Thursday, 30 October 2014

Clare Wright's The forgotten rebels of Eureka

October's meeting was more adventurous than usual with a last minute venue failure that saw us, adaptable like the women of Eureka, retiring to Tilley's Cafe in Lyneham. We settled into a capacious booth, purchased the necessary comestibles, and hunkered down to a good old round table discussion of this month's book, Clare Wright's Stella Prize winning The forgotten rebels of Eureka. We discovered that while Victorians had studied this event in some depth throughout their education, those of us from other states had studied it more cursorily, mostly in primary school, so our memories and knowledge were not necessarily strong.

Our reading and her writing

We started by discussing the different experience of reading history versus historical fiction. We've read several historical fiction novels over the years, including Eleanor Catton's The luminaries (of which we were reminded as it is set in the goldfields of New Zealand in the same period) and Hilary Mantel's two Cromwell novels. Members were aware of having to consciously change their mindset from reading a story framed around a defined set of characters to a book in which multiple people appear who may or may not carry through to the end of the book. The opening chapters of Wright's book introduces a large number of people and some worried about managing to remember them all. The need to remember a lot of "stuff" was what turned some off history at school! Others decided to go with the flow, and focus on the "story" or thesis Wright was presenting. We'll remember what we can, we thought - and, there was always the extensive index to refer to if needed.

We liked the expressiveness of Wright's writing, such as this description of George Black:
Black represented diggers who would no longer submit to tyranny; men who were desperate to asset their legitimacy after months of humiliation. The new codes smacked up against the old like waves against a cliff face. (p. 398)
Her writing beautifully captures life on the diggings. We felt we were there - living in tents in the cold, the wet, and the dusty dry. In addition to expanding our understanding of the Eureka Stockade, we saw the book as good social history. Our members in the medical professions were particularly impressed by the realistic (and horrifying) description of childbirth in those times.

One member commented on the new (old) words Wright used, and liked the fact that she often explained their meaning and derivations. "Masher" is one example:
But at night, some men cast off their utilitarian duds and slipped into evening clothes: black pants, white shirt, a red sash, patent leather boots and a black plush hat. John Deegan describes such men as swells or mashers, and says they took their sartorial cues from the Californians in their midst. The outmoded term masher is a real gem. It derives from the Romani gypsy word masha, meaning to entice, allure, delude or fascinate, and was originally used in the theatre, although it is unclear who these diggers were setting out to delude. (p. 256)
However, we did have some concerns about the writing. We felt that at times Wright resorts to clich├ęd or "slogan" type writing. One example concerns the police on the goldfields. She writes:
The Victorian Government paid peanuts and got the inevitable monkeys". (p. 218) 
This comment irritated at least one member as a cheap shot. Although pay is often a valid concern, the real issue, she argued, usually involves factors like training, leadership and the appropriate support. Wright frequently uses throwaway lines - like "sometimes no news is the best news" - and aphorisms. Sometimes they work, but other times we felt they impeded real communication.

It's a long book and is sometimes repetitive. For example, Wright tells us several times that Jane and Stephen Cuming named their daughter Martineau for "women's rights campaigner, Harriet Martineau". Repetition can be useful to ensure readers get a point, but we didn't feel that this point was germane to Wright's main argument.

Good history

We felt the book exemplified well-written history. We appreciated Wright's evocative, narrative-oriented style and felt that she was targeting a general audience. One member commented on the Chapter titles - such as "The winter of their discontent" and "Parting with my sex" - describing them as "hip" and sometimes "raunchy". Her aim, we thought, was to enliven history as well as to present a new way of looking at things. We liked that the work is carefully footnoted, but that it's presented in a way that did not obstruct our reading. In other words, the evidence is there if the reader wants it.

Our member who had taught history her youth, admired Wright's good historical practice in the book, which involved always starting from the primary sources. When these sources are contradictory, Wright makes this clear, as she does in her reporting of the Bentleys and the fire that destroyed their hotel. We liked Wright's effective use of statistics to support her arguments. The book draws constantly on letters, diaries, newspaper articles, and Wright regularly quotes directly from these sources, identifying them through italics.

Wright also looks at the wider global environment and how actions in other parts of the world may have played a role in what happened at Eureka, such as the Chartists, the 1848 revolutions, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton's stand with other women at Seneca Falls in 1851. She provided evidence in most of these to show a direct relationship between them and people on the Ballarat goldfields.

However, several members said that Wright "lost me" when she gave the full moon, and the likelihood that women were ovulating, as a reason for why many men left the stockade on the fateful night! This pushed the group's credulity a little too far but was, most agreed, the only point where a conclusion wasn't effectively supported by good historical evidence (albeit Wright gave reasons for her theory).

Wright's thesis

We, of course, discussed Wright's thesis which involves demonstrating that women were there on the fields and they played a significant role in the Stockade (and all that led up to it). Wright's purpose, in other words, was to uncover the role of women and to give them a presence. This means that the book is not a comprehensive history of Eureka - but the title tells us that.

Wright is strong in her opinions, but we didn't see that as a negative. It's time, after all, that women's stories are told, and it's clear from her analysis that women were involved in the goldfields at all levels, besides the traditional domestic sphere. Some worked as diggers, some ran businesses which essentially supported their families while their husbands looked for the elusive strike. Many chronicled their experiences, either privately in letters and diaries or more publicly through newspaper articles and poetry. Wright names many women - such as the doctor-cum-digger-cum-doctor's wife Martha Clendinning, the poet Ellen Young, the publican Catherine Bentley, to name just a few. Their stories are fascinating.

We also touched on other ideas and themes Wright explores, including:
  • the philosophical difference between the British and their belief in law and order for the common good, and the Americans with their focus on individualism.
  • the fact that, unlike the Californian goldfields, women were actively encouraged to go to Ballarat (for their civilising influence!)
  • the idea that the Eureka rebellion was primarily a young people's movement, with most of the activists being 35 years or younger
  • the presence of indigenous people and their relationship with the diggers (though this wasn't fully developed, as it was not her focus)
We considered the term "digger" and whether there is a direct connection between its use for miners and its adoption in the First World War as a slang term for Australian soldiers. We felt that it probably did, both in terms of resenting inappropriate authority and belief in mateship and equality.

Finally, some wondered whether Wright had another, agenda in the book. Was she making a plea for a new Australian flag. We all agreed that Australia's flag is unfinished business.


3 comments:

  1. Well done Sue, and well done us for tackling this non fiction work! It was great though at times challenging to read. I enjoyed her filling us in with the details of the major characters after Eureka. I think it gave a real insight into those times, and of aspects of white settlement. We really were immersed in the environment. I also enjoyed the depiction of those in power: and the attempts to negotiate with them. We can see why Australians have a strong dislike of authority and distrust of those in power.

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  2. Thanks Kate ... yes, those stories of the characters at the end were a lovely touch. And you sure are right about dislike of authority!

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