Tag Archives: history

The Silence of the Girls

Perhaps unsurprisingly, my mother knows me very well. For my birthday this year, she sent me a book about the science inspiring Shelley’s Frankenstein, and Pat Barker’s The Silence of the Girls. Which I had never heard of but is described as telling the story go The Iliad through the voices of Briseis and other women.

Unknown.jpegYES!

Spoilers, I guess, for the story of The Iliad. I mean it’s been 2500 years or so, but I guess not everyone knows who dies…

A version of The Iliad from Briseis’ POV is different from, for example, that told by Cassandra or Helen. I think this is a marvellous idea, since she’s right there at the heart of the quarrel that is itself the heart of the problems in this story. And the first part is largely what I was hoping for. It starts with Briseis being captured, along with other women, and there’s a marvellous moment where she looks at a slave woman who looks back, and Briseis knows she is thinking ‘now it’s your turn.’ And Briseis knows that’s fair, because she’s never given much thought to the slave women in her life, who themselves have been captured in war. She and the others get carted off to the Trojan beach, and she’s handed to Achilles, and she experiences the life of a slave woman. There are some remarkable moments where she reflects on being a thing, and how she finds it hard herself to think of herself as anything but a thing.

And then. Sigh.

After Briseis is taken from Achilles and given to Agamemnon suddenly we get these sections written from Achilles’ point of view. I’m confused and disappointed. I understand the need to examine that all-important turning point of the story, but why does it have to be through the words of the fellas who’ve always been the ones telling the story? The title of the novel itself starts to seem a bit of a mockery. Couldn’t Barker have inserted some other unnamed slave girl to tell the story that she watches going on in the tent, while cleaning up? Or couldn’t Briseis have heard patches of the story later – she does marry one of Achilles’ companions – and have that patchwork nature of the narrative be a feature? If the death of Hector could be told from inside the weaving room rather than being viewed then I don’t see why we had to be taken into the lives of Patroclus and Achilles and see it from their point of view. And the women find out about the death of Achilles from the wailing on the battlefield – it’s not like they have to view everything to know it! In fact couldn’t that be part of the exploration of the nature of being female, and a slave, in this context?

I think an exploration of masculinity through the lens of the Achilles/Patroclus friendship would be deeply interesting, told well, that is not the story for a book called The Silence of the Girls.

Another minor quibble is that this book is not sure what it thinks of the gods. I am reminded of the film Troy (which I quite liked, fight me): it only shows Thetis, and it hints at her connection to the sea but not her divinity, so it’s definitely a story about humanity men. Here, though… the plague is probably because of Apollo but not definitely. There’s a line about Athens wrapping Achilles in her aegis but it’s unclear whether that’s meant to be read metaphorically. But Achilles is seen as the son of a goddess and Thetis is definitely one, having gone back to the sea when Achilles was a child (also it’s partly her fault he’s a bit of a psychopath), and she really does come out of the sea at Troy. So the gods are real but not especially involved? And there’s no comment from Briseis or others about whether the gods can be trusted or whether slaves just don’t get to call on deities and expect to be heard.

With the sections from Achilles’ perspective, the book verges on becoming just another retelling of the story rather than keeping its promise of exploring the consequences of war for women. It definitely does do some of that exploration, and more than half of it is from Briseis’ perspective (I estimate). But by shoving Achilles back into the story that he has always dominated – and not even to reflect on Briseis et al, which would have been startling and perhaps worthy – Barker undercuts her own apparent intentions of allowing the previously silent girls to speak.

While it’s beautiful work I am disappointed.

Dark Emu

Unknown.jpegEvery non-indigenous Australian should read this book.

I would hope that an indigenous Australian read this book would experience a lot of punching the air and YEAH! and “that’s what grandma/uncle/cousin always said!” moments. I fear, though, that instead there would be a lot of anger (‘why weren’t we told?’), bewilderment (ditto), dismay (ditto, and ‘where is it now?’) and sheer sadness for what’s been lost – physically, and as knowledge – and for what’s been taken away.

People like me – not indigenous, benefiting from ancestors who colonised this land, taking it away from the original owners – should be humbled to learn what was here for tens of thousands of years, which we then screwed up, and denied knowledge of.

Dark Emu is Bruce Pascoe’s exploration of the evidence that Aboriganal Australians had far more agricultural experience, knowledge, and activity than tends to be acknowledged in the standard Australian story. The general line is that when the British arrived, they found nomadic inhabitants who followed game and picked fruit from trees. More recently, you might hear people talk about Aboriginals using fire to move game or set up places where game would come for easy hunting. Pascoe shows that the agricultural acitivites of Aboriginal Australians went far, far beyond that.

