Wednesday, 5 December 2012

A City for Women: Comparing Early and Modern Feminism

Book: 'The Woman Reader' by Belinda Jack
Context: Christine de Pizan and 'The Book of the City of Ladies'

 Living in what I have been told is a post-feminist world, you can hardly go three paces without coming into contact with something which either illustrates women’s oppression or knocks it down. I’m not going to discuss here how this or that trend is indicative of female empowerment, or how such and such a thing keeps women locked and limited underneath a glass ceiling. A quick google search, or following your twitter feed for a few hours, will reveal many examples of these. And although I do think that we still have a long way to go until all women are given the respect in society that we deserve, we are lucky in this century that we can publicly discuss issues affecting women. Women, and men, can easily voice whatever concerns they have online. Women’s writing has such a large platform, even though there might be many problems with the way it can be presented. And it’s a lot more than just so-called ‘chick lit’ and 50 Shades of Grey.

‘The Woman Reader’ by Barbara Jack traces the history of women’s literacy, both reading and writing, from the earliest records to the present day. It’s a truly gripping story which encompasses all of gender history; because the way that women have been able to express themselves in reading and writing has had profound echoes on everything they were able to accomplish. Jack presents countless examples of women who re-wrote the rules on what women were allowed to say in public – amazing women who stood up against people who tried to define them in one particular way. She also shows us men who wrote about women, and how important these portrayals were to how women were perceived. But there was one individual who really caught my interest when I read about her. Amongst the whole of women’s history, Jack could spend only a couple of pages on this woman, but I wanted to learn much more about her.

 Christine de Pizan comes across as someone who really addressed things which mattered to her – and these were the women’s issues of her day. Living in the mid-14th to early 15th centuries, Christine’s world was one where men’s opinions and words were the ones that counted – and the men that she encountered in her reading depicted women as morally and intellectually inferior. As the successors of Eve, women were shown as sexually depraved, even to the point that they were to blame if they were raped. If a woman was attractive, then she must by nature not be chaste, and men were not to blame if they lost control around them. The women in fact enjoyed it. This sounds horrific and outrageous to us today, but was perfectly logical to many in the medieval age. And, it isn’t really so very far removed from debates raging today about the nature of rape, several commentaries placing at least some blame or culpability on women for dressing provocatively.

Christine saw what was written about women, and felt that she had to do something about it. She wrote several books, which are classics or early feminist writing and very important for that reason. Many of these riled the misogynist authors of her day, and one of the most well-known of these was The Book of the City of Ladies. With the help of the spirits of Reason, Rectitude and Justice personified within the narrative, Christine clearly and passionately discusses the falsely-based prejudice that women have to contend with, and sets up a utopia where women’s virtues are appreciated and rewarded, and women themselves are protected from male harm. On the subject of rape, Christine is vocal:

‘It therefore angers and upsets me when men claim that women want to be raped and that, even though a woman may verbally rebuff a man, she won’t in fact mind it if he does force himself upon her. I can scarcely believe that it could give women any pleasure to be treated in such a vile way.’

No-one could really disagree with her. But while Christine’s writing and feminism were radical for her time, it can’t really be compared with modern feminism. While reading The Book of the City of Ladies, I was hugely impressed with Christine’s courage and intelligence, and at first I wanted to buy copies for all my friends, shouting: ‘Look look look! This woman completely understands. She lived 600 years ago and she stood up for our rights to be treated as equals!!!’ Except, she kind of didn’t. Yes, she railed against chauvinism and misogyny. Yes, she paved the way towards feminism. But in no modern sense does her work stand up for female equality as we would know it today. Obviously any idea of equal working rights, marriage rights, voting rights would have been unimaginable. But the way that Christine defends women is by accepting their traditional place as nurturers, home-makers, virgins and saints. There is no room for sexual assertiveness, as there is now. She is not outraged that men cannot accept women’s sexuality, keeping them trapped in a passive role. She is outraged because she feels that women’s sexuality is something made up by men. Women are to be defended because they are virtuous, not because they should be allowed to be sexual. In fact, it is because they are passive that they are ‘better’ than men think they are. You can imagine how an argument like this would play out today. Now to be a feminist, you must reject traditionally ‘feminine’ values. Christine de Pizan, however, extols them.

