Two books that bring 19th-century social dramas vividly to life
In 1836, the city of Adelaide in South Australia was founded. In her latest book, ‘Devotion’ (published by Picador), author Hannah Kent takes us on a journey with 200 ‘Old Lutherans’ who landed there when escaping persecution from their native Prussia. This stunningly beautiful book has a rhythm to it like the ocean on which a good portion of the book is set, when the characters spend six months aboard a ship on the way to Australia.
The main character is Hanne, a teenage girl who can hear the language of nature like music in her ears. She is unusual even for the 1800s. When Thea and her family move to the village, Hanne and Thea connect. The book is the story of their love as it develops. It’s a story about nature and how we interact with it, about religious persecution and about the history of the peoples who ran from it. At times it is conservative and dense, like the religion to which the characters adhere, and at times there is abandon and a questioning of those values.
Throughout all, there is a quiet grace that accompanies the story, no matter one’s beliefs. Kent’s story also pays tribute to the grace and the tragedy of the First Nation Peoples, the Peramangk and Kaurna Nations who lived on the lands the pilgrims arrived to.
I felt immersed in all the characters, the land and the whole story, finding it hard to let the book go on finishing it. I was even hesitant to pick up another book so soon. It felt almost disrespectful in a weird sort of way. So I decided finally on a short-story collection, ‘Master and Man and other stories’, by Leo Tolstoy – tales that were actually written in the 1800s, just after the time Kent’s novel was set in.
Reading the likes of Alexander Pushkin and Tolstoy I am reminded of the struggles of the Russian peoples. Pushkin, for example, was part of the movement of Russians who after defeating Napoleon in 1812, were drawn to the ideals of the Enlightenment and revolution. They wanted the abolition of serfdom, a constitutional monarch and even a republic. Tolstoy himself was born in 1828, son of a count and a princess. This collection of ten stories, published by Penguin Classics, was written when at a time when literature was becoming a vehicle for social criticism.
Each of the tales have a moral dimension to them, despite Tolstoy’s reservations about the reforms that were happening in Russia at the time. In the first, entitled ‘Two Hussars’, he scorns ‘disenchanted young men with monocles or liberal-minded women philosophers’. Yet we see some evolution in Tolstoy’s thinking and philosophy as the stories progress.
In ‘What Men Live By’, he reimagines an old fairy tale about an angel that visits a shoemaker and extols the virtues of ‘men living in peace and harmony’ with each other. His final story, ‘Master and Man’, is about a wealthy man in a small town who, though obsessed with his success and his money, thinks he is kind to all he is master over. However, in reality, he is greedy and selfish. In the last moments of his life, he commits a selfless act and is overcome with ecstasy and a realisation that, in the end all we have is love.
The collection is translated by Ronald Wilks and Paul Foote. The language is not that of the gentry we would have imagined at that time. Tolstoy tried to write for the ‘common people’, making these stories accessible to all, to this very day.
The struggles of the Russian peoples continues.
Bríd Conroy and her husband Neil Paul run Tertulia – A Bookshop Like No Other at The Quay, Westport.