As as historian, I really liked the way Pascoe built the evidence for his argument here. One of the things that’s often said about it being hard for writing pre-British invasion history is that the original folk left so few records, and because modern white historians privilege writing. Pascoe does multiple things to that. Firstly, he discusses the archaeological record, which is there if you accept what you’re looking at. Secondly, he shows that there is writing to be used: it’s the journals and letters of white explorers, who simultaneously recorded what they saw indigenous Australians doing and denigrated them. And thirdly, he makes some excellent points about how modern writers categorise societies and civilisation. My favourite bit is in talking about the use of pottery. Just because ancient Greek, Roman, and Chinese civilisations used pottery doens’t make pottery a marker of civilisation… it makes pottery a marker of those civilisations, of a particular way of doing society. And Pascoe quotes Bill Gammage in drawing a distinction between farming, and being a farmer: “one is an activity, the other a lifestyle” (14). Brilliant.

I also want to mention how much I appreciated and enjoyed Pascoe’s style. This is not a dry historical account, with the author attempting or pretending to absent himself from the discussion. Instead, Pascoe is very much present – commenting on where sections have been updated with further information from various sources, pointing out how Australian farmers could benefit from the knowledge of how Australian Aboriginals did things, occasionally making snarky comments about the explorers’ notes. It’s a very honest history, since no author is truly objective and aloof from their topic.

Before the British arrived, indigenous Australians had extensive methods to cultivate food, both on land and as aquaculture; they had various means of preserving and saving food for later; and they lived in houses of various construction types. That most Australians today don’t know this is because things were destroyed by squatters or ignored by archaeologists, historians, and others. This book is an incredibly important addition to the way Australia today should view its past, and consider its future.

You Daughters of Freedom

Unknown.jpegThis splendid book was sent to me by the publisher, Text, at no cost. It’s out at the start of October; RRP $49.99 in Australia.

Firstly, this is a hefty tome: it’s 550 pages. But the text itself is only (?) 480 pages, and it must be stressed that this is an immensely readable book with generally short chapters that make the story very readable. So don’t let the size put you off if this is a part of history that appeals to you.

If you know nothing about women achieving the vote in Australia or elsewhere, this is an excellent starting point. If, like me, you’ve read a bit already, this puts it all together in an excellent narrative, explores some of the most important characters, and sets it all in historical context magnificently. I also think you should read it if you’re at all interested in Australia’s early history as a nation.

I have a lot of Opinions on this topic. I think the fight for women’s suffrage in the first part of the 20th century is endlessly intriguing. (In fact my latest zine is on this topic. Do you get my zine?) Wright does a really great job of showing how suffrage was achieved in Australia, and then the influence that had on the rest of the world.

You may have heard that SA women got the right to vote in 1894 – a year after NZ women. But here’s the thing: because of an outrageous attempt by conservatives to be more radical than the progressives, which gloriously backfired, SA women were the first to also have the right to stand for election. Which most women around the world weren’t asking for because they thought it was a step too far. And here’s the other amazing thing: it included the right for Indigenous people of SA to vote. Oh yes. That’s really quite amazing. And because of this, and some smart wrangling from the SA delegates to the Federation conferences, that right eventually got transferred to Australian women, at least for federal elections, in 1902.

Um. Except for Indigenous women. And this is one thing that Wright excels at: pointing out that what’s being celebrated here – and it should be celebrated, certainly – is the right to vote and stand for elections for white women. It was an important step, and indeed was a revolutionary one for the world, but it wasn’t complete enfranchisement. It should be noted that Wright includes in the book some of the arguments about extending the franchise to Indigenous women from the Senate, and… I found it very hard to read that language coming from our politicians, in public. Yes, even though most of them were supporters of the White Australia Policy and I’ve seen Frazer Anning’s words. It was still sickening (so be warned). (The Indigenous population unreservedly got the right to vote in federal elections in 1962.)

Australian women fighting for the right to vote is only half the book. The rest is the way in which Australian women contributed to the struggle in “the Mother Country” (England) (where by comparison there was limited suffrage for women by 1918, and on the same basis as men only in 1928. I say ‘only’ but that’s earlier than France, which was 1944.) I’ve read about Muriel Matters, who was amazing, and about Vida Goldstein (who supported the White Australia Policy and by golly those historical folks are complicated to appreciate). I’ve also read a lot about English women’s activities in fighting for the vote. What I didn’t realise is how influential Australian women specifically were, in working for the various organisations and inspiring particular actions, AND as inspiration in general. Because the other thing that Wright does splendidly is draw out just how much of a ‘social laboratory’ Australia was seen as in the first decade or so of the twentieth century. People in the UK and USA in particular were watching Australia, this new nation, as we tried new things and made them work (first Labour govt in the world, various somewhat socialist things, ladies voting…). Vida Goldstein was the first Australian woman to meet a US president! and so on. It’s quite thrilling to see what Australian women were doing out in the world.

