The Tea Lords I

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?


40 thoughts on “The Tea Lords I

  1. “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?”

    While I certainly understand your feeling, I wonder if maybe there are different types of historical fiction available for different types of readers?

    What you’re asking of historical fiction is, in essence, what you’re asking of literature, to be true to life in ways that are not necessarily comfortable and challenge current established patterns of thought. However, for those readers who are looking for more “genre” historical fiction, which is mostly historical romance these days, is it not acceptable for them to have the same easy sympathy with the character and satisfying ending that you would grant them in books about the present or the future? It’s not historically accurate, but arguably that’s not really what those readers are looking for.

    • Your comment reminds me that only in the last post I was saying that it didn’t matter what people read! I shouldn’t contradict myself quite so quickly…. 😉 I don’t like the thought of preventing anyone from getting the reading pleasure they desire. But I wonder what the pull of the historical is, under those circumstances? Still, I do see what you mean.

      • That is a very good question. I suppose the pull of the historical for those readers is probably exactly the opposite of what you would want-a backdrop. I know quite a few people who are entranced with sixteenth century fashions, for example, but probably don’t want to see it for what it *really* was (drafty, smelly, sexist). There’s that whole idea of the mythical glamorous bygone era-I feel like 1920s Paris is often the setting for lots of boozing, jazz, and short skirts. Nobody wants to hear about the real effects of alcoholism, poverty, and Fascism.

  2. Pingback: Dutch Lit Month: Introducing Week 3 | Iris on Books

  3. Spot on, Litlove – the past IS a different country as Hartley wrote. I always laugh when I hear people casually say I would have loved to have lived then – whenever they had in mind. Of course they always imagine being a wealthy, important person – never a street urchin, in say the Elizabethan plague years in London, which is the far more likely possibliity. Neither do they really have a grasp of the medical and sanitary conditions. I’m also unsure the trend for apologizing for a nation’s past has any real relevance – they were not us in any proper sense. You only have to look at how they treated their own people, let alone anyone else!On another note you might try the last David Mitchell for another colonial type book – not Dutch, but about the Dutch.

    • Bookboxed, I just KNOW that in my previous lives, I was up at five in the morning to black the range and probably died an early death from tuberculosis! I will gladly take all the advances in medicine, technology and social planning that are available, thank you very much. And thank you for the David Mitchell recommendation – I had hesitated over that novel but will look again if you rate it.

  4. I have been staring at this post for a day now, wondering how to reply to it. Not because I think you are saying something controversial (because I don’t), but more because I cannot seem to untangle my thoughts.

    I agree with you that in historical fiction I do not want my characters to be something that they couldn’t or wouldn’t have been in that particular setting. I do not want Rudolf to start championing Javanese independence. I actually think Haasse did a good job in portraying the layered arguments about the changes in and different ways of running tea estates by having Rudolf schooled by several of his family members. There’s also a portrayal of conflict felt and a natural assumption of his leadership role towards the people at his estate. This all to underline the prevalent attitudes of the time, to perhaps explain Rudolf’s behaviour to a modern reader without outright explaining it?

    Nevertheless, the fact that I do not want the characters to be out of tune with their times is not the same as having another story that only reflects the status quo as it was, the dominant discourse. (I am not saying Haasse does, I have a feeling the second part will challenge things more, but more on that later – bear with me?)

    The thing is, in the first half of the novel, Haasse makes a conscious decision to have a white male upper-class wealthy colonial be her lead character, in effect telling the story of someone who is privileged on three counts: gender, ethnicity, class/money. Without having your characters be in conflict with the setting, she could have chosen someone of another gender, ethnicity, or class. And I think, in the first half, something like that is missing. The fact that women and Indonesians held a more marginal position in society does not mean they were not people with their own stories. And by having them enter the story, by telling their story alongside that of Rudolf, it would have allowed for more reflection on the setting, without taking away from the historical accuracy. (One should note, of course, that because Haasse uses historical source material for her book, these people would have been marginalised in those sources as well, and the white male discourse would have been prevalent in most sources and producers of sources).

