t want to see too much of England and the English. They won’t face close inspection.”
In fact in 1918, and especially at the time of the last great German offensive, she is particularly scornful of the English war effort and the quality of English troops. So we have this curious paradox of a woman who is clearly an Anglophile, royalist and social snob – one who would have her sons in English rather than New Zealand regiments – nevertheless constantly speaking of the superiority of ‘colonial’ troops and even praising the Americans as more efficient and less slack than the English.
The urban dirt and sleaze of England, its slums and its brazen prostitutes, appal her. After the Armistice, on 26 December 1918, she joins the crowds going to welcome President Woodrow Wilson on his visit London. She is disgusted to see English slum dwellers: “Some truly awful people – poor, degraded, dirty, wolfish, unwholesome and perfectly horrible. It always makes my blood boil to see these slum people; it is an unthinkable crime to have such conditions.”
She is irritated by those who sought a negotiated peace with Germany. On 16 December 1917 she writes: “After breakfast sat in lounge a while and blew up a mine by telling them that Lord Landsdowne [who wanted a negotiated peace] represented a good number of the English who would face an inconclusive peace rather than give in to the fact that England couldn’t win on her own bat and had to acknowledge that America was going to save civilisation. I don’t care if they were wild. I am too sore and bitter just now to care in the least what they think. The war would be over now if England had gone to work like America is doing.” The efficiency of the United States in its swift mobilisation in 1917 is a thing that should shame the English.
I hope I have given enough evidence here to provide you with the flavour of this interesting diary. Annie Montgomerie was opinionated, but one century on, some of her opinions would either amuse or appal us. Annie was caught in the “colonial condition” of at once loving “Home” or the “Mother Country”, but still thinking her own corner of the Empire was much superior. Assessing fighting men, she is as liable to praise Australians, Canadians and Americans as New Zealanders, and she makes a remarkable number of comments on what cowardly beasts English soldiers are in battle. Doubtless she was filtering here some of the grumbles of her sons. Even so, the diary shows somebody on the cusp of ceasing to be British and becoming a New Zealander, which is essentially where the whole population of New Zealand was one hundred years ago.
I would be unfair if I didn’t note that Annie Montgomerie’s diary is as much concerned with personal, private and family matters as with the big scene and – for all her snobbery and prejudices – Annie was a loving and concerned mother. The photographs show her as she was in London, a woman in her early fifties, but already looking much older than that. As one caption suggests, this may well have been the result of the stresses she was suffering in wartime.