On the other hand, I quite like Christine’s world view up to a point. Women need to be free to express themselves however they wish, in their dress, in what they say, in how they say it. But I don’t think it’s necessary to ‘reclaim’ derogatory terms like ‘slut’ or ‘whore’ in order to do so. Women’s sexuality is not something to be feared, but celebrated. But I wonder whether by having multiple sexual partners and non-committal relationships we are in danger of creating a world where our bodies are not respected – by men or women.  


The Treasure of the City of Ladies by Christine de Pizan

Dit de la Rose by Christine de Pizan

L'Epistre au Dieu d'amours by Christine de Pizan

Ditié de Jehanne d'Arc by Christine de Pizan

'Unladylike Polemics: Christine de Pizan's Strategies of Attack and Defense' by Christine Moneera Laennec, published in Tulsa Studies in Women's Literature (Spring, 1993)

'With Ink and Mortar: Christine de Pizan's 'Cité de Dames' by Sandra L. Hindman, published in Feminist Studies (Autumn, 1984)

Saturday, 17 November 2012

What if? Counterfactuals and the Possibilities of History

Book: The Company of the Dead by David Kowalski
Context: Counterfactual History

I like to try and find the positive bits of any book I read. It’s why I probably wouldn’t really make a very good book critic. It’s just the way I was brought up – be polite and don’t say anything you wouldn’t like to hear about yourself. Which is fine, unless you’re trying to give a balanced and objective view about a book. However, I always feel that reading a good book is like a love affair. While you’re in it, it can take up your whole life and when it’s over, you feel the pain and some part of it will always linger on. Unfortunately, reading this book was more like a school crush. It starts with all hope of giving you something fulfilling, but ultimately ends up just being a lot of running around. Suffice to say, I checked out of this relationship early.

The premise of The Company of the Dead is a world where time-travel has changed the course of history, perhaps permanently. In 1912, a mysterious man, who is actually from our present, is travelling on the Titanic in full knowledge of what is about to happen. He tries to change the past – to drastic consequences. In the new present of 2012, the world is unrecognisable. Because J.J. Astor survived the Titanic, the US never entered WWI, so the Central Powers were victorious. This in turn led to an expansionist, but monarchical, German Empire, engaged in a Cold War against a Japanese Empire with a Mexican Empire in control of South America and a US which has engaged in a second civil war and emerged as two nations. The point of the plot, as far as I could gather, was to try and reverse this by going again back in time and killing the original time-traveller. I really wanted to enjoy this. In fact, the first section depicting the Titanic sinking was very exciting, and I did want to keep reading to find out of history was ever righted.  Nearly halfway through, though, I found I just didn’t care enough. As disappointing as I found the book, however, there’s one part of it that has kept me thinking ever since. It’s something which unites my love of history with a very amateur interest in science and metaphysics – time travel.

Just imagine, for a moment, that it is actually possible to go back to an earlier time in history. You press a button, or pull a lever and *boom* you’re in the 1920s. At first, the novelty of the old-fashioned clothes, houses and objects are very exciting. But if you’re going to spend a lot of time here, what are the rules? Could anything you do affect future history, or is it more like ‘Lost’ – Whatever Happened, Happened? The thing is, either of these choices creates a complication in the way that we look at the world. If history is so unstable that a small difference in 1920 can make huge alterations for 2012, then what happens to the people who were alive in 2012, but because of your changes will never be born? They were once alive, for you saw and knew them. They had brains, hearts, blood, maybe souls. Do these just disappear, and do they have any inkling of what is happening? But if history is fixed, and you cannot change it no matter how hard you try, then what does that say about free-will? Is our future so predestined, just as the past is? As a character says in The Company of the Dead, we can cope with the thought of aliens as that only affects the present, but the idea of time-travel affects our past, present and future.

Of course, none of these questions have an answer because time-travel is impossible, but we can use history to think about predestination in a more practical way. It’s not just science-fiction that plays about with alternative timelines, though there are some particularly good ones – Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle is one. There are lots of popular books out there like Prime Minister Portillo and Other Things That Never Happened. (For those of you not from the UK, Michael Portillo is a British politician and broadcaster who might well have been Prime Minister in 1997 if Tony Blair’s party hadn’t won the election and Portillo hadn’t lost his seat).  Another scenario imagined what US politics and history may have been like had Kennedy not been assassinated. In an entertaining way, you can start to think about the alternative options history had, and how different it could have been.