    Rudolf’s story is the story of a male white Dutch colonial as it probably would have been (or might have been, since these sources are only a representation of his life). I appreciate Haasse for what she did, but I also longed for something more because this is a story that has been told repeatedly. I desperately wanted Haasse to break through and tell us a little of those others that were not receiving a voice in Rudolf’s world. Do I think she has to? No. Do I think her story is of bad quality because she doesn’t? No. I have been thinking why I still wish she would, and I think it has to do with the fact that in the Netherlands, our colonial past, and especially the more negative things associated with it, is often silenced. And one of our recent governments made the weird mistake to glorify the VOC “attitude” of our predecessors. There’s a weird silence of not wanting to discuss the grey and darker shades of our history. And perhaps that is why I long for more, because I long to see more of that discussion,

    This is why, on reflection, I am glad Jenny is entering the story now. Because I feel she might just be set up as a counterpart to Rudolf’s privileged position. Perhaps not the story of an Indonesian (though perhaps she will be identified with that through her more supernatural experiences?) but at least as a counterpart, as a way of giving a voice to a woman in a colonial setting? I admit, I haven’t read on and my memories of my first time reading The Tea Lords are rather vague, but I am hopeful. And then, if that were to occur, those questions I had would still have been raised, but they would have been raised for a reason, for something that Haasse might have wanted to break through, or at least complement with another view, in some way or other. I am getting my hopes up, aren’t I?

    Anyway, I hope this comment makes sense. I think you raised some excellent points. So much so that I needed many hours to come to some understanding why on earth I had been questioning having Rudolf as a lead character, and yet agreeing with you that I want my characters to be historically accurate. It is a complicated discussion. One I find it hard to have a coherent opinion on, which is exactly why I raised questions instead of giving answers, because I don’t think there’s a definite answer that I agree with. Writing about historical settings, and especially periods that are uncomfortable like the Dutch history of colonialism, is a very difficult thing. And I wonder if there’s a way of “getting it right” without hurting anyone?

    [Also, sorry for the essay-length comment]

    • Iris, this is such an excellent comment, thank you. You raise so many important points here. As you rightly point out, the historical archive on which the novel is based comes necessarily from a particular point of view, and one which has been considered widely before (not least because history is written by the victors, as they say). I’m very interested to see what Haase will do with Jenny too, as even that switch to a female viewpoint will take us away from the dominant discourse. I have complete sympathy with your desire for and interest in voices that have not had a chance at representation, and think it’s important for any country to reflect widely on its historical past in all its shades of grey.

      On the one hand, fiction seems the natural medium to approach these lost voices, precisely because they have been lost to the records of history, and yet fiction almost inevitably embraces the cherished viewpoints of the current day – not least because publishers and editors insist on books being compatible with contemporary ideology. Yet of course a really well written novel can do anything it chooses if it is powerful and subtle and well-structured, and I do believe that a novel’s ability to dramatise situations makes it a brilliant way to recapture and explore the past. So I know exactly what you mean – it IS a highly complex issue, and one that’s really worth discussing. Thanks to your readalong and this particular choice of novel, we get to do just that!

      • Exactly. We seldom have enough evidence to write fully documented histories of such people, but we do have enough to flesh out what we do know with fiction that amplifies their lives without major distortions. Doing so is important if society today is to have a view of the past accurate enough to act intelligently in the present.

  5. I ALMOST wholeheartedly agree with you litlove, but…

    I find it depends. When I think of novels which imitate Austen, Collins, Dickens, etc. quite closely – why read them? Why not read Austen, Collins, Dickens etc. themselves? I don’t think that any historical fiction can authentically recreate the past, it can only give us flavours. So I would expect a modern novel with an historical setting to do something different to a novel written at that time – perhaps to show the world from an unusual perspective, from the standpoint of someone who’s been ‘written out’ of history, in a certain sort of style, and yes, maybe to comment on it too.

    But I think you’re arguing more against the expectation that every colonial setting be criticised as ‘bad’, that every heroine be feisty and flouting conventions, every hero given opinions that would bring an approving smile to the twenty-first century reader. Is that fair? Because I totally agree that that’s annoying and to me rather pointless. (And the automatic portrayal of all colonialism as necessarily an unnuanced bad is to me boring.) But then maybe it’s the genre argument again, the appeal to the reader’s nostalgia.

    So now I’ve written that, I’ve just read Space Station Mir’s comment, so really I am just repeating that. And you’ve replied. As you were.

    • No but you raise a really important point, which is precisely: what do we want historical fiction for? Why choose fiction over non-fiction when we look at the past? On the one hand there’s the issue of nostalgia, which is perhaps a bit suspect at times, but on the other, there’s fiction’s ability to go into unchartered territory with illuminating insight. Which IS extremely important and definitely worth debating.

    • Ha! That sort of thing happens to me all the time. What will the future make of our generation and its fascination with computers we can’t work? I shudder to think… Glad you came back to claim your comment!

