The Tea Lords by Hella Haasse: Discussion Post Part 1

The Tea Lords - Hella HaasseThis is the first of two posts for the June Read Along of The Tea Lords by Hella Haasse. Want to join in? It’s not too late to read & discuss the book here, or in the next post going up on June 29th!

For this discussion post, I have read up to page 187, or up to the beginning of the chapter called The Family. This first half of the book traces the end of Rudolf Kerkhoven’s studies and his travels and settling in Dutch colonial Java. Rudolf Kerkhoven is from a wealthy family, and Rudolf himself is rather upright and likes to stick to the rules. In Java, he learns to run tea estates from family members. There, he also learns that in a colonial society, there are many hierarchical ties to consider, including that of family members higher and lower in social, economical, and political influence. At the end of the first part of the book, Rudolf has bought an estate of his own and tries to transform it into a productive one. Meanwhile, he has also courted Jenny, who marries him and settles with him at Gamboeng.

I admit I had some trouble getting into this novel, but as I continued reading I started to become more and more involved in the story. So much so that having now reached the halfway point, I cannot wait to continue reading. Nevertheless, the difficulties I had with feeling involved in the story, as well as the questions I still have about the executions on some counts, have led me to pose questions about two interrelated themes: that of the difference between history and historical fiction, and that of writing historical fiction about a colonial setting. I have a feeling these might be themes I’d like to revisit when I have finished the book, so for now they are formulated more as questions than answers. I do hope you find these questions provide an interesting entry to discuss the book together.

On writing historical fiction:

It is interesting that Haasse prefaces The Tea Lords with these two quotes:

You say: those letters have no historical value. Maybe so. But the fact remains that younger generations are often better served by the ‘side-lights’, which offer a much clearer picture of the conditions prevailing at the time, and especially of the mentality of those days, than for instance lists of figures. The family businesses are no more, but we can bring the people to life again by reading about their thoughts and feelings.

– Bertha de Rijck van der Gracht-Kerkhoven to her brother Karel Kerkhoven, 1959


Un ouvrage de fiction mélange à sa guise le vrai et le faux, le vécu, le retranscrit, l’imaginaire, la biographie.

– Philippe Labro

Haasse is wrote a work of historical fiction, but not per se. For she based it on actual source material. And the book includes letters and other notes from said material. As she says in the acknowledgements:

The material is therefore not invented; rather, it has been chosen and arranged to meet the demands of a novel. This means that all manner of factual details pertaining to a properly historical account have been omitted, and that the emphasis is on the lives of a select group of individuals.

It’s true, she focusses on a select group of individuals, a family drama so you will. She “mixes at will the true and false, the experience, the transcribed, the imagined, and the biography.” I think I agree with her that this might be a good way to bring history to life for the reader. However, I also wonder at the amount of historical detail she did include. For example, there is a section where Multatuli, or Eduard Douwes Dekker, is discussed at length. In a way it is noteworthy that he married into the family. It is an interesting factoid, but how interesting is it for the story that is told here? Surely, he influenced changes in the colonial system with his influential work Max Havelaar, but do the page long discussions of his personal life, which is basically unrelated to Rudolf, contribute to the story as such?

I wonder how you feel about this? Personally, Iris “the historian” was intrigued by how Multatuli almost becomes a point of reference for people to position themselves on how to run a tea estate, how they feel about the form of colonial rule practiced, etcetera.. but Iris “the reader” and Iris “the blogger” worried that this takes away from the flow of the story, that it might bore those who have not just spent two years studying mission in the Indonesian colonial context. And I wonder, is the story even easy to follow as a reader unfamiliar with the Dutch colonial past? I remember that as a high school student who did not know about the subject, these parts of the story were decidedly less interesting.

The same question holds for the inclusion of Indonesian words. Do they contribute to an authentic feel of the story? Or do they detract from your reading pleasure?

My point is, I think, that at times it becomes blurry if Haasse is trying to tell us the story of Rudolf and his family, or if she is giving us a peek in Dutch colonial history, with the family serving as a point of entry? She seems to switch between these two perspective during the novel, for example when she discusses the different ways of organising a tea estate at length. Of course, this would have been relevant to Rudolf as a person, as an estate holder.. And I find the two perspectives interesting, though the informative one more so from the viewpoint of my historical interests, than as a reader of fiction. I cannot seem to decide if the historical detail is such as to detract or contribute to the liveliness of the story..

On writing about a colonial setting:

This is best summarised by the discussion in the comment’s section of Lisa’s (of ANZ Litlover Blog) GoodReads profile, which can be found here. In one of her comments, Lisa remarks that:

It’s got me thinking about how an author might tackle writing about a colonial period today. I mean, you’d want your characters to be authentic, so you can’t really give them a post-colonial consciousness – but then, today’s readers have a post-colonial consciousness and (hopefully) the author does too. I’m not sure how to reconcile this, either as a reader or as someone writing a review…

Haasse definitely takes the view of having her characters be authentic. In a way, I feel as if she included all the examples of different manners in which tea estates were run, as well as the discussion of Multatuli, in order to highlight the colonial setting, the prevalent opinions, the call for changes that are still caught in colonial thought (Holle who seems bent on “civilising” and educating the people on an estate). Again, this is interesting from a historical perspective, and in a way it is a smart move to allow the reader to think about the setting itself, but is it enough? The subject of the treatment of servants also seems to highlight this theme, in having Rudolf express surprise at the harsh treatment first, before having him acknowledge his rights as owner of an estate later on in the book..