 I remember coming across an article at university about ‘What-If’ history, or ‘counterfactual’ history, which sounds much more academic, which showed how history can treat this concept in a serious way. In looking at what might have happened, you can look at the consequences of what did happen, and think about whether these were inevitable or if things could have panned out completely differently. This doesn’t work, of course, if the alternative situation is very unlikely – say, what would have happened if there was a mass cholera epidemic in New York during the 2008 election. It’s got to be an alternative that was just as likely to happen at the time. Let’s say, for example, that Hitler had been killed in the First World War – a completely plausible scenario. How different might Germany’s (and the world’s) history have been? Hitler would obviously have been unable to establish the Nazi party, but does this mean that a right-wing, fascist, racist party would never have arisen in Germany? This raises questions about how important Hitler himself was to the movement. Much is made about Hitler’s personal charisma, and this was certainly an important factor in the party’s success, but the trend of history is bigger than Germany’s own experience. Germany was hit hard by the Great Depression – is it really plausible that Hitler was the only possible person who would have responded as he did? Following the example of Italian and Spanish fascism, it is not hard to imagine another German leader establishing a totalitarian state in a similar vein to Nazism. The question then is to determine how different this regime might have been to Hitler’s. Who would have been in a position to become leader and to topple the democratic state? What resources would they have had, and how would they have led the nation? Maybe the rise of fascism in Germany was inevitable, and the existence of Hitler made little difference. But fascism without Hitler would probably have been quite distinct from Nazism.

An alternative outcome of the Battle of Hastings in 1066, however, would have had a much more profound effect on British history. Had the Normans not successfully invaded England, the culture, language and nature of England would have been very different. The aristocracy would have been Anglo-Saxon, not French, and might therefore have had a very different relationship with the continental ruling classes during the Medieval period. How different might the English class system be now if the aristocracy had always been the same as the people? Would the English monarchs have intermarried with French aristocrats as much? If not, then the wars between England and France throughout the 14th and 15th century may never have happened. Joan of Arc would have remained an ordinary peasant girl. English kings and queens would never have held large parts of the continent, so England (or Britain) may never have become a world power. What consequence would this have had on American history? Would the New England colonies ever have been established? Would the Mayflower ever have set sail? The United States of America might have fought a War of Independence against the French or Spanish, rather than the English, if at all. The possibilities are endless.

Perhaps the point that I’m trying to make is that by taking individuals out of the equation, the picture only changes slightly. But by changing events, centuries of history can become uncertain. The Company of the Dead, for all its faults, has a game go at grappling with this idea - getting us to think about the Titanic and its impact on 20th century history. So many separate factors led to the sinking; if just one had been different, for example if Freddie Fleet had had binoculars, would the ship still have sunk? But counterfactual history is more than just a fun exercise – it can reveal how important certain people and events were in history, and, taken seriously, you can really begin to appreciate how history happens. Although it is kind of fun too!


The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick

Prime Minister Portillo: and other things that never happened ed. by Duncan Brack and Iain Dale

How We’d Talk if the English had Won in 1066 by David Cowley

‘Counterfactual History: A User’s Guide’ by Martin Bunzl, published in The American Historical Review (June, 2004)

‘Counterfactuals and the study of the American Presidency’ by Jeffrey M. Chwieroth, published in Presidential Studies Quarterly (June, 2002)

‘Making Books: The ‘What-Ifs’ That Fascinate’ by Martin Arnold, published in New York Times (21st December, 2000)

‘Taking Counterfactual History Seriously’ by Naomi R. Lamoreaux, from the Institute on California and the West Railroaded Workshop, Huntington Library, San Marino, CA, July 9, 2011, published in California History (December, 2011)

‘Past Tense’ by Fredric Smoler, published in American Heritage (September, 1999)

Sunday, 11 November 2012

Down the Rabbit Hole and Into the Wardrobe

Books: Alice's Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll
             The Chronicles of Narnia by C. S. Lewis
Context: Historical Time and Christian Time

For people living in a western society, perceptions of time are found everywhere. As children, we used to play games such as ‘What’s the Time, Mr Wolf?’ in which we crept across the playground in a race against the clock. As adults, we become bound to our diaries and routines, keeping appointments at specific times and, more often than not, feeling as though we never have enough time. The composer Leonard Bernstein said: ‘To achieve great things, two things are needed; a plan and not quite enough time.’ Time appears to us as something over which people have no control – which, in fact, controls us. This is an understandable conclusion to draw: mathematical knowledge of time, after all, comes out of the intricacies of cosmic physics which very few understand fully. We can’t stop or turn back time. In fact, if you can imagine this to be possible, those who could control time would have to have some sort of science-fiction superpower, or be a form of deity.

