The Tea Lords by Hella Haasse: Discussion Post Part 2

This is the second post for the June Read Along of The Tea Lords by Hella Haasse. Want to join in? Share your opinions in the comments or leave a link to your own post on the book. You can find the first discussion post here.

The Tea Lords - Hella HaasseI should have been able to predict in advance that two more weeks of reading and reflection on this novel has left me with no more definite answers to the questions I asked in the first discussion post. My general question about the use of historical fiction, basing it on historical sources, and striking a balance between non-anachronistic storytelling as well as making the story appealing to your readers, still stands. For more on this question I direct you to litlove’s (first?) post on the book, which generated an interesting discussion in the comments. I do think there are a few things to be said about Rudolf, Jenny, and colonialism, and I will return to them later on in this post.

In short, the second half of The Tea Lords chronicles the gradual transformation of Rudolf’s tea, coffee, and quinine estate into a financially successful plantation. However, this comes at a cost as Rudolf quarrels with most of his family. Meanwhile, Jenny struggles to find joy in her life at the plantation, far away from most people she knows, and almost continually pregnant.

Reading “The Family” and “Gamboeng, the Last Day”

While I was excited to read the second half of The Tea Lords by the end of the chapter “The Couple”, I have to admit that I struggled to get into the story from that point onwards. Rather like I had at the beginning of the book. For me, the pace never really picked up again. I think this is due to the more fragmentary nature of the second half. Quoted letters seem to play a much larger role in this part of the story, while time lapses occur in order to show us the overall developments of several of the characters. This led to less engagement with the story and the characters on my part.

Somehow, the Indonesian words interspersed in the text also started to bother me more, as I felt they now often interfered with the flow of the story at certain places.

I was pleasantly surprised when Haasse mentioned Couperus in her text as well. In between Max Havelaar and Couperus’ The Hidden Force, The Tea Lords makes up a nice third introductory read on the subject of Dutch colonialism in literature.

What made up for the lack of emotional investment in the story was “Gamboeng: the Last Day”. Here, Rudolf is allowed to reflect on his life, and I finally felt an emotional connect to the story as a whole. Where I might have doubted how I would value The Tea Lords during the second half of the story, those last pages firmly established it as a worthwhile read again, though the pages did not manage to erase my doubts about the second half of the novel as a whole.

What did you think of the second half of The Tea Lords? Did you enjoy it more or less than the first half? Why? Did the more fragmentary nature of this part of the story bother you?

Rudolf and Jenny (and colonialism?)

Over the past weeks I have grown to understand Rudolf as being meant to represent some form of “the white, male, upper class colonial”. Of course, this comes with the limitation that one person can never represent a category succesfully, as Sue notes in a comment.

Somehow, by understanding Rudolf’s role in this manner I could go from curiosity to admiration of what Haasse does in The Tea Lords. Because, I think, in a way, she is showing us how a priviliged worldview works.

Reading between the lines there are moments when you can see silencing at work. For example, when Cateau, her husband [I appear to have forgotten his name, was it Henry?], and Jenny and Rudolf discuss August’ broken engagement with Jenny’s sister Maria, Cateau’s husband draws the interesting conclusion that they all agree that the end of the engagement is a good thing for all parties involved. And it is true, Henry and Rudolf do agree. But Jenny, despite her jealousy towards her sister’s better position if she were to marry August, agrees with Cateau that a broken engagement is a bad thing for a women’s reputation. They voice this consideration, but are in effect overruled, silenced and forgotten by Henry’s conclusion.

It was in finding such details that I took immense pleasure while reading The Tea Lords. Moreover, by reconsidering the book in light of Rudolf’s reflections at the end of the novel, I think Haasse in effect manages to highlight the drawbacks of what I will call the “white, male, upper class” privilege displayed by Rudolf. His greed for reputation leads him to make others, even those he loves most, unhappy. In having Rudolf realise this, he is not redeemed exactly, but cast in a more sympathetic light in the end. And Haasse manages to do so in a manner that does not absolve him from complicity. She also does not “judge” him per se, but lets the story do the judging for her. Yes, considering the story in this light, I am quite happy with how Haasse tackled the questions of historical fiction in a colonial setting.

