- The Philosopher's Daughters, by Alison Booth. RedDoor. $24.99.
The Philosopher's Daughters follows the lives of two sisters who leave London for colonial Australia. It is a thoughtful novel, reflecting on the position of women in the 19th century, and illustrating the injustices and violence experienced by Indigenous people.
James Cameron is the philosopher of the title. Booth explains that she sees the novel as ''a work of fiction embedded in historical fact'', and there is no need to have any knowledge of Cameron's work to enjoy the The Philosopher's Daughters.
The daughters - Sarah and Harriet - have received an excellent education, one tending towards music, the other regarding her painting as something of a distraction from the more serious business of social reform.
This second daughter gradually changes her views on the importance of her art, as she realises that she has adopted many of her father's thoughts as her own. She moves beyond this, into developing her own set of priorities.
The descriptions of land, of light and of night skies are wonderfully evocative throughout the novel. The land acts on the characters to change their perceptions and thoughts; it is far more than a passive landscape.
Harriet eventually finds a new way of painting which allows her to capture something of this.
"What made it work was that somehow - with her little dashes of many-hued paints - she had made the light look temporary, the way it had been in the gorge ... The scene looked transient ..."
Her impressionistic way of representing the land is contrasted with that of Mick, an Aboriginal stockman who also paints. He says, "You see the light; I see the structure."
The Australian sections of the novel start in Sydney, then move to what was then the Northern Territory of South Australia, as Sarah follows her husband to a remote station.
At a cricket match, where Aboriginal batsman are ''too good'' for white taste, their bats are replaced by crude lumps of wood to hamper their skills. (Another recent book set in colonial Australia also features racial issues enacted on the cricket field. The Dickens Boy by Tom Keneally makes for an interesting contrast to Booth's narrative of a match, seen through a woman's eyes.)
As the main characters move further into the interior, racism takes on a more bloody and violent aspect. Sarah's spouse sees a young Aboriginal girl with a rope around her neck who has been abducted by whites, and although he has ''been agonising about whether (he) should have taken a stand'' he does nothing, except talk about it to another man at home, later.
One of the strengths of the novel is that the historical research that informs it is fully embedded in the thoughts and observations of the two sisters, whose romantic engagements and artistic pursuits are the focus of the book.
These two relatively privileged women gradually begin to see first-hand the appalling way Aboriginals are treated, even though they had some prior knowledge of it intellectually.
Mick the stockman is forced to flee as he is about to be falsely accused of murder, and, as he remarks: "Alibis don't matter for me ... White fellers' law won't protect me."
Booth does an excellent job throughout the book in creating the atmosphere of 19th-century society in both England and Australia.
It is somewhat jarring, however, that one character, in reflecting on possible future activities, thinks that "she could work for Indigenous rights too". The word "Indigenous" would surely not have been used in the 19th century in this way, as we use it today.
However, this one detail does little to detract from the general strength of the novel in making the historical period come to life, through the actions and thoughts of the characters.
One of the sisters is subject to violence based on her gender, and the resolution of this scene shows how the other sister has changed during her time in Australia, becoming far more decisive.
The positions of women in society, from that of young Aboriginal girls being brutally kidnapped by whites, to servants in England and Australia, to married women of different classes, to women such as Harriet, whose father has left her financially independent, lie at the centre of the novel. (Interestingly, a beloved servant of the two daughters in England seems to quickly drop from their thoughts after they leave her behind.)
Physical restraints of clothing, social expectations that women behave in a certain way, and differing standards of what is acceptable behaviour for men and women are examined to great effect.
The Philosopher's Daughters deals with large issues of race and gender while keeping the focus on the two main characters and their relationships. There is enough drama here to keep the reader engaged to the last page.
Booth's book is a fascinating work of historical fiction, deserving careful reading.
- Penelope Cottier wrote a PhD on Dickens, at the Australian National University.