Yesterday we were Wonderlanded with Rosie Milne, a veteran member of the publishing world, a blogger on Asian books, and a novelist in her own right. This post, which I’ve titled “Will I have a hard or a soft landing?”, consists of two excerpts from Rosie’s about-to-be-published historical novel, Olivia and Sophia, which concerns the lives of the first and second wives of the founder of the British trading post of Singapore, Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles.
Set in London, Java, Sumatra and Singapore, against the backdrop of the Napoleonic Wars—the story takes the form of two fictionalized diaries, one by each of Raffles’s wives. They are:
- Olivia Devinish, a raffish beauty with a scandalous past. Born in India and raised in Ireland, Olivia accompanied Raffles, who was her second husband, to West Java, where he was serving as governor. She got ill from the island’s harsh conditions and died at age 43. Raffles erected a memorial to her that stands to this day, in what is now the Bogor Botanical Gardens.
- Sophia Hull, no beauty, but curious and intelligent and eager to embrace the opportunity of an exciting life abroad. Born in London, of Irish descent, she met and married Raffles when he was on leave in England after becoming a widower. The couple then sailed for Bencoolen (Sumatra), where Raffles had been appointed governor general—making Sophia the first white woman to venture into the Sumatran interior. This was the period when Raffles founded the British trading post of Singapore. The couple returned to England in August 1824 because of Raffles’s ill health. He died two years later, one day before his 45th birthday. Sophia then dedicated herself to writing his biography.
According to the book description, Rosie Milne “takes us away from the cold, damp confines of Georgian London to the muggy, hostile tropics and to the titillations and tribulations of a life far away from home.”
And, importantly, for us Displaced Nationers, she also provides a sense of what it was like to be a trailing spouse in an earlier era. Do these two Victorian ladies feel as though they were falling down a rabbit hole, uncertain of where they’d land and whether the landing would be hard or soft? Let’s find out…
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Excerpt from Olivia’s diary
Olivia writes this diary entry on board the Ganges, the ship on which she is sailing from London to India. I think it expresses her sense of having fallen down a rabbit hole in a self-explanatory way.
Sometime, someplace on the ocean
I remain confident the year is 1805, and I am aboard the Ganges, but I write as my heading sometime, someplace on the ocean ’cause sailing across the nothing, nothing, nothing, and yet more nothing of the sea has addled me about both calendar and map. The map I have quite lost track of. At dinner I say my daily toast to happy sight of the next land, and I think: where is that next land? Which is to say: where are we? With no landmarks to watch for by day, and, by night, not being able to read the stars, I am as ignorant now of place as must be the fishes swimming in the waters beneath me. The calendar too, is becoming hazy to me. The tyranny of breakfast at eight, dinner at two, tea at six, and supper at nine keeps me abreast of the hours, but when I think of day and date ’tis as if one of our chilly sea fogs has reached its fingers into my mind, so I no more know whether ’tis Monday, Saturday, Wednesday, or Sunday, than I c’d say our position on the globe.
Excerpt from Sophia’s diary
Sophia writes this diary entry on board the Mariner, the ship on which she is sailing home from India. It, too, expresses her sense of having fallen down a rabbit hole…
August 1824, the Mariner, off the Cornish Coast
And, behold, I am with thee, and will keep thee in all places whither thou goest, and will bring thee again into this land … I have had my first sight of Home for nigh on seven years. Tho’ in the Eastward Old England sometimes seemed to me unreal, like a dream of Home, and not a literal place on the globe, Cornwall is now crouched in the angry sea to our starboard, and is just as real as sharp granite rocks will allow. I hardly know how to say how I’ve changed since last I saw England. I sometimes feel so disunited from that Lady Raffles who sailed eastward on the Lady Raffles I can scarce think we are the same person – I cannot recall her, it sometimes seems, and must judge she was mistaken to think she ever could return Home. More, I scarcely know how to say who I am now, what I am, what manner of person? As for Tom, now turned of forty, lit now only by shadows of his youthful fires, he says he feels just as wearily jumbled as me, just as uncertain how to begin to make sense of all that has happened these past seven years, if indeed any sense can be made of our lives at all, and he says it is a puzzle to know whether his two sojourns in the Eastwood enabled him to put on, at various times, a new self, as a man may put on a new coat, or if, while in foreign climes, he became more than ever the man who first left, and now returns, to Old England.
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Thank you so much, Rosie! I like the way you’ve juxtaposed these two excerpts, one showing the first wife setting out on a Far Eastern adventure, the other showing the second wife confronting the prospect of going home again. In fact, Sophia writes something that is extraordinarily akin in spirit to Alice’s statement:
I could tell you my adventures—beginning from this morning; but it’s no use going back to yesterday, because I was a different person then.
Readers, what do you think? Do these trailing spouses have it harder than their modern-day counterparts, or can you draw a reasonably straight line to today? And have these two excerpts from Rosie’s new novel made you want to read more? Olivia & Sophia, published by Monsoon Press, will be available as a paperback in Asia and Australia on November 1. You can also visit Rosie’s Asian Books Blog and/or stay social by following her on Twitter. And of course you can also express appreciation for Rosie in the comments below. ~ML
STAY TUNED for next week’s fab posts.
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