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:
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.