Sunday 3 March 2013

Two takes on Raffles

In the spirit of urging books I’ve enjoyed on my friends, I’d like to recommend Raffles And The Golden Opportunity, by Victoria Glendinning, published in late 2012 by Profile Books, and available as both a paperback, and an e-book. Glendinning remarks in her introduction that “Raffles’ story, in a work of fiction, would strain credulity.” For sure, his biography has it all: a spectacular rise from humble beginnings; financial success, and financial ruin; blazing rows with assorted soldiers and administrators; two wives, his first a raffish beauty, his second the mother of his children, and the keeper of his flame; shipwreck; multiple bereavements – everything including the founding of London Zoo.  It is fantastic material, and Glendinning marshals it with enjoyable flair and aplomb. Her purpose is to provide a portrait of Raffles the man, and not to treat him as either a hero, or a villain, of early imperialism, thus she does not paint him as either falsely black, or as falsely white, but as a mixture of good and bad, like any of us, a mass of contradictions, like any of us, loving to, and loved by, his wives, loathed by many, ambitious, yes, but not venal, a man who wanted to do good, even when he messed things up, as he did sometimes. If you are prepared to set aside the idea that colonialists were all monsters, and to see them as human beings, then I think you will enjoy this book as much as I did. 

If, on the other hand, you are determined to see Raffles as an ogre, you might prefer Raffles And The British Invasion Of Java, by Tim Hannigan, published by Monsoon Books, also in late 2012, and also available as both a paperback, and an e-book. This focuses on the five years during which the British ruled Java, for almost all of which time Raffles was the settlement’s Lieutenant-Governor. Hanningan is much more concerned than Glendinning to push a point, his being, roughly: Everything Raffles Did In Java Was Wrong. He selects material to show Raffles in a uniformly bad light, there is no attempt to be balanced, and even Raffles’ first wife, Olivia, whom Glendinning presents as a vivacious, interesting woman, is more-or-less dismissed as a cartoon drunk. At times I did long for some indication that there were multiple sides to every story, but Hannigan clearly feels it is still necessary to argue against the idea that Raffles was a paragon of virtue, rectitude, and wise and kindly good sense. In this he succeeds admirably.

If you have read, or now choose to read, either or both of these books, then do please post with your opinions. Thanks.