So, for Dutch Literature Month, I’m joining in with the readalong of Hella S. Haase’s historical novel, The Tea Lords. It’s a slightly unusual novel in that it is based firmly on actual historical archives, letters that passed between the members of a Dutch family who had established a network of tea plantations across the Indonesian island of Java. This leads Iris to ask us readalong participants two broad questions: how do we judge the effects of the reality-based historical novel, and what do we think about the representation of colonialism? The one question begets the other, as what emerges from this novel is a more warts-and-all account of the colonial mentality than readers seem comfortable with nowadays.
It seems to be my week for taking up unpopular positions. The thing is, when I read a historical novel, it’s because I want to enter into the very different world of the past and to experience it as it really was. I don’t understand why we want to pretend that our ancestors’ lives weren’t harder and tougher than ours, that they didn’t face injustice and inequality of a type we cannot even begin to imagine. Feminism and racism are late 20th century developments; in previous times, the thought of independent action was completely beyond the imagination of women, the recognition of oppression would never for a moment have occurred to the colonising male mentality. How can we ever learn from history if we insist on sanitising it and making it accord to modern ideas?
I think I must be missing something, as I regularly see in reviews the frustration and irritation provoked by novels that don’t show strong female characters or justify complex, problematic historical constructs. The past doesn’t have to justify itself to us – it can’t. But to try to get underneath the skin of our ancestors, to understand, properly, how we progressed through time as a culture, through war, turmoil, atrocity, and incredible hard work, isn’t that what a good historical novel should do? And not be hooked up on a desire in the reader for easy sympathy with the characters?
One thing I found interesting in The Tea Lords is the portrayal of Rudolph and the other male heads of household in Java as they discuss how best to run their enterprises with native labour. It’s an intriguing portrait of paternalism, once thought to be a very good thing. For the Dutch overlords, educated, civilised, and clearly concerned to be ethical on their own terms, they face a population who appear, in contrast, to be near savages. But they know that a loyal and healthy workforce is good for business, and they set about building good housing for their workers, learning the language they speak, helping them with their problems (even if they have little real idea how to do this) in their guise as masters and protectors. But of course, the alpha male thing is uppermost; to be effective leaders, they must impose their will and their own desires. They hustle on wages, exert strong discipline, live in a climate rife with suspicion and mistrust. But they are behaving well according to the mores of their time, and what’s more, consciously trying to do well according to their own pet theories. It’s an interestingly complex representation, one that’s hard to condemn outright, even from a position of postcolonial righteousness, knowing how the story will ultimately end.
It is after all, human nature to take advantage of structures of power, and very few have ever resisted the opportunity. Wouldn’t that be a truth we need to see in action? And it took our ancestors real courage to travel around the world and work in alien conditions, whatever we feel about what they did with it. That courage, such a rose amongst emotions, should require sometimes the thorns of ruthlessness and exploitation to come to fruition is equally an uncomfortable reality. The past is rife with ugly human creations – slavery, oppression, the disenfranchisement of whole populations. If we don’t accept that those creations were made by ordinary people, good people, people who believed they had reason on their sides, not the cut-out villains that allay our fears, then shouldn’t we be reading something other than historical novels? I feel I must be missing something obvious, but: if we ask history to provide nothing more than a pretty backdrop to a story, if we pick and choose from it simply what pleases us and strive to suppress the darker more problematic parts, aren’t we committing exactly the same crime as the colonisers who simply took what they wanted from what they saw?