Finally, I also adored the final chapter, wherein Wright destroys the notion that Australia should see its participation at Gallipoli as the birth of the nation, and instead points out just how much it had achieved before then.

This book is amazing.

Women in science history

In a theoretical feminist bingo card, there is one square for Marie Curie: The Only Female Scientist. (If you are particularly nerdy you may also have Ada Lovelace, First Computer Programmer.) Of course this does not reflect reality, and it doesn’t reflect historical reality either – but science history books are so often focussed on the Lone (invariably male) Genius labouring away in the lab that you could be forgiven for thinking that science does actually happen in a vacuum. This is, of course, a fallacy, as these four books demonstrate.

Unknown.jpegPatricia Fara, Pandora’s Breeches: Women, Science and Power in the Enlightenment(Pimlico, 2004)

Pandora in breeches is an abomination. Pandora is already a problem: the first woman, in Greek mythology, whose existence brings all sorts of problems to the (male) world. But Pandora in breeches means that Pandora is also trying to take over the male world. In this book, Patricia Fara delves into the myth of the lone male scientific genius and exposes it as just that – a myth. While refusing the suggestion that Hypatia and Katherine Johnson could have been at all comfortable sitting next to each other at a dinner party, Fara reclaims the existence of women in scientific endeavour. She does this by taking several Lone Genius men (Descartes, Linnaeus, Lavoisier, Newton…) and examining the role that women played in their scientific lives. In some cases, this is domestically: when science is being done in the home, wives and sisters and household staff get drawn into the science almost automatically. In other cases, it is through correspondence, or through a woman’s own writing that is picked up and expanded on by a man because the woman wasn’t allowed to present her ideas in a public forum. Fara has surely only scratched the surface of the ways in which women contributed to science in this period (and, as she points out, also the male labourers who constructed equipment and so on).

Unknown.jpegDava Sobel, The Glass Universe: How the Ladies of the Harvard Observatory Took the Measure of the Stars (Viking, 2016)

When the Harvard Observatory started taking pictures of the night sky, they did so with glass plates. In order to understand what was happening on those plates, the Observatory needed meticulous ‘calculators’ to look at each one and catalogue the tiny pin pricks of light. This job was usually perceived as tedious, and therefore perfect for women – who were also cheaper to hire. So for decades, women worked on the half a million or so plates made by Harvard and in doing so, made or contributed towards the significant discoveries that form the basis of astronomy today. What stars are made of, the idea of variable stars, classifications of stars – these things were enabled by these women. An intriguing aspect of Sobel’s narrative is that as well as exploring the contributions of the women employed by the Observatory, she explores the contribution of women who gave substantial funding to it – thereby enabling the place to conduct science that might otherwise have been impossible – and the place of the male astronomers’ wives, who also helped significantly in the running of the Observatory.

Unknown-2.jpegPatricia Far, A Lab of One’s Own: Science and Suffrage in the First World War (Oxford University Press, 2018)

The blurb for this book may surprise many readers, since it proclaims 2018 to be a ‘double centenary: peace was declared in war-wracked Europe, and women won the vote after decades of struggle’. Presumably this edition of the book was never meant to be seen outside of the UK. Nonetheless, this is a generally absorbing account of the scientific contribution of women during the First World War. As with her book on the Enlightenment, Fara has dug into archives and found significant records of women in various scientific establishments, doing experimental work, as well as munitions factories and other such manual labour, generally replacing the men who have gone to fight. Women were active in museums, and as doctors (why have I never heard of the female British doctors in places like Salonika?), and in intelligence work. There are also mysteries, like the unnamed clerk awarded an MBE… war secrets taken to the grave, presumably. It must be said that sometimes the book is confused about exactly what it wants to do. There are chapters on science with little discussion of any women being involved, and sections about suffrage that have very little to do with science. Nonetheless overall this book does expand the idea of who contributed to the UK’s war effort in World War 1, and explores the many reasons that women had for wanting to be involved in those efforts.