The added perspective of Jenny helps to underline a female perspective on colonialism, and especially the subordinate position she found herself in. Constantly pregnant, Rudolf notices how she struggles with her “burden”, but while they agree to try to have no more children, in effect Rudolf ‘can’t help himself’ and the pregnancies keep occurring. Jenny’s joy in her children, but her simultaneous frustration with her lack of opportunities and influence on the course of her life, were very realistically portrayed, I thought. Yet, at times I felt that I had wanted more from Jenny’s story. If only for the simple reason that in Jenny I found a more sympathetic and interesting character than Rudolf.

In its portrayal of Jenny and Rudolf’s relationship, Haasse’s The Tea Lords focuses on gender and the opportunities of colonial women, more than on the question of ethnicity [or the group of Indonesian women]. Perhaps this is a different story to tell at another time, and it is true that Rudolf’s children remarked on their dad’s classic colonial patriarchal approach at times, but I would have appreciated the added voice of one of the Indonesian inhabitants at the estate.  I’m not sure if it is fair to ask that any story include all sides of the story, and so I hope this isn’t taken as such; I simply know that I would have appreciated it even more. Then again, perhaps in its portrayal of family life on the estate as almost complete contained to the Dutch people there (with the exception of the baboe who is mentioned from time to time), it illustrates how this family might have perceived their own life? I can’t seem to decide if in that case, the reality of this blind spot might have been highlighted more, or if that would have made it unrealistic given the opportunities of a fictional account of actual circumstances. Ah, and we’re back to the same old question I started the discussion with.

How did you feel about Rudolf’s story in the end? And Haasse’s handling of the colonial setting? What was the added value of Jenny’s perspective, according to you? Do you agree with my understanding of Rudolf as some form of a “model 19th-century colonial”?

Other Opinions of Read Along Participants

By now, a few people have posted their own thoughts on The Tea Lords. I hope you will click over to their site to learn more and discuss the book at will. I will add to this list if I come across more posts during the weekend.

Mary over at Our Book Reviews Online shares her opinion on the book. Read more by visiting Mary’s blog post here:

 The Tea Lords is, without doubt, a fascinating account of Dutch colonialism in Java – a phase of history of which I knew absolutely nothing. Unfortunately the writing style totally failed to grab me.

Bibliosue also shares her thoughts. You can read her full review here:

For the most part I liked the novel, but I didn’t love it.  It took a long time for me to get into the book; only when Rudolf began settling down in Java did the pace pick up for me.  The narrative seemed to move in too many directions and I couldn’t grasp the main point — was it Rudolf’s effort to make a name for himself in the tea and quinine businesses; or was it the love story between him and Jenny? And this is just my opinion, but I found the translation a bit awkward.

Litlove offers and interesting discussion of novels versus historical accounts, which highlights the flaws of The Tea Lords:

[M]y 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. (…) And yet for all its flaws – and I did think it a flawed book – I thoroughly enjoyed it. So go figure that one out!

Lisa discusses her problems with the lack of critical reflection on the Dutch colonial past in The Tea Lords. She does so very thoroughly.

Would I care about any of this political correctness if The Tea Lords were a page-turning historical novel?  Probably not.  But The Tea Lords is far from a page-turner.  It is too bound to its historical sources for that and some of it (especially Kerkhoven’s interminable rivalry with his siblings) is downright boring.

If you have written a post for this read along, please let me know [either through a comment, tweet, or email?] and I will add the link to this post.

