Historical fiction about two English sisters drawn to the outback
Content warning: racism, colonialism, sexual assault
I received a copy of this book courtesy of the author. I previously reviewed one of her books which I quite enjoyed, so I was looking forward to seeing her work in another genre.
“The Philosopher’s Daughters” by Alison Booth is a historical fiction novel about two sisters, Harriet and Sarah, who are brought up by their father in London in the late 1800s. Musical Sarah accompanies her father to a meeting about women’s suffrage where she meets Henry, a friend of a friend, who has returned from working in New South Wales. When they marry and move overseas to the colony on an extended honeymoon, artistic Harriet remains to assist their father with his work. However, when the unthinkable happens, Harriet finds herself adrift, she decides to join her sister and see if she can capture the light Sarah keeps writing about on canvas.
This is a gentle, flowing novel that carries the reader from a relatively privileged, intellectual life in London to a rather idyllic, if physically demanding, experience in the Northern Territory. Despite being raised in the same household, Sarah and Harriet have quite different takes on women’s empowerment and Booth uses the sisters to examine how there is no one correct way to practise feminism. While Harriet is practical and a fierce advocate in her own right, it is Sarah who finds adjusting to horse riding, hot weather and even wielding a revolver. However, although independent and forthright, the sisters are not invincible and I thought that Booth was convincing and sensitive in the way that she handled the aftermath of a sexual assault.
I enjoyed Booth’s use of art and music to help forge connections between the characters, and how the change in lifestyle, climate and landscape necessitates flexibility in new instruments and artistic styles. Booth also does not shy away from examining some of the violent and racist practices and policies of the colonies, tackling issues from forcing Aboriginal sportsmen to play cricket with sticks all the way to massacres. Stockman Mick was an interesting character whose education and experience set him apart from the other Aboriginal characters in the book, and through Mick, Booth explores questions of legal identity, stereotypes and even stigma around interracial relationships.
I think a lot of white Australians, who did not learn about the realities of the Terra Nullius myth, the Frontier Wars and the Stolen Generation until recently, are currently finding themselves having to grapple with their ancestors’ history and participation in colonialism. This novel is a good example of trying to make sense of what happened and write about early allies to feminism and racial equality in the beginnings of a colonised Australia. This was a really interesting book to read having recently read “Talkin’ Up to the White Woman“, a thesis on Indigenous women and feminism, especially because this book is very concerned with the beginnings of feminism as we know it.
Reading this novel with Moreton-Robinson’s words in my mind, I think there were two things missing from Booth’s book. The first is a critical assessment of Sarah and Harriet’s role as white women perpetuating the subjugation of Aboriginal women, including Bella and Daisy. There is no real explanation in this book of how the two women become housemaids, whether they are paid wages and how their land has been appropriated for white profit. I felt that there was less nuance in Bella and Daisy’s characters than, for example, Mick’s. I think this could have been rectified by the second thing which was missing: consultation with Aboriginal people.
While Booth’s book is very well-researched, using a number of contemporary sources, family history and observations from her own travels around the Northern Territory, one thing conspicuously absent from the acknowledgements section are any Aboriginal academics or writers. There is no shortage of Aboriginal academics, and I think that given what we know about bias, erasure and self-serving lies in colonial texts, it is critical that when we write about Aboriginal people, we include Aboriginal perspectives.
Nevertheless, this is an enjoyable, easy read that will appeal to historical fiction buffs.