At times, I found myself wondering how Haasse herself felt about the colonial setting. At times, I really wished for some meta remarks about the setting as it is painted by the characters in The Tea Lords. Would it have been possible to incorporate something like that into the story without taking away from the story itself? Did Haasse assume the role of an objective historian, who just gives us a glimpse of what it was like without commentary? Can we blame her for that? (I don’t necessarily think so.) How do you feel about it as a contemporary reader?

The possible colonial implications are also part of the reason why I am a little nervous, but also very curious, about how Jenny’s story will play out. We know from her diary that she is influenced by local stories, by ‘irrational’ fears in the eyes of the Dutch. There is a hint of this being tied up with being, or not being, Dutch. Cateau remarks on the Eurasian nature of her fears as something that is undesirable, and which she thus left out of her reports to Rudolf:

‘All that is just your imagination. So Eurasian of you! And you’re not Eurasian, are you, even if you were born here?’

I admit, I am a little nervous about the implications of this quote. Will Jenny’s story take the road of her being born in Indonesia and thus easily “influenced” by the local beliefs? Or should we read it as a subversion of the prevalent Dutch colonial discourse, in showing us that a Dutch girl is experiencing the same fears, and that they are thus not limited to Indonesians? What is the significance of Rudolf taking on the role of rational businessman, while the role of experiencing fears is reserved to Jenny?


There are of course a lot of other things to discuss, for example:

  • How do you feel about Rudolf? Do you feel sympathetic to him and his efforts despite the seeming opposition of his family? Or does his righteousness get on your nerves?
  • How do feel about the power relations within the family living on Java?
  • What do you think of the prose? And how about the translation?
  • What do you think will happen in the latter half of the book?

I hope a few of you at least enjoyed reading the first half of The Tea Lords. I admit, I am incredibly curious about your thoughts! If you have written a post for this part of the read along, please let me know and I will link up.

Litlove over at Tales from the Reading Room has written a post about The Tea Lords, historical fiction, and remaining true to the time in which a story is set. This post is generating some excellent discussion.

18 thoughts on “The Tea Lords by Hella Haasse: Discussion Post Part 1

  1. Suzanne Model

    Hello Iris:

    I have never participated in ‘read along’ before, so I had no idea how it would be structured. I wrote the comments below before reading your post. I think I’ll just send them on without revision…as you’ll see, I address some of the questions you raise but ignore others. By the way, I think Lisa’s remarks about the difficulties inherent in bringing a post-colonial perspective to the colonial situation is “spot on”.

    I feel the author wants to convey the “character” of the prototypical Dutch colonizer even though, in my view, no single personality can serve as a basis for generalizing about a group of people. Still, with the exception of Jenny, the other characters are sufficiently under-developed that I doubt they are important to the plot or its ‘message’.

    Up until page 164, the tale is told entirely from Rudolf’s perspective. I was thus surprised to find the author shifting to dual narrators. This is an intriguing stylistic device; I’m curious where it will lead.

    As for Rudolf, empathizing with his trials and tribulations is difficult. To some extent, he brings them on himself. Rudolf is rigid, stoic, preoccupied with appearances, unwilling to express anger or disappointment. In addition, the author describes him as frugal (I perceive him as cheap). Occasionally, he is inter-personally brave—for instance, when he “stood up” to his brother in law, Henny; but more often he is an emotional coward—for instance, continuing to be a deferent if not sycophantic son, despite his parents’ obvious disinterest in him.

    In terms of insights about colonialism, I am very impressed with the effort that so many of the Dutch characters expend to master not one but two local tongues. I am fairly sure that British colonizers rarely, if ever, bothered to learn the language of the people they colonized. This distinction is probably related to the fact that Holland is a small country and that foreign language instruction has always been a key component of a proper education. Still, I suspect more is involved. The novel leads me to conclude that there was less stigma associated with inter-marriage than I believe was associated with it under British colonialism. So, in some ways, the book leads me to conclude that Dutch colonialism was more benign than British (and possibly French as well—I can’t see the French learning a native language either!).

    Nevertheless, colonialism is the subordination and exploitation of culturally and phenotypically “different” peoples (e.g. non-Christian and non-white). A key question that I cannot yet answer is whether or not Rudolf perceives Indonesians as fully human. I think that denial of the humanity of the colonized is an integral part of all “colonial situations”. But the author has not revealed enough about Rudolf’s thought processes for me to know how he perceives Indonesians. It seems that this question has not yet arisen in Rudolf’s own mind. I hope that, by the time I finish the book, I will have a clearer sense of how Rudolf legitimates the subordination and exploitation inherent in the colonial situation.