  6. Those are really good questions, Litlove, and I think you make very good points. The larger question is how does historical fiction sit relative to non-fiction about history and to novels written during a historical period (at least for those times past when the novel was a form). I think that is a really interesting conversation to have, one with more than a single answer, and probably more than a single post–though I’m not demanding you write it! I know that in researching historical fiction, I find that at times I feel like a foreigner who will never get the culture. The past seems so alien, even relatively recent pasts like the late 19th c. Other times I laugh during research as I come across elements that are so current, where it seems that human nature is eternal and nothing much changes. I know that I bring to it my vision and my interests, which aren’t necessarily the dominant interests of the time. But unlike some readers and writers of historical fiction, I never change facts but work my vision in and around my sense of the time and the facts from research. No time or place is monolithic in its attitudes, and I think it’s fair to take characters who may represent outlying values, as long as it is presented within the framework of the time. I’m interested in women’s lives, and I have to say that all the research I’ve done has required ton of extra effort to sift through all the available materials to find it. I would get so angry reading about “children” playing a game or going to a school only to find out a few pages on that “children” meant boys! This still goes on today. I can’t tell you how many documentaries I’ve seen about subjects that aren’t themselves gender specific but the representations are 90% male. Say it’s a documentary about the lives of Fijians–and it turns out to be all about men with a 5 minute interview to cover the multitude of women’s work, child-rearing, and culture. It’s frustrating–and I do see my role in writing historical fiction, as well as my preference, to redress that balance imaginatively and with whatever sources I can get.

    • Lilian, it was absolutely fascinating to read your comment, so thank you for taking the time to write it. Exactly what we need – the perspective of an actual writer of historical fiction! I can so believe that finding any information about women’s lives was incredibly hard. Even as recently as the 70s, the French theorist Luce Irigaray was writing that every theory of subjectivity was a theory of men, as the impersonal ‘one’ always referred to the male perspective. I am certainly cheering you on to redress that balance, particularly as I can quite see that you are a writer who would always be true to your research.

  7. Pingback: Historical fiction discussion: Response to The Tea Lords readalong on Iris on Books « Me, you, and books

  8. I’m with you,I want my historical fiction accurate, as I do think it’s a way to learn how different times were then. Modern sensibilities in historical work I find jarring and lazy on the part of the writer. I’m interested in this book so I’m going to see if I can find it here in Canada. Interesting ideas and thoughtful discussion in the commentary, too. I want marginalized view points too, to better understand the society and the times – and to care, too.

    • Susan, it’s been really illuminating to pinpoint what we all think historical fiction should do. I agree completely with the points you highlight here – accuracy in historical sensibility, but also a chance to hear stories that have fallen by the wayside of mainstream historical recounting.

  9. Pingback: The Tea Lords by Hella Haasse: Discussion Post Part 1 | Iris on Books

  10. I’m very curious now about this book! So is the representation of characters/locale somewhat sanitized? I do like historical fiction, though of course I want it to be as accurate as possible even if that means presenting less than palatable situations. I’ve been thinking about what I want out of a book and why I would choose to read a historical novel over nonfiction about the same place/period and I tend to read for story when it comes to fiction. I am probably a lazy reader as I often will read historical mysteries where the heroine might be in a situation she might not have been in reality–so it’s all very tricky really to pull it off correctly and well–appealing to a reader yet giving a truthful representation. I suppose within the genre I know there is going to be a wide variety of stories–some are going to be more literary–where I would expect boundaries to be pushed and a certain level to be met in terms of realistic portrayal, and then there are the sorts of stories that are ‘consumables’ where it’s for a particular character I am reading–and situation and story and place and period. But I totally see your point in wanting to know the gritty reality. Now I wonder what the second half of the book will bring?

    • I agree – this discussion has made me think a lot about historical fiction and what it can do, specifically. Like you, I would rather read a story than just about anything else, and the great thing about stories is that they make sense and shape patterns out of that great chaotic mass of human lives and events. Yet by doing that, they are immediately acting differently to real life, which is mostly incoherent and hard to make sense of! It’s an interesting conundrum and one that is making me keen to read more historical fiction, in fact. I confess I really lilke historical mysteries too, and thinking about it, they are probably not that accurate – but they don’t bother me at all, compared to straight historical fiction. Isn’t it odd how these little paradoxes spring up? I’m also looking forward to the second half of the book with its inclusion of Jenny’s point of view. I’ll be writing about that when Iris posts up the questions.

      • Absolutely. I don’t mind minor factual inaccuracies if the overlook mood and value systems fit within the range of what was possible at the time.