As a thing which creates structure within the lives of humans, whilst being beyond our control and much of our comprehension, it is fairly easy to draw parallels between time and God. I’m not talking necessarily of the Abrahamic God of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, though this is an important example of the type, but of any Supreme Being or Beings into which human beings place trust, fear and awe. I want to explore this relationship more, using examples from children’s literature – specifically Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and The Chronicles of Narnia. Both of these, I think, illustrate the nature and passing of time in a way that more ‘adult’ books don’t.

In Alice, time appears very much with a capital T, as a personified entity.  

‘If you knew Time as well as I do,’ said the Hatter, ‘you wouldn’t talk about wasting it. It’s him.’
 ‘I don’t know what you mean,’ said Alice.
 ‘Of course you don’t!’ the Hatter said, tossing his head contemptuously. ‘I dare say you never spoke to Time!’
 ‘Perhaps not,’ Alice cautiously replied: ‘but I know I have to beat time when I learn music.’
 ‘Ah! that accounts for it,’ said the Hatter. ‘He won’t stand beating. Now, if you only kept on good terms with him, he’d do almost anything you liked with the clock.’

This is just like many deities throughout the world’s religions – almost human, with a gender, powerful, desirous of respect, and occasionally slightly cantankerous. Although there is little evidence that Lewis Carroll was deliberately equating time with any religious power, it is very tempting to search for the similarities. The first time the reader encounters Wonderland is when the White Rabbit runs down the rabbit hole, clutching a pocket-watch and muttering: ‘I’m late, I’m late.’ Add this to the Mad Hatter’s depiction of Time himself as being a self-possessive authority, and one almost feels that Wonderland is somehow governed by time in the way that a god might rule over a religious world.

However, C.S. Lewis definitely does make explicit the link between religion and time. Throughout his Chronicles of Narnia, he plays with the concept of the passing of time. Indeed, the title Chronicles itself suggests a profound relationship between the narrative of the books and time. These are an account of the ‘times’ of Narnia. Many years can take place in this mysterious and magical other world, while taking up no time at all within ‘our’ own world. This concept allows the principal characters from The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe to return, in Prince Caspian, only one year later in Earth Time to a Narnia of 1300 years in the future. In doing so, they appear to Narnians as figures appearing out of legend, inextricably tied up with the fate of Narnia and the existence of Aslan, Lewis’ incarnation of God. Over the span of the Chronicles, Lewis deliberately creates a very linear and Christianised portrayal of a world, albeit a fantastic and magical one, which spans from its creation (in The Magician’s Nephew) to its end (The Last Battle). The apocalyptic scenes in The Last Battle (LB) heavily echo those in the Biblical book of Revelations (R), as the end of the world comes as both a punishment for sin and a reward for goodness. Compare these two passages:

‘It was roughly the shape of a man but it had the head of a bird; some bird of prey with a cruel, carved beak. It had four arms which it held high above its head... and its fingers – all twenty of them – were curved like its beak and had long, pointed, bird-like claws instead of nails.’ – LB
‘And I saw a beast rising out of the sea, having ten horns and seven heads... And the beast that I saw was like a leopard, its feet were like a bear’s, and its mouth was like a lion’s mouth.’ – R

The idea of a better version of the world after the end of time appears in both also:

‘“This is still Narnia, and more real and more beautiful than the Narnia down below.”’ - LB
‘Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth... And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.’ - R

In both cases, the ending of time comes at the point when common virtue, morality and belief appear at their lowest ebb. Moreover, in The Last Battle, Time appears personified, as a giant, who awakes on the day that the world ends to literally extinguish it. The passage of time is decay, and Time itself comes to end all things, as a form of cleansing process.

Lewis’ world also makes much of prophecy, in a similar way to the Bible, the Old Testament in particular. This gives the impression of everything happening at its appointed time – that time is somehow pre-planned and stationary. This fatalistic approach adds to the conception that time is beyond terrestrial control – that it, in fact, is more the controller, as well as the destroyer.

