Imagining discovery and colonialism in the South Seas

To the Fair Land by Lucienne Boyce

r/suggestmeabook: I want to immerse myself in the British perspective of empire-building and colonialism from both someone who’s stayed in the home country and one who’s voyaged.

Movie rating: PG-13

Pages: 332

Publisher: Silverwood Books

ARC provided by Rachel’s Random Resources; apologies for the late review!

Georgian Imperialism Mystery/Adventure

From the publisher: In 1789 struggling writer Ben Dearlove rescues a woman from a furious Covent Garden mob. The woman is ill and in her delirium cries out the name “Miranda.” Weeks later an anonymous novel about the voyage of the Miranda to the fabled Great Southern Continent causes a sensation. Ben decides to find the author everyone is talking about. He is sure the woman can help him – but she has disappeared.

Let me open with this: I was fascinated by the story line of To the Fair Land. I was pulled in immediately by the description of the play, which immediately triggered my brain to produce the theme song from Blackadder the Third, set a little later, but close to the right time period (however, not the right tone at all). Lucienne Boyce’s writing style is dynamic and engaging, and I was propelled to read to the finish.

The book starts in 1789, after the conclusion of Captain James Cook’s exploration of the South Seas, and I’ve included illustrations from those voyages, as they inform the imagery and plot of the book. England was rapidly moving from the voyages of discovery to full-fledged capitalist industrial exploitation of countries without the wherewithal to resist. The occupation of India started over a century before the initial portion of the novel, and the Caribbean and North American colonies had been well-established, and the 13 colonies that will make up the United States have been lost.

Cook’s journeys were taken in part to try to find a mythical southern continent known as Terra Australis, although that motivation was kept secret; at least at the start he was ostensibly tracking the course of Venus. He didn’t find Terra Australis, instead being credited as the first European to encounter the Hawaiian islands. Cook’s travels did, however, lay the groundwork for the extensive occupation of the South Seas by Britain.

In To the Fair Land, Boyce contemplates questions of power and the application of realpolitik by individuals in their choices, particularly with reference to colonialism, but also frequently about beliefs and roles of women. The mechanism for this is the two stories that make up the novel: that of Ben Dearlove’s search for the author of the anonymous novel and the story of the delirious woman, both of which are quite interesting. The anonymous novel is about the discovery of a mythical land by characters with names to reflect their attributes; for example, the hero is called Mr. Noble.

Ben, the son of a Bristol pharmacist, is living in London and trying to make a living as an author to avoid going home to the family business. As a rather conventional white male of the period, he starts from the twin premises that England’s colonial policy is a positive force in the world and that women are incapable of feats routinely carried out by men. The anonymous woman, on the other hand, views colonialism as a destruction of native culture and has flouted social convention. These two characters highlight social issues and concerns by their comparison.

He spoke with the dusty wheeze of a man who breathed nothing but particles of paper and parchment.

Lucienne Boyce, To the Fair Land

Both characters are well-realized, and their individual stories are excellent. I really enjoyed Ben’s character development, particularly with regard to how he views women. Class distinctions are felt throughout the story, and Boyce also highlights privilege and the way it influences actions. I also loved how it contemplated problematic aspects of colonialism.

Walking around the Exchange’s vaulted colonnade, he indulged himself in his usual game of guessing what business brought people here.

Lucienne Boyce, To the Fair Land

In particular, what stays with me was the point at which a character says, after a discussion of consequences of colonialism on the indigenous civilization, “If they do exist, they cannot remain unknown to the civilized part of the world…The French, the Spanish and the Dutch also wish to expand their territories. If anyone is to govern them, it is better for the natives that they should be under British rule.”

Although I’d say it’s pretty hard to figure out who did colonialism the worst, as they all have some egregious periods, the rationalization is hard to avoid: If it’s inevitable that a culture that has less technology with which to defend itself would be discovered and become a colony, what’s the right thing to do with the information that would lead the Western powers to finding it sooner? Is it better to reveal its whereabouts to the country you believe will be the least destructive or to try to keep the location secret?

What do you think happens to a land when it has been discovered? What do you think it becomes once it has been exposed to our greed and cruelty?

