For Dutch Lit Month over at Iris’s site, I’ve been reading The Tea Lords by Hella S. Haasse, the story of an extensive Dutch family colonising the island of Java with their tea, coffee and quinine plantations. The story is told mostly from the perspective of Rudolf, a young and ambitious man at the start, and charts his experiences up until the end of his life. What is unusual about this historical novel is its basis in a cache of family letters and documents. Hella S. Haasse explains in a postface that the book should not be considered as ‘fiction’. ‘The material is therefore not invented; rather it has been chosen and arranged to meet the demands of a novel.’ I found this a fascinating remark – what novelistic demands does Haasse meet? In the postface, all she notes is that many factual details have been omitted and the story focuses on a select group of individuals. But as we move through the second half of the book, and the fragmentation becomes more and more apparent, I felt it was the differences between history and fiction that the book actually emphasised.
The first half had been all about the slow build-up of Rudolph making his way out to Java, learning the ropes of plantation farming and then finally finding himself a wife. This is Jenny, a woman who has lived all her life in Java, but whose family is also ex-pat. Jenny’s story was one that I was looking forward to hearing, although in the end it was the usual tale of relentless pregnancy and childbirth, with its attendant horrors and tragedies. Jenny longs all her life for society, for parties and races and pretty frocks, and instead she’s stuck in the middle of nowhere with a very money-conscious husband obsessed with his business and an awful lot of children in a house full of draughts and leaks. Forebearing for many years, Jenny loses it in middle age and succumbs to hysteria. Eventually, she takes poison and dies. If this had been a ‘proper’ novel, and not tied to archive material, we would have heard a great deal more about Jenny. But given that we must suppose her surviving letters to be few, she ends up a faint voice in the narrative. The historical eclipsing of women within a family is mirrored by her relegation to the background of this book.
In this second half, the pace picks up considerably, and in the same number of pages it takes Rudolph to cover his formative years, he develops his plantations to the point of success and riches, falls out spectacularly with most of his family over the valuation of their share in his plantations (which he wants to buy back in order to be sole owner), and produces five children who grow up to marry and take on plantations of their own. By necessity we are offered only glimpses into these hectic years, quoted fragments of letters passing between family members and God’s-eye-view forays onto the occasions for a couple of group photographs. I found this book strangely compelling; I really wanted to know what happened to the family, and despite the partial nature of the knowledge, the narrative does at least satisfy that requirement. We get some of the ‘facts’ about the twists and turns their lives took.
But I couldn’t help but wonder whether a narrative account of events is always the same thing as a story. By the end of the book, although I knew what fates had befallen the main characters, I did not know what those fates meant. What lessons the next generation of planters had learned from watching their parents struggle and suffer, succeed and fail, was impossible to tell. More subtle and nuanced conclusions about the condition of women in this place and time other than that their lives pretty much sucked, I could not deduce. Rudolph provides a particularly poignant illustration in one of the closing chapters of the book. After the death of his wife, he is forced to recognise her hatred of the life she led, not just by her suicide but through letters he is given, things he is finally told. Rudolph is lost to painful cognitive dissonance. He loved his wife and cannot conceive how she could have felt abandoned and isolated. He does not know what he could have done differently. In many ways this is his unfortunate fate – to be a man misunderstood. The acrimonious letters that pass between him and his family over the question of buying them out of the plantation show how what seems reasonable to him is experienced as miserly and unjust by others. Is Rudolph a good man or a bad one? Is he a kind and considerate or a tyrant? It is ultimately impossible to know.
My feeling is that if this had been a novel, we might have been given a more coherent portrait, or else the meaningful point of the portrait would have been his undecidability. Instead, my own experience of the novel was of characters who faded as the narrative progressed until they were as sepia and hard to make out as the actual mid-nineteenth century figures in those family photos. I think that history is the task of reconstructing parts of our ancestor’s lives, but because those lives are real, they are not readily significant. Life doesn’t mean anything unless you pick out a story from it. Because of this, history’s moral universe tends to lie with governments and monarchies and other systems of power. What’s significant is the structure that surrounds those individual lives, the culture, the organisation of society. The bigger picture, in other words. Novels, in their ability to choose their circumstances and flesh out their characters, have the rich possibility of representing the whole world and making it meaningful. Hella S. Haasse’s book, falling in some awkward middle ground, didn’t quite manage to find meaning in either. And yet for all its flaws – and I did think it a flawed book – I thoroughly enjoyed it. So go figure that one out!