    Sue from Amherst

    1. Iris Post author

      Thank you for your comment Sue! There is no “right” or “wrong” way of participating in a read along. I only tried to discuss those things that stood out to me while reading the book.

      I agree with you that in Rudolf Haasse chose to depict some form of “the Dutch white colonial wealthy male”. Since I have been thinking of his story in that terms, I become more and more intrigued by what role Jenny will play in the rest of the story: is she meant to be set up as a counterpart to him? To complement his historically privileged story with that of a “marginal woman”? I am very curious where her story will take us. And I’m hoping it will solve some of the “how to write historical fiction about colonial settings” questions for me.

      I wouldn’t know whether to agree or disagree with how you compare English and French colonialism to Dutch colonialism. I only know about the latter through the eyes of Dutch missionaries, and those usually tried to distinguish themselves from colonials by emphasising that they knew more about local languages than the coloniser did, since they mostly used Malaysian. Then again, these are claims and not facts per se. And I know too little about English or French colonialism to compare. I do know that Stoler did a study on intermarriage and sexual relations in Indonesia, and the colonial categories based on these, in “Carnal Knowledge and Imperial Power”. I have not read it yet, but I heard someone talk about it once and if I remember correctly intermarriage was frowned upon. How this compared to the English situation in India, for example, I do not really know.

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  4. mdbrady

    Iris. Thank you for doing this readalong. I am very sorry not to have be able to get the book, even with interlibrary loan, and join in. If I haven’t signed up for the giveaway, please put me in.
    Even within having been reading along, I think your discussion of historical fiction is excellent. Thank you for getting it going and making such wise points about the issues. I am adding my comments at litlov, since most of the other discussion is there. I don’t understand the technology but I hope everyone goes both places.

    When Dutch Month is over, I’d love to do a readalong on almost anything with you.

  5. Maryom

    I’ve not quite caught up with you – but I feel like I’m still waiting for the story to start. The short intro section with Rudolph taking charge of his new plantation was fine, then came the long flashback of his college days – and things don’t really seem to have got moving again. I haven’t got as far as meeting Jenny but my library copy has review quotes at the beginning which give some of the plot away! I won’t share them with you!
    Despite that I’m finding it very interesting. I knew nothing at all about the Dutch colonisation in Java – so all this is fascinating from the historical aspect. There seems to have been a difference with British colonial expansion in that the Dutch seems to be commercially based whereas the British was more military – this could of course be just the way it’s presented in the novel. I’m not sure that I’d expect Rudolph to become concerned about his position as foreign landowner because that’s the way his family seem to have lived for generations.
    I don’t feel though that I’m gaining much of an insight into the thoughts and personalities of the vast number of characters who appear. I suppose I’m comparing it a bit to Forster’s Passage To India in which the reader gains an insight into differing attitudes by the British individuals to their role and position in India. I’m hoping there’s more of an insight into their thoughts as the story progresses.

  6. boekenwijs

    My first read-along and I’m enjoying the book enormously. Just like Iris, it took me some time to get involved, but now I want to know what goes on.

    Funny, while I was a high school student I never wanted to read a book by Haasse, as I was not interested in history at all. It still isn’t my most favourite topic, but I’m getting more and more interested.

    Although being Dutch, I don’t know a lot about our colonial past in the east. But I lived in Suriname (one of our western colonies up to 1975), so I have a feeling about the impact it still has on a country.

    I’ve read the book so far as a story of a certain family that models for colonial live. For me this works well, as it keeps the story clear but also learns me more about our history. And although the Indonesian words first bothered me a little, they don’t interrupt my reading flow. Most are understandble from the surrounding text.

    As for Rudolph, I was not too fond of him, but that changed of the story. In the beginning he seemed to eager and restless, lateron that’s also his strength. And his love for Jenny seems real and he acts like he should in that time period and that area.

    So I’m looking forward to the rest of the book. I’m a little worried about the future, as it doesn’t look to bright yet. But I hope for the best for Rudolph!

  7. Lisa Hill

    Just a quick comment in response to Suzanne’s comment about British people not bothering to learn the language of the people they colonised: at the East India College at Haileybury in Hertfordshire, the school offered Sanskrit, Bengali, Arabic and Persian for students in training for the overseas civil service, and there are Hindu words in my own vocabulary passed on from my great aunt and grandfather who served in India during the Raj. The reality is that most colonisers (English, French, Dutch, Portuguese, and Spanish) spoke enough of the local language to order people about, and get what they wanted. Only very rarely was it so that they could form a relationship based on mutual respect, or learn anything about the culture of the colony. Speaking the local language was another way of enforcing control, and they did this in preference to educating the locals so that they could not challenge for positions of power or further their education elsewhere.

      1. Maryom

        Thanks for this – you’ve reminded me of a small, battered English/Hindu dictionary that my father was given when he was sent to India during WW2. Probably not more than 50 pages long and mainly things like “Bring my dinner” and “Iron my shirt” – so certainly aimed at reinforcing the command structure rather than getting to know the locals.

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