Lucienne Boyce, To the Fair Land

The reason I didn’t give a higher numerical rating has more to do with how I felt after finishing the book than how I felt while reading it, which always makes for a tricky explanation if you’re trying not to give spoilers. So I’ll give a rather vague one here, with a more specific and potentially spoiler-y one down below the picture of the bird (a red-rumped parrot).

What sort of woman could have written such a book? Only one who has entirely lost all sense of feminine delicacy. The best place for her is an asylum.

Lucienne Boyce, To the Fair Land

The problem I had was that there is a major shift of the type of story being told at about the 67% mark. Up until then, it’s more in the vein of a mystery; at that point, it shifts to a travel adventure. The change in tone, and in POV, makes the book feel disjointed rather than having two parallel stories or timelines. The mystery is all about the anonymously published hit book about the discovery of a mythical continent: who the author is, why they are hiding, and why others are pursuing them as well? You’d expect the second tone to be a little foreshadowed by excerpts from the book in question, but the book within the book is more fantasy than the realistic discussion that takes place in the travel adventure.

Not so much the Scottish poet these days as the sottish poet.

Lucienne Boyce, To the Fair Land

More importantly, there’s a key plot point which didn’t make sense to me. Whether that’s due to how I read the book or to my preconceived ideas of how the world works or to the writing, I can’t say. But it diminished my experience of the book’s overall arc.

It was not the dark little man’s sibilant spitefulness that bothered Ben so much as the fountains of spittle that drenched anyone who happened to be within range of his criticisms.

Lucienne Boyce, To the Fair Land

I was also disappointed there wasn’t an author’s note to give me a better idea of what was imagined versus what was factual. All that’s included is a glossary at the back, which gives a few insights, but isn’t as detailed as I’d like, as there were more allusions than explanations of Cook’s voyages, which, after looking into it more, would have been nice to have known as I was reading the story. Perhaps there’s less reason for that for a UK than a US audience, as the Cook journeys may be more emphasized in the former than the latter.

I will be watching for new books from Boyce, though, as her writing is compelling, and the topic and period she chose to address are relatively rarely covered in historical fiction, and I appreciated the imaginative way she included questions that are still being debated about imperialism and women’s rights.

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Warning: Spoilers follow

Here’s the crux of my problem: I don’t see the connection between knowing about Sarah Edgecumbe and the Miranda’s voyage and prosecuting either Bowood or Jacob Edgecumbe for the murder of his father. The motive wasn’t what happened; it was fear of what might have happened. And even at that, it’s tenuous enough for a conviction of any sort, so all of the story that hinges on that connection fell apart for me, meaning that the reason the Navy would go after Bowood seems forced.

I like that the tone of the speakers was different between Ben and Sarah, but everything in her account seemed so removed from the type of story and the themes of Ben’s that the two tales didn’t seem to mesh all that well, even though I found each separate story intriguing. But I think the murder of Ben’s father and his search for justice may have undermined that as well. I preferred the original motivation, to discover the author and get some cash, which could easily have turned into a quest for the answer itself without requiring revenge as a motivation.

I also couldn’t decide whether the incest allegation was true or if it was supposed to be deliberately somewhat ambiguous. I rather like the idea that the truth of the allegation was irrelevant to just about everyone and therefore it was not clear to me as a reader, but there’s the brief passage where Sarah is watching her brother change that seems to be confirmation of the allegations. However, that passage is vague enough that I wasn’t sure how I was supposed to take it; coupled with the earlier discovery of the siblings in a rather inappropriate situation, it seems like I’m supposed to surmise that there actually was an incestuous relationship.

I’m not all that crazy about the incest plot because if I’m supposed to believe it actually happened, I’d like more details about the power dynamic. The brother was significantly older than the sister, so on the face of it, it’s hard to take it as consensual. And it’s the consensuality of it that drives how I feel about the characters and their attitudes toward it if the sibling incest is to be considered true in the context of the novel, which is part of why I rather favor the idea that it’s probably not true, but the truth was irrelevant to the other characters because the allegation suited their objectives.

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