Unknown.jpegMargot Lee Shetterly, Hidden Figures (HarperCollins, 2016)

Thanks to the film that was made at the same time as the book was published, this story of the black female mathematicians who worked for NASA (and for NASA’s predecessor) is probably the best-known of these stories. It is a crucial one, since as far as I can tell all of the women in the other three histories were white. Black women are historically even more obscured than white women. Shetterly has done an excellent job of unearthing references to the work of these West Area ‘computers’ so that their contribution to American space exploration can be appreciated. She gives their educational and social context – which was vital for me since although I know a little about segregation I know almost nothing about historically-black colleges. Shetterly traces the connections between places, people, and influences through some specific women, like Dorothy Vaughan, Katherine Goble Johnson, Mary Jackson and Christine Darden; she also sets the work of these women in the larger NASA context to show just how vital their work was. Shetterly also shows how these women fit into their communities, and how they encouraged the women and girls around them simply by being who they were, and working where they did.

Too Big to Walk

Unknown.jpegBuy this book, my beloved said. You love dinosaur science, he said! It’ll be great, he said.

I do love dinosaurs. I was intrigued by the ideas that Brian Ford presented. But I did not love this book. This book is at least three books, maybe more, in one. I’m not sure Ford realised that.

The blurb says that the book “reviews the latest scientific evidence” about dinosaurs to suggest that a lot of things palaeontologists are presenting “are no more than convent fictions.” Whoo, way to go with the controversy. And I would have loved the heck out of a well-argued, well-presented, scientific book about that. In fact, I did love those 80 or 100 pages of this 450-odd page book. But that leaves another 350 or so pages.

In those pages, Ford is doing something completely different. For a start, he’s presenting a history of how humans have interacted with dinosaurs – that is, a history of palaeontology, complete with the theories about some bones belonging to giant humans of the past and so on. Fascinating! but so totally irrelevant to a scientific book about dinosaurs that, to use an in-joke, it’s not even wrong. And then there’s the section on the discovery of continental drift and tectonic plates and so on. Also fascinating. In fact, I think I’ve read a book about that already. This time, not quite so irrelevant to a book about dinosaurs – Ford’s theory is that dinosaurs lived by wading in shallow lakes, and they went extinct with Pangea breaking up and the climate changing and the lakes evaporating – but it didn’t need 50 or so pages on the topic. It definitely didn’t need the entire history lesson on the topic; just a page or two on the facts would have been quite sufficient.

Lastly, there’s also an irritated article for a science journal lurking in here: one which details the ways in which Ford has been ignored and calumniated by the scientific world (in his view). I think that calling out established science, when you have a solid theory that fits the evidence, is a necessary and reasonable thing to do. Maybe it would even fit into a book about that new and exciting but controversial theory. (I’m no palaeontologist but Ford presents a compelling case that should surely actually be considered. But I don’t think it’s presented well here – in that I think it should have been more clearly separated out from a discussion of the science.

So. The theory is really interesting, and if what he says is true – like the astounding energy required to pump blood up to the head of one of those enormous herbivores with super long necks – then I’m not going to be surprised if in a couple decades it’s the standard, or at least viable, way of talking about dinosaurs. But this book was incredibly frustrating because it just didn’t know what it wanted to be.

The Written World: review

UnknownThis book was sent to me by the publisher, Allen&Unwin, at no cost. It’s available now; RRP $32.99.

The premise of this book is to examine how literature has shaped history – in fact, not just literature itself, but also the inventions that have facilitated the dissemination of literature around the world throughout history. It “offers a new and enticing perspective on human history,” according to the blurb.

Some of the ideas in the book are really interesting (can you tell where this review is going?). The first chapter, about Alexander and his obsession with the stories of Troy, offer quite an intriguing (although I don’t think new) insight into one of the things driving that man to go and conquer so much land. However, even if all the chapters were individually interesting, it doesn’t feel like there’s an overarching connection between them. Yes there’s the idea of literature (more on that in a bit), but the ways in which literature has impacted on people is vastly different, and Puchner doesn’t seem to try to find commonalities – or draw out the differences in any way. And then it jumps to chapters about technology, which I’m certainly interested in but they seem even more disconnected. Additionally, there’s way more emphasis on retelling stories, like that of Troy or Gilgamesh, than I had expected; it feels quite unnecessary when the specifics of a story aren’t important to the history that the book should be focusing on.