These two literary examples, while they certainly do not fit into the historiographical canon, do demonstrate the way in which western writers and audiences perceive time. Both deal with the fantastic and other-worldly, having characters cross over from a world recognisable as our own to another where the rules of time are not quite the same. In this new setting, time is treated as a character in itself, highlighting its role within the wider world and, by extension, within history. Though there are many other examples like this in western literature, these two in particular exemplify the type, and depict what seems to be a quite traditional and Christian perspective on time.

Sunday, 23 September 2012

Recovering from Occupation

Book: The Magus by John Fowles
Context: The Axis Invasion of Greece in World War Two

The Magus by John Fowles is, I suppose, best categorised as ‘magical realism’. Fantasy and reality interplay throughout the book, although the fantasy is not strictly magical but created by actors. The novel tells the story of Nicholas Urfe, a naive, arrogant, unlikeable young teacher who goes to a fictional Greek island called Phraxos to teach at a school there, but really he is trying to escape from a love affair. In Phraxos, he meets the rich and enigmatic Conchis who is first introduced as having been a Nazi collaborator, but later suggestions have Conchis facing a German firing squad for refusing to reveal the whereabouts of a resistance fighter who killed German soldiers.
Of course, this is sort of the point of The Magus: that you never really know what is truth and what is illusion. What role Conchis played in the Second World War – indeed, if he was even there. Throughout The Magus, neither Nicholas nor the reader has much of a clue of what is going on or what is real. The story of Conchis in World War Two is not the only life story introduced to Nicholas and, in fact, it is revealed later that the real subject of these tales is Nicholas himself, not Conchis. But I thought that this wartime episode raised some interesting points relating to the history of the country which provides the dramatic setting. Even though Phraxos and Conchis are creations of John Fowles, the experiences of real Greek people during the German invasion must have inspired at least part of the book. What actually happened to Greece during the Second World War and how were its people affected?

Greece, being located in the Mediterranean, was to start with more concerned with Mussolini’s Italy rather than Hitler’s Germany for fairly obviously geographical reasons. Not until 1941 did Germany show any interest in invading Greece at all. Possibly, this was because Greece was itself being ruled by an authoritarian nationalistic government, uner Prime Minister Mataxas, which was similar to Nazism in some obvious ways. Mataxas’ regime censored dissenting media, banned other political parties, established a political police force, and extolled the ancient Hellenic values of strength, honour and family. It even had a youth organisation eerily similar to the Hitler Youth. So why didn’t this quasi-fascist Greece join the Axis powers in World War 2? Perhaps because there were fundamental differences between Greek fascism and German fascism – their stance on Judaism for instance. (By the way, I’m using the word ‘fascism’ here for matters of convenience; in fact, Mataxas’ regime wasn’t really true fascism in the strict sense.) Moreover, Mataxas wanted Greece to remain neutral, taking neither side against the other. Unfortunately for the Greek people, this was not to be. 

Early on in the war, Mussolini tried desperately to conquer and hold the Mediterranean areas, including Greece, Yugoslavia etc. The Italian troops, however, proved fairly hapless against Greek resistance. For many months, Italy tried to invade Greece only to be pushed back again and again. The Greek people, led by Mataxas, were successfully defending their country against outside forces trying to force them into the larger conflict. Although Greece was still technically neutral, Britain evidently saw her as being on their side, seeing as she was fighting against an Axis power. So the British entered the fray, much to the concern of Greece, who worried that this intervention would only serve to encourage the Germans to get involved. Apparently, Hitler was very angry with Mussolini for his failure in the Mediterranean and vowed to sort it all out. On the 29th January, Mataxas, the dictator turned defender of Greece, died. Almost immediately afterwards, the assault on Greece by Germany began.