        And fiction, like other arts, needn’t wallow in pain, but can transesnd it and help heal us present divisions and injustices.

  11. I have read this book in dutch as I am dutch and my forefathers were also in Indonesia establishing trading companies! I think you gave a balanced vieuw as certainly the cruelty was there but at the same time they did trek overseas in harsh conditions. I dont know if another dutch author who wrote on indonesia and its dutch occupiers is translated, his name is adriaan van dis, he wrote one novel about the dutch colons coming back to holland after indonesia’s independence. I would also reccomend 19th century dutch authors Multatuli and Luis Couperus who protrayed life in Indonesia in the 19th and ealy 20th century

    • Josina, thank you so much for your point of view, and for the recommendations. Multatuli crops up as a character in the novel, but until I read Iris’s post and your comment, I didn’t realise he was a real person! I think lots of us will be keen to read more on the subject once we’ve finished the novel.

  12. Wow Litlove, you are stirring up the literary waters again! 😉 This sounds like and interesting and complex portrayal of a specific time and place. I like my historical fiction to be accurate but I don’t require it to be completely accurate, if I want the “truth” then I will read a nonfiction account. But I see no reason to sanitize history for the sake of not making the reader feel uncomfortable.

    • And you can’t say fairer than that, can you?

      I’m going to be very good and nicely behaved now, and post only entirely uncontentious reviews for a while. 🙂 I always feel thankful in a discussion like this one that all my commenters are such intelligent and polite people!

      • I hope you don’t really intend to stop being provocative, litlove. We need you to be. And yes this is a particularly intelligent and polite group of people. Thank you all.

  13. Can I chuck in a mardy, devil’s advocate comment?:P People have a tendancy to view the whole past as if it was worse/completly different from the way we live now, when there are a lot of exceptions to the general rules of society. This attitude reminds me a of a course I took called ‘The Dark Ages, Not so Dark’ which sought to expand our ideas of an age which had been pretty much written off as a lost, brutal period. And feminist history is often about showing readers that the whole of women’s history isn’t some kind of unremitting drudge’s life even though it was undoubtedly tough to be a woman back in history.

    So although I agree with your idea generally that it’s great when historical fiction show the more brutal realities of the past, I struggle with the idea that brutal reality = total accuracy I guess. History is more nuanced than that. There were women around who bucked societal trends, there were romantic relationships between men that were accepted, there were slaves who rose up the economic ranks etc, etc But I take your point that there are a lot of historical novels around that obscure the darker truths of the past.

    • Reading your comment, and recalling the similar one you made on the post about genre, I wonder how far you would consider that the aim of literature is to promote the exceptional case, the much-needed role model? I’m not saying at all that people were miserable the entire time – people are people, and they work to bring joy and satisfaction into their lives. But even the rich before the mid-20th century didn’t have central heating or antibiotics, which necessarily made living a more treacherous business for them. And whilst there were exceptions – and I’m talking particularly about women here as that’s the area I know something about – they really were exceptions and by no means the norm.

      There’s a colleague of mine who I sit with sometimes at lunch and he’s an economist who studies game theory. His contention that people are highly predictable and respond in the same way in situations always provokes me into pointing out that literature is often concerned with situations that do not follow predictable lines, and people who do not behave the way the ‘average’ citizen does. It’s in this way that it broadens our horizons and reminds us of the extent of our possibilities (although that’s both good and bad ones – often literature will recount tragedies and traumas that are there for narrative effect, not because they are likely outcomes). But again, do we expect literature to do this all the time? Isn’t it there to provide a reliable portrait of average experience too? I wonder whether we will always end up falling back on what we all prefer personally for books to offer us, when we consider the question of what literature does?

  14. Loved your comments on racism and feminism, Litlove. Much as I might agree with the PC police in political terms, the efforts to filter history are often painful across various art forms. E.g., Kevin Costner’s hippie groovy former Civil War officer in “Dances with Wolves” (based on Mchael Blake’s novel) won 7 Oscars including Best Picture yet exasperates in multifold fashion.

    • Ha! I heard that you could judge a Kevin Costner movie by the length of his hair – the longer the hair, the worse the movie. It’s not a bad correlation! Political correctness is like any form of politeness: very useful to bear in mind in social situations where diplomacy is required. But (and I’ll say this very quietly), if it’s applied too heavily to art, then it can feel like censorship, and that’s uncomfortable too.

  15. Pingback: The Tea Lords by Hella Haasse: Discussion Post Part 2 | Iris on Books

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