Monday 16 April 2018

Jack Fortune and the British Empire - by Sue Purkiss

It's always lovely to read a good review, and of course I was delighted with one I was sent recently. It's about my recently published book for children, Jack Fortune and the Search for the Hidden Valley. It was written by Carmel Ballinger and it appeared in the Australian magazine, Magpies. There are lots of nice things in it, and when I read it, I would have turned cartwheels out of pure joy (had I been able to - I've never come close).

But there was one particular comment that made me feel very relieved indeed. Let me explain.

It used to seem that history was set. All you needed to do was read a textbook, or even Sellers and Yeatman's 1066 And All That, and then you would be quite clear as to what happened in the Battle of Hastings, how the Vikings laid waste to Anglo-Saxon Britain (wearing, of course, helmets with horns on, and possibly going from right to left),  and whether or not a particular King or Queen was a Good or a Bad Thing. It was all quite simple and straightforward.

But all that's changed, hasn't it? History is constantly being re-evaluated. Even the Vikings are now revealed to have been arty, creative types underneath all the brag and bluster.

And as I was writing Jack, I realised that there was a monumental, looming presence that I hadn't really taken proper account of. It's huge, and yet we almost don't see it, because it's so much a part of our history. I certainly don't think we're really clear as to what we think about it. It's a bit uncomfortable, so we tend to shy away from it. I refer to the British Empire. When I was a child in post-war Britain, there were still huge areas of the map which were coloured pink - that was just how it was, and by-and-large, it was assumed to be a good thing. We don't have an empire now, but we still honour people with, for example, the Order of the British Empire, as if the empire was something glorious. But was it? Well, probably, like the curate's egg (where does that saying come from?) it was good in parts.

The British Empire in 1915

I first got the idea for Jack when I read a book about the plant-hunters. I've written several posts about them - if you enter 'plant-hunters' into the search box on the right, you'll easily find them. The plant hunters seemed to me to be crazily brave, charging off into territory about which they knew little, often alone, in search of new plants to bring back to Britain. It was all very exciting, and I thought a story about a young plant-hunter could work brilliantly for children. (I'm not saying it did work brilliantly, but I tried.)

I decided to follow the adventures of Joseph Hooker in the Himalayas in the middle of the 19th century. But I felt I needed to do a lot of background reading. And as I did, I began to feel a bit uncomfortable. Hooker was undoubtedly brave, tough and resourceful. But was he just a little bit patronising towards the people whose lands he was passing through? After all, rhododendrons were new to him - but they weren't new to the inhabitants of Sikkim. Was it completely okay for him to take what he wanted, and for the British to use plants in ways that served their colonising mission - for instance, introducing tea production to India in order to compete with the Chinese monopoly?

I felt I needed to read more about the history of the British in India. One of the books was The White Mughals, by William Dalrymple - a fascinating read about India at the end of the 18th and beginning of the 19th centuries. At this time, at least some of the British were not just respectful of Indian culture - they fell in love with it. And India was not yet part of the empire. The seeds of British domination and exploitation had certainly already been sown - but it seemed a more innocent time: a more respectful time. (I accept that my knowledge is not at all profound, and this assessment may have been hopeful rather than accurate.)

Anyway, I decided to set my story at this point, rather than later in the 19th century. And I used Jack's youth as a way to observe with a clear, unprejudiced eye the way some of the British were already behaving; so for instance, when he first enters an English official's house in Calcutta (as it was called then), he is surprised to see that it looks exactly like a house back in England. Why come all this way, he wonders, to reproduce what you had left behind? His uncle is searching for a particular flower, a blue rhododendron: when he is refused permission to continue his expedition, it is Jack who rescues the situation - because he realises that what they must do is demonstrate respect for the country they have come to, rather than high-handedly assume that they can take exactly what they want, while giving nothing in return.

But I still felt a little uneasy. The more I'd read, the less certain I'd become that the British Empire was, as it was seen to be when I was a child, A Good Thing. And plant hunting seemed to be far more tied up with empire than I'd realised at first.

So the comment that particularly pleased me in this review? It was this: The author touches lightly on issues of colonisation - the role of servants, the idea of 'going native' and the relationship between the colonial power and the native countrymen. The reviewer had got it: she'd seen what I was trying to do. I sighed with relief and did a happy dance.

She said lots of other nice things too. I wish I could show you the whole review, but it's not online and I can't work out how to link to it - so you're off the hook. But you could just read Jack Fortune instead...


Joan Lennon said...

Yes, do read Jack - and yes, Sue's handling of thorny issues is light and deft. A book to be proud of!

Penny Dolan said...

Reading the book, I felt that the undoubted issues were handled well and thoughtfully and in a way that suited younger readers.

Lynne Benton said...

Great post, Sue, and delighted that your Australian reviewer appreciated how well you'd managed the problem of hindsight. I can also thoroughly recommend "Jack Fortune".