The British and Greek soldiers were sadly unprepared by the German techniques of blitzkrieg; the British soon pulled out of the country, the new Greek Prime Minister committed suicide, and by May the invasion was complete. As Winston Churchill said: ‘It is a most strange and grim battle that is being fought.’ Once Germany was in control of the country, the usual story of an occupied country can be seen – the suppression of native people, collaboration and resistance. In direct contrast to Mataxas’ earlier regime, the Germans began to implement a strongly anti-semitic rule. These policies are well-known – from arrests of Jewish leaders, confiscation of property, executions, forced labour, compulsory wearing of Stars of David – everything we are so tragically used to hearing about. By 1943, Jewish people were being sent to Auschwitz, although it was said that some managed to escape for Palestine. For other Greek citizens, again, the Greek story is so very similar to other Nazi-occupied nations. Greece was forced to pay a loan to Germany which would never be paid back, destroying the local economy and starving many people. As was to be expected, pockets of resistance began to spring up – but what is unexpected was the Greek reaction to this.

There was a real event that happened in 1943 which is eerily similar to the episode described in The Magus. In a place called Drakeia, some local resistance members killed two German soldiers. In retaliation, the SS executed a huge number of local men. Almost exactly as described by John Fowles, there was a rule – the lives of fifty civilians for one German soldier. But instead of the resistance fighters (also known as partisans) becoming national heroes, as they would have been in France, Italy or the Netherlands, their contribution was largely forgotten. In fact, it would seem that the resistance was actually blamed for the deaths of the local civilians. The fallout of the massacre in Drakeia, and many other similar massacres, resulted in a sort-of collective forgetting of Nazi atrocities in Greece. This could be partly attributed to the post-war fighting between the newly installed government and left-wing partisans. To ordinary people, this new civil war would have been tied into the suffering they experienced during the occupation; the common denominator was the partisans who then seem to have been seen as the scapegoats for all the terrible things which happened in Greece since 1941. An Oral History study has shown that the Germans were seen more as a natural part of life, not as something to rebel against. If they were left alone, they would leave the Greek people alone – the partisans and resistance activity only antagonised the situation, and made worse the lives of ordinary people. Putting The Magus back into this context, Conchis, in refusing to give up the whereabouts of the partisans, was taking the side of resistance against law-abiding Greeks. The subsequent killing of innocent civilians by the Nazis would have been seen as unfair suffering when the real ‘culprits’ were the partisans. To us, that seems to be all backwards, which incidentally fits in quite well with the illusionary theme of The Magus. But it does show Nicholas’ naiveté, and perhaps the reader’s, when he learns about this episode in Conchis’ life and thinks it a wholly positive and well-reflecting incident.

Postscript: It’s only relatively recently that Greek people have been able to appreciate what the Nazis actually did to them during the Second World War. During the current financial crisis this has become particularly relevant. As I type, Greece is seeking potentially billions of pounds from Germany in reparations for their un-repaid loan. This amount of money could solve Greece’s money problems. Watch this space.


‘Chronicle of the Second World War’ published by Longman

‘Broken Bonds and Divide Memories: Wartime Massacres Reconsidered in a Comparative Perspective’ by Riki Van Boeschoten, published in Oral History (Spring, 2007)

‘Mr Churchill’s Statements on the Fighting in Crete’, published in Bulletin on International News (May 31, 1941)

'Greece demands billions for German war crimes: Relations between EU partners plunge to a new low' by James Chapman, published in Daily Mail (11th September 2012)

Wednesday, 12 September 2012

The Bishop in Honolulu: English Missionaries in Hawaii

Book: Hawaii by James Michener
Hawaii is a vast tome of a novel. In typical James Michener style, it traces the lives of people over many generations. Readers need the multiple family trees printed at the beginning, just in order to vaguely keep up with the different characters. It’s made even more complicated by the fact that the main American families, the Whipples, Hales, Bromleys, Hoxworths, Janderses etc, all intermarry and use the same Christian names. There is, for example, a character called Whipple Hoxworth, and another, Bromley Hale. Add to these the long-spanning Hawaiian royal family, Chinese dynasty and Japanese family and you have a truly polyphonic epic family history (that’s if books can be polyphonic!) It’s a challenging read, if only for its length – my copy was over 1000 pages long. The first chapter describing the geological development of the islands can also be a bit of a chore, although I think that worked as a literary device, mirroring the struggle that every group had to go through in order to get to Hawaii. But if you get past that, you find an engaging chronicle of many different cultures coming to a new land and trying to make a life for themselves alongside the rest.

