Archive envy

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I’ve just finished Stephen Foster’s A Private Empire, which I learnt so much from—as an historian, a writer and a reader. A Private Empire charts five generations of the Macphersons of Blairgowrie, Perthshire, a family which could be described as landed gentry, except as the narrative traces their vicissitudes, we see that the Macphersons’ hold on this status was sometimes tenuous. Foster had access to the family archive begun in the eighteenth century by the current laird’s great-great-great-grandfather. This is family history, but writ large. The richness of the archive, combined with Foster’s wonderfully accessible prose, and his skilful distillation of historical context, have resulted in a family history which can tell a far wider story than ‘simply’ the family tree. As the blurb on the book says, A Private Empire “explores Britain’s imperial past through the eyes and experiences of a single family.”

With access to the family’s letters and diaries, as well as account books, legal documents and more, Foster takes the reader behind the scenes of the Macphersons’ imperial lives, so that as well as learning about the careers of the leading men of each generation, we gain an insight into how those men felt about their careers, and their families, and the imperial spaces they inhabited—in the West Indies, India and colonial Australia. It is this private sense of empire which so drew me to the book. We see, for example, the frustration of Allan Macpherson as he fails time and again to obtain the promotions he seeks within the East India Company in the 1770s; and the similar sense of frustration his grandson Allan endured as he tried to establish himself as a pastoralist in colonial New South Wales one hundred years later. Foster also managed to elucidate the lives of the women of the family, many of whom led extraordinary lives, criss-crossing the empire. My favourite narrative which winds its way through the book is that of William Macpherson’s first family—with the slave woman ‘Countess’—founded in Berbice, British Guiana at the dawn of the nineteenth century. I will say no more for fear of spoiling the story for future readers!

The book, published by Pier 9, is beautifully produced. It’s available on Kindle, but the contemporary paintings and photographs reproduced throughout make it worthwhile tracking down the hard-copy book itself. According to the judge’s report for the 2011 Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards (for which the book was shortlisted), “underlying A Private Empire is substantial research – in Britain, Australia, India and America – and Foster weaves the primary source material through his narrative to masterly effect.” I couldn’t agree more.

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