4 thoughts on “The Tea Lords by Hella Haasse: Discussion Post Part 2

  1. bibliosue

    It’s interesting to read that you found the second half of the book harder to read than the first — I was the opposite!
    I never thought much about Rudolf being greedy, but you do raise good points. I felt that he was always searching for recognition, but I suppose that could be taken as a form of greed.

    1. Iris Post author

      O yes, I did mean that he’s greedy for recognition, not greedy in itself (though some characters seem to imply he was).

      Interesting that you found the second half much easier to read. Perhaps my reactio had to do with the fact that there was a few weeks gap between reading the first part and the second one.

  2. Suzanne Model

    Hello Iris:
    Your second post on The Tea Lords was so insightful. Thanks for writing it. Here are my reactions:
    The second half of The Tea Lords was in some ways more satisfying than the first. I gained a more complete picture of Rudolf as a husband, father and entrepreneur. His shortcomings, hinted in the first part, become more obvious, particularly his stubbornness and his reticence. His family and his employees respect him but (understandably) they do not share their feelings with him. As a result, he does not understand the people in his life and becomes more and more isolated in old age.

    The conflict with Henny epitomizes the miscommunication that characterizes Rudolf’s life. Rudolf is incapable of discussing his grievances with Henny; instead, he nurses resentment for years. In Henny’s letter to Rudolf (February 1897), the reader sees Henny expressing his side of their disagreement to Rudolf but we never see Rudolf expressing his side to Henny. Because Rudolf keeps his feelings bottled up, he fails miserably in motivating others to change their behavior toward him.

    In some ways, Haase is doing a character study in the tradition of Balzac (I say this partly because I’ve been reading Balzac lately, hence his writing is fresh in my mind.) That is to say, the main character has serious personality defects of which s/he is unaware and which lead to interpersonal disaster. However, Haase is no Balzac when it comes to style.

    First, I found the occasional shifts in narrator disconcerting. To be sure, most of the story comes from Rudolf’s perspective, but some later chapters present events from the perspective of his wife or children. In addition, Haase sometimes uses diaries, letters and even photographs to convey events (and emotions). Although their factual nature is implied rather than asserted, I assume these primary sources are real historical documents. Nonetheless, I found the resulting shifts in perspective annoying, especially since the first half of the book was a rather straight-forward account from Rudolf’s standpoint. Just before the end, I found myself confused about who Rudolf was, both in his own eyes and in the eyes of his significant others. However, along with Iris, I loved “Gamboeng, the Last Day”. This put the story back on track. Rudolf’s feelings and relationships are again the heart of matter and the story gains a sense of closure.

    Second, many of the secondary characters are underdeveloped. Jenny is a mystery to me. It is not surprising that she became disappointed with Rudolf, but again we learn this only from the perspective of others. Haase does not give enough information to explain why she would commit suicide.

    Third, the last half (and especially last quarter) of the book are very hurried. Considering the leisurely pace Haase employed in describing Rudolf’s early life in The Netherlands, she gives short shrift to his later life. Suddenly his sons are grown and they are first touring then studying in Europe. Later still he becomes rich. How did this happen? How does the family experience the transition from relative poverty to relative affluence? If needed, Haase should have taken the additional hundred pages to describe these developments.

    Still, I enjoyed this novel very much and learned a lot from it. Finally, I am revising the view I articulated in my first post on the book, namely that the Dutch were “more benign colonizers than the British”. The change is partly a result of insights I gained from the second half of The Tea Lords but also from starting to read The Hidden Force by Louis Couperus. My current view is that one or even two works of fiction do not constitute an appropriate basis for an opinion. I will need to read much more before coming to any conclusion. But I am grateful to both Haase and Couperus for stimulating my thinking about this issue.
    Sue from Amherst

  3. litlove

    I’m late Iris, but I’m posting my readalong thoughts very soon (but at this rate, tomorrow). I’ve had my parents visiting! But your post is as ever a fantastic and insightful account of the second part and a wonderful springboard for the rest of us.


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