There are other issues, too. For instance, there are grand generalisations for instance about “scribes” and their roles and attitudes; and then there’s the bit where Puchner presents a short biography of the biblical figure Ezra… and then admits that it’s just one possible version of his life. But probably the most egregious is the fact that there is no effort to define literature. And that’s a serious problem. For me, ‘literature’ is fiction, and it’s a value judgement; you can’t consciously set out to write literature (we can have a fight about this if you like). Anyway: Iliad? Sure. Epic of Gilgamesh? No problem. The Tale of Genji? Haven’t read it but given its status, happy to accept it. The Bible? well… ok, I can see how that works. Anything written by Martin Luther? The Mayan codices? Ben Franklin’s newspapers and letters, The Communist Manifesto? Uh, I think not. And does it have to be written? Play scripts aren’t really intended to be read, for example; so there’s a whole issue with the chapter on enscribing oral traditions. So… what ties these together? Puchner doesn’t bother to tell us.

Yet more problems: there’s a chapter on Goethe that alleges to be about world literature as an idea, but it doesn’t develop that concept in the slightest, just talks about Goethe. The last chapter has an incredibly snobby attitude towards Harry Potter that’s remarkable for not being that remarkable. Apparently HP merchandising is “out-of-control” (p332) and… somehow that takes away from it being literature? Or something?

Apparently at some point Puchner’s editor said that he should add more of himself to the text, and I have to disagree with that decision here. Sometimes it works – Bethany Hughes’ reminiscences about being in Istanbul were charming – but here they just come across as indulgent; not helped by sometimes being irrelevant.

Some choice quotes that bugged me: “Nothing is more familiar to us than a rabbi holding a scroll…” (p56). You what? Also, on that same page: he calls it the Hebrew Bible. Dude.

Here’s a minor one: people using framing narratives as in One Thousand and One Nights: lots of people have used this idea, “from Chaucer to Boccaccio” (p134). Mate. Boccaccio died first, but also, they lived in the same century. That’s like saying “there’s been some good Australian musicians, from John Farnham to Jimmy Barnes!”

In the chapter about the Popol Vuh and writing in the Mayan culture, Puchner refers to the people being invaded by Pizarro, Cortes and their cohorts as “Indians” (chapter 8).

Hey authors, your job’s really easy right? “It’s not such a terrible job, being an author. You do some research, come up with characters, shape a plot that unfolds central themes and ideas. Once you’re done, you find a publisher, who in turn finds a printer…” (p193). Oh my. And apparently the American Declaration of Independence influenced the proclamation of independence in Haiti… by way of the French Revolution, which Puchner neglects to mention. Goethe talking to his friend about how excellent Chinese novels were, and the latter is amazed: Puchner comments: “One sympathises: Who wants to read thousands of Chinese novels?” (p235). OH MY WORD. DUDE.

The take away here is: great idea, average to occasionally poor execution. I was sad.

Daphne Park, Queen of Spies

Unknown.jpegThe title is misleading, because she was never the head of MI6 or anything. But she was one of the few women working in MI6 when it first got going and she did end up pretty senior, so I guess it’s what you get when you’re trying to come up with a catchy title.

Anyway, Daphne Park sounds like one helluva woman. Grew up in Tanganyika in the 30s, stayed with aunts to go to school in the UK, got a job in World War 2 that was kind of undercover and went from there, with some missteps along the way, to being an actual spy in MI6. She was a product of her time: deeply suspicious of the USSR for her whole life, a supporter of Margaret Thatcher, and probably someone I would have argued with a lot by the end of her life. But she also seems to have been fearless, determined, entrepreneurial, ruthless, and generally pretty amazing as a spy. She was eventually made a peer! Can’t help but wonder what she and Gertrude Bell would have made of one another, what with their getting into other nations’ business and all.

As well as this being a biography of a remarkable woman (remarkable in what she did, and remarkable in being very rare for her time), it’s also an exploration of the role of spies during the Cold War. There were several moments where I vocally expressed my displeasure, for instance regarding the international interference in Congo’s first elections. I’m horrified by what the UK, and the US and others, felt they had a right to do in those third-party countries. So it’s unlikely you’ll come away from this thinking Park was always in the right… but she certainly did her job. Sometimes, above and beyond. And, while she didn’t quite do it backwards and in high heels like Ginger Rogers, she was definitely battling that good old sexism for pretty much her entire career.

The Conscription Conflict and the Great War

This book was sent to me by the publisher, Monash University, at no cost. This review initially appeared in the History Teachers of Victoria journal, AgoraUnknown.jpeg

The year I got back to teaching Year 9 history I happened to visit Canberra. I wasn’t that keen on the Australian War Memorial – not being a huge fan of military history – but my co-traveller wanted to, so we did. Knowing that I would be teaching something about the conscription debate as part of our history unit, I looked out for what the AWM might say about it. I found it in the 1916 room on the First World War: a single display, showing some postcards from the Yes and No campaigns, accompanied by very little explanation about the situation. When we got to the book shop, I asked whether they had any books on conscription or, failing that, any books on the home front with information about the debate. No, they didn’t.