Cultural understanding is an important theme. The first Americans who come to Hawaii in Michener’s novel are missionaries. Michener shows them as a combination of rigid, conservative puritans who come to Hawaii in order to convert the native Hawaiians to Christianity. This is done with the purest of motives, but out of these early missionaries, it is those who are prepared to understand and adapt to Hawaiian culture that are more sympathetic. It is these same characters who mostly end up going into business and ceasing their missionary activities. Ironically, it’s these businesses which end up damaging the Hawaiians’ lifestyle the most. What Michener’s version of events does not show, however, is another group of missionaries who played, for a short time, just as important a part in Hawaii. These were the Church of England missionaries who came to Hawaii in 1862 to begin a new church – the Hawaiian Reformed Catholic Church.

This was headed by the newly-minted Bishop Thomas Nettleship Staley, incidentally possibly a distant relation of mine but that’s by the by. It was a bit of an odd appointment. Why was the English Church sending a bishop to Hawaii, a nation with no prior connection to England? Hawaii wasn’t a colony or even former colony of Britain. Moreover, Bishop Thomas had no expertise in Hawaii – before being made bishop, he had taught at a school in Wandsworth. To the American missionaries, like the ones in Michener’s Hawaii, there could only be one possible reason – that the British Empire was trying to add the Hawaiian Islands to its realm. Even worse, it was trying to make it Catholic! Now, although the church was called the Reformed Catholic Church it wasn’t actually Catholic in the sense of the Pope and Rome. However, several Anglicans, including some of Bishop Thomas’ friends, were trying to highlight the similarities with the Roman Catholics, which was an understandable worry for the Protestant American missionaries. It’s not surprising that the Americans were suspicious. They had been missionaries in Hawaii for about 40 years before the English turned up, yet here they were, the English, trying to take over, insinuating that their Christianity was better than the American way. Looking from the other direction as well, there was certainly no love lost between the Americans and Bishop Thomas – here he complains about the challenges he faces in doing his job:

‘Our principle has been on no account to ignore what has been already done to teach our own system fearlessly and without reference to others, adopting a positive rather than negative line... Still, do what we can, it is impossible, with people so narrow as the puritan sect, and susceptible as the Americans, to avoid being the cause of jealousy.’

To be fair, the Americans were slightly justified in their concerns of English empire building, only the concern was slightly misplaced. In fact, the Hawaiian royal family, King Kamehameha and Queen Emma, had invited the Church of England to Hawaii. Presumably this was because of its monarchy-friendly set up. The monarch of England is the Head of the Church of England - perhaps the Hawaiian King and Queen wanted to replicate this in Hawaii and have a Christian church they could control, not one where they were preached to by outsiders. Bishop Thomas, despite his former lack of experience, eventually built up a good relationship with the Hawaiian people. Although he was a man of his time and held fairly standard socio-imperialist views (in other words, he was of the opinion that Christianity was naturally better than the native religions of the Hawaiian Islands, and that the native people were less “developed” than westerners) Staley acted for the good of the Hawaiian people. His feelings of moral advantage over them seems distasteful today, but he appears to have had a genuine desire to improve the lives (and souls) of the people he ministered to. Staley’s mission built schools for Hawaiian children which extended their education, in a Church of England fashion of course. The foundation of boarding schools for Hawaiians was one of the greatest successes of the mission, and certainly one for which Staley became well known afterwards. He took interest in the language spoken by the people as well. One of the first actions of the mission was to translate the Bible and Prayer Book into the Hawaiian vernacular. Above all, Staley wanted Christian worship to be accessible to the local people – ‘religion was never designed to make their innocent pleasures the less.’ – and that Christianity should not be ‘all psalm-singing and gloom.’ He also was keen for the Hawaiian monarchy to stay independent of England. Contrast this with Abner Hale’s dogmatic behaviour towards the alii nui Malama in Michener’s Hawaii.

However, there was always going to be some form of imperial mindset in place within the Hawaiian Reformed Catholic Church, though not what you might think. The government don’t seem to have had any ambitions to colonise Hawaii, but the Church may have. I mentioned that Bishop Thomas felt that Christianity was fundamentally and morally right compared to the pagan religion of the islands. Staley was not an imperialist in the usual sense, but he certainly desired to expand God’s Empire throughout the Islands, and perhaps beyond. This spiritual dominion ought to be, in his eyes, Anglican – all other denominations and faiths are by nature inferior. Perhaps the British government were misjudged in their imperial ambitions, but the English Church and Staley may not have been.