It turns out I shouldn’t have been surprised at the lack of books on the conscription debate; there hasn’t been a “book length treatment of the conflict since Leslie Jauncey’s effort to document some of the key actors, developments and sources in 1935” (p6). This is amazing and, frankly, depressing, since it “was a defining feature of wartime Australia” (p2) and “unique… quite without precedent – not just in Australia, but anywhere in the world” (p3). The aims of The Conscription Debate are manifold: to offer new interpretations; to compare the Australian experience with other English-speaking countries at the time; and – most provocatively – to “intervene in current debates about how to understand the war by contributing to a more accurate and rounded picture of how it was experienced” (pp6-7). The authors do meet these aims – not always in a great deal of detail, given the length of the book, but sufficiently to give an overview of the issues.

Chapters 1 and 2 (Douglas Newton and Robin Archer) make up Part 1 and set out the philosophical and political context of the conscription. These were the two chapters I found most difficult to follow. I think they would be best read with at least some understanding of nineteenth-century British and Australian political philosophy, especially of what it meant to be ‘liberal’ at that time, as well as an understanding of the ins and outs of contemporary British politics more generally. This is not my area of expertise, so I found myself floundering through the discussion of Liberal Imperialists and New Liberals and Little Englanders. Nonetheless, these chapters are important to the overall picture this volume is putting forward: that the traditions of liberalism, and the existence of the labour movement, are fundamental to understanding the conscription debate.

Part 2 consists of Chapters 3 (on the Antis); Chapter 4 (on the Yes campaign at the University of Melbourne); and Chapter 5 (an examination of the poll results in both 1916 and 1917). In Chapter 3 Frank Bongiorno gives a clear, if brief, overview of some of the incentives for voting no: tyranny vs freedom, women as mothers, and (embarrassingly) ‘keeping Australia white and free’. He speaks not just of the well-known names like Daniel Mannix but also those who have largely slipped off the historical radar. In Chapter 4 Joy Damousi looks at a group of Melbourne University academics such as Alexander Leeper and Jessie Webb who actively campaigned for conscription, pointing out that the yes campaign has rarely been analysed “as a set of arguments or as a movement in its own right” (p93). Such arguments included the suggestion that voting no would significantly contribute to a German victory and Australia becoming a German colony, and that it was democracy that was at stake in this war – so citizens must “show themselves worthy of these freedoms” (p101). Intriguingly, many of these academics went on to be involved in the League of Nations Union. In Chapter 5, Murray Goot undertakes a detailed examination of election results to try and understand voting patterns amongst Labor voters and not, in metro and regional areas, among women, British and German migrants, and between Catholics and Protestants. This chapter is not for those afraid of percentages, but for those interested in the history of Australian voting it is deeply fascinating.

John Connor (Chapter 6) and Ross McKibbin (Chapter 7), in Part 3, match Part 1 in a sense: they put the Australian conscription debate into international context by comparing experiences in other English-speaking countries. Connor gives a chronological overview of English-speaking countries, all of which instituted conscription in some form, while McKibbin provides a more detailed comparison of Britain and Australia. These two chapters highlight the remarkable nature of Australia’s experience at the time, since nowhere else put the question to its citizens in the same way. It also suggests that this issue of conscription and how citizens respond is one that warrants further research.

Finally, Sean Scalmer in Part 4 gives an overview of how the conscription debate – and especially the Antis – have been remembered in Australian history: from being a labour-movement legend to its eclipse thanks to conscription in World War 2 and, more recently, how it fits in with “the broader revival of Anzac commemoration and enthusiasm” (p206). Deeply interesting, this chapter too suggests that there is a lot of room for further research.

One issue I had with the book overall was the use of the word ‘referendum’. My understanding was that non-binding polls like this, which were not asking to change the constitution, were properly called plebiscites. Most of the authors in this book call it a referendum… except Frank Bongiorno in Chapter 3. I would have appreciated some discussion of the terminology, and an explanation for the words used (also consistency).

This is, to coin a phrase, the book on conscription we had to have – because it’s essentially the first. It’s not the book on conscription I wished for; that imaginary book has a lot more about the individuals (I adore Vida Goldstein) and groups that were campaigning both for and against the issue. But The Conscription Conflict does an admirable job of reminding us why 1916 and 1917 were important years for Australia outside of the fighting going on in Europe; it sets out areas that need further research; and hopefully, it will serve to inspire someone (or many someones) to dig deeper into this fascinating period in Australian history.

Istanbul: A Tale of Three Cities

This book was sent to me by the publisher, Hachette, at no cost. This review first appeared in the History Teachers of VictoriaUnknown.jpeg journal Agora.

If you are especially keen on the history of the Byzantine Empire, or the Eastern Roman Empire, like me you might have bought the classic John Julius Norwich trilogy. Again if you are like me, you may have got to the end of the second book and thought, “No more!” Despite that, the city at the heart of that empire (thrice-named, eat your heart out New York) has always enthralled me – and, Bettany Hughes suggests, has fascinated, enticed, and aggravated people for a good few thousand years.

Firstly: don’t be put off by the page count. Those 800 pages include an extensive timeline, detailed (and interesting but not imperative) endnotes, a thorough bibliography and an index. At 600 pages, with often quite short chapters, this is a very approachable book for such a complicated subject.

Hughes attempts to do two things in this book, and generally succeeds; she calls it “an organic examination – an archaeology of both place and culture” (6). It is a chronological examination of the development of the city now called Istanbul – the invasions and innovations and growth through successive regime changes (although “not a catch-all of Istanbul’s past” (3)). However, woven through that is a social history of the people who made the city what it is. This includes such luminaries as Theodora and Constantine and Süleyman II, but also the everyday people who made the city function. There are chapters, for instance, on the presence of eunuchs in Constantinople, and the realities of the harem (insofar as they can be known), and the Varangian Guard. Hughes includes discussion of the various peoples who threatened, worked with, and generally impacted on the city (Goths, Vandals, Vikings, Turks). In doing so she naturally expands her focus beyond the city walls, but this is unavoidable when dealing with the likes of a city such as Byzantion. Indeed, it adds greatly to the context of the book: how to understand the numerous Muslim sieges and eventual conquest of the city without an understanding of the growth of Islam? How to understand the birth of Turkey as a country and the move of the capital to Ankara without the context of the First World War and the internal Ottoman politics of the time? And so on. Hughes does a magnificent job of weaving all of these pieces together into a coherent whole.

Nominally the book’s narrative stops at 1924; there’s a chapter after that about Istanbul’s future, but it’s a fairly sweeping overview of the following ninety years. However, something that I very much enjoyed and which added to the book’s approachability is that Hughes makes occasional reference to contemporary events from when she is writing (2016). A passing reference to Prime Minister Erdoğan acting in a similar fashion to Justinian, preparing “to take his money and to fly” (219), points up similarities in situations that may provoke and intrigue the reader. Describing the city as “well designed for rioting” and using the Gezi Park/Taksim Square riots to indicate this truth in 2013 (when Hughes was herself in the city), and then proceed to discuss the AD 532 Nika riots, suggests a continuation in the city’s physical existence that is extraordinary over that span in time.

One of the most captivating aspects of Hughes’ book is her wonderful use of archaeological evidence. There are frequent references to discoveries made in Istanbul and elsewhere around the world, and how the goods and structures uncovered are continuing to change historians’ and archaeologists’ understandings of different periods. For a historian to remind her reader that the story of a place is not completely known is refreshing. She contextualises these sites, too: to find “one of the few scraps of evidence for one of the most remarkable phenomena of the medieval world” (the Varangian Guard), one passes “young men push[ing] second-hand mattresses… on wooden carts and kids sort[ing] through piles of redundant television aerials” (321). This provides a visceral feel for the city as it is today – a living city, not abandoned; a city continuing to leave behind remains for future archaeologists to sift and puzzle through. Hughes also has a lovely sense of humour that occasionally pokes through: in discussing the archaeological finds at Tintagel (which indicate trade connections between that part of England and the Byzantine world), she describes the finding of the graffito reading “Artugno” as “[u]tterly unhelpful for the historian but irresistible for the tourist guides” (292).

Another aspect of Hughes’ attitude towards the city and her people over time is the sympathy she displays. In speaking of the development of iconoclasm, for instance, which she says historians have “[o]ften described… as an irrational, typically ‘Dark Ages’ response” to the consequences of the Theran volcanic eruption in AD 726, Hughes insists “we have to pause for a moment to think of the horror of Thera’s eruption” and proceeds to describe the physical realities of such an eruption (300). This is a lovely moment of historical empathy that enables the reader to glimpse life for an eighth-century Byzantine.

As a physical object, it’s well-designed. The cover is perhaps predictable but gorgeous nonetheless. There are three sets of colour plates, covering a range of people and events, and many black and white images throughout. Each section (there are eight, each representing some important change in Istanbul’s history) has a series of maps at the start, showing changes in the city as well as context such as the reach of the Byzantine or Ottoman Empire over time (there is one section where the map, which goes over two pages, is split by the colour picture insert; that was a bit irritating).

Hughes’ passion for Istanbul – for the history of the place and for the contemporary city – come through across the volume. She delights in all aspects of its history and she wants the reader to share that with her. As an introduction to the complexity of the city’s history, as a history of a place that has impacted on European and Asian history for 2500 years (and was inhabited for many thousands of years before that), and as an example of how history writing can be made approachable, this is a fabulous book.

100 Nasty Women of History

Unknown.jpegThis book was sent to me by the publisher, Hachette, at no cost. RRP $32.99 trade paperback; it’s available now.

This is a great idea for a book, obviously; it’s similar in concept to Cranky Ladies of History although with a more pointed political stick, given the timing.

So… look. I have a few issues with it. Some of these are particularly my issues and may not be a problem for other people. So let me start with the good things.

  1. There are women in here I’ve never heard of. And that includes in the historical section, not just in the more modern sections. That’s awesome. And is largely because…
  2. The women aren’t just European. That is also awesome. The opening section on Wonderful Ancient Weirdos includes Seondeok of Silla (Korea), Khayzoun (Yemen/ Baghdada), and Subh (Basque/Cordoba), as well as Sappho and Hatshepsut and others.
  3. It acknowledges some of the problems with sources, and that info about women can be hard to come at. Too true.

But. Hmm. I’m actually writing this review before I finish reading it, for two reasons. It’s going to take me a long time to read because each entry is only a couple of pages long, and I find that exhausting… and I’m not sure I actually will read the whole thing. But since I got it to review, I wanted to write something about it close to publication.

The above points are absolutely reasons to buy and flick through this book. It’s got a bit of swearing so it’s not quite right for ten year olds, but 15 years olds? oh yes. Do it. Have it on the shelf ready to pull out to point out just a few examples of women being awesome scientists or what have you. However… like I said. Some things rub me the wrong way.

  1. The introduction includes this: “Where there are mistakes, forgive me. I have done the best I can, and it turns out there is a lot of history out there which I have shoved into my eye sockets. processed through the lukewarm innards of my brain, and squeezed through my fingers. It’s inevitable that some things will have gotten lost on that perilous, squidgy journey” (4). And… it really made me uncomfortable. Why is she disparaging her intelligence? Why is she blase about mistakes? By all means acknowledge there may be some, and I know she’s being humourous, but this way of presenting just irked me.
  2. The first chapter is “Wonderful ancient weirdos”. I guess she was going for alliteration but these are powerful women she’s discussing, and she’s calling them weirdos? That’s sending the wrong message, in my book.
  3. Also on this chapter: ancient? Uh, no. Hatshepsut, sure. Sappho, yes. But Margery Kempe, Hildegard von Bingen, and the others are all medieval, or at best early medieval. These terms matter, for me, because the context is important. Everything before the Industrial Revolution is not ancient.
  4. I don’t love the language. No, this isn’t a tone argument. This is definitely the most idisyncratic complaint, and your mileage may well vary. For instance, Hildegard’s regime described thus: “The strict regime of the convent demanded that each day the nuns have… eight hours of manual labour, which entailed, I dunno, putting up retaining walls and stuff” (26). That’s irksome for me.
  5. Verging on not caring about historical accuracy: “This is my book, and everyone gets laid” (10), on whether Hatshepsut and her chief advisor were lovers. Just nooo.
  6. Historical accuracy again: I skipped to the chapter on Alexandra Kollontai, and I can’t tell you how pleased I am that she got a chapter! but it says that International Women’s Day was February 7th by the Russian calendar, in 1917… but it was Feb 23. That’s just careless. Also? “Sorry, New Zealand, I know you gave women [the right to vote] in 1893, but you’re just so little and far away” (376). Far away from whom? Are only Americans going to read this?
  7. The end of Seondeok’s chapter: “Ugh, men” (18).
  8. Also, they’re not arranged in chronological order, within their thematic chapters, and that drives me batty.
  9. Also not in order, this time alphabetical, is the Old People Glossary, which in itself (despite my comments on the language) is quote amusing. I’m fine with using modern slang in these sorts of biographies; I think it can make them much more approachable. But why, why would you not put the words in alphabetical order??

So… there you go. Decide for yourself how annoying these issues are vs having a handy reference to Kollontai and Rosa Luxembourg, Mergery Kempe and Sappho, Queen Nanny of the Maroons and Sojourner Truth, Hypatia and Nana Asma’u and 92 other women on the shelf.