Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Mangled by history

Our understanding of the past is produced and transmitted in many different ways. For many, school textbooks might be the most important. At universities and elsewhere, students and staff study and write academic books and articles which are based on research in the sources—the sources kept in archives and libraries as I discussed in my last piece.

Historical novels are another important medium through which ideas about the past are shaped and transmitted. A writer sets his novel in the past, and uses his literary imagination to bring his characters—usually a blend of "real'' persons and fictional creations—to life. The best kind of historical novel involves the author in a great deal of research into her characters and their times, like the British writer Hilary Mantel, whose trilogy set in 16th-century England has already won two Man-Booker Prizes, her country's premier award for fiction.

But there is, of course, a big difference between a novel set in the past, and a historian's account. Imagination is important to the historian—you must be able to "feel'' what it was like back then, and get into the minds of the people you are studying. But the historian must be able to back everything with evidence, with sources. Not so the novelist, who is free to let the imagination take over and create characters and events for which there is no evidence, but which seem to fit what we know of the period.

Our own Lawrence Scott has written this kind of historical novel. It's called Light Falling on Bamboo and it's about Michel-Jean Cazabon, Trinidad's famous 19th century painter. Thanks to Geoffrey MacLean, we know the basic facts about Cazabon's life, and many of his paintings and lithographs have survived. But we know little about his inner life, what drove his intense creativity, the persons important to him. These are the "gaps'' that Scott seeks to fill in his novel.

As we might expect from an award-winning novelist, Light Falling on Bamboo is beautifully written. But I'm no literary critic; I'm especially interested in Scott's handling of history, the way he brings 19th-century Trinidad to life.

He did a great deal of research for this novel, and it shows in his confident navigation through the complexities of post-Emancipation society and the especially difficult situation of the "free coloureds'', to which Cazabon belonged. The past haunts Cazabon, above all the terrible crime of enslavement, so recently ended (much of the novel takes place just a few years after full Emancipation in 1838).

For the Cazabons owned enslaved labourers; they were prominent members of the group of free coloured landowners based in the Naparimas. They, as well as the formerly enslaved, were "mangled by history", to use Scott's striking phrase. Josie, Cazabon's childhood playmate and then housekeeper, was born and grew up as a slave on the family estate. She was also his half-sister, by no means an unusual situation. Josie is a fictional character, but her relationship to Michel-Jean, one of the most important in the novel, illuminates the complexities and corruptions of the free coloured/ex-slave interface in the years after slavery.

The haunting legacy of enslavement in Cazabon's world is brought out especially well in the section describing his visit to his childhood home, Corynth Estate. Everything recalls slavery days, the "dark visions" which Michel-Jean never wanted to record in his paintings. He remembers his relationship with Ignace, a slave boy he used to play with and then betrayed, allowing him to be flogged for an offence he didn't commit.

Michel-Jean was a privileged child, son of the slave-owning family, very different from Ignace or Josie. Yet his people faced social and political oppression, even after the end of legal discrimination in 1829, from powerful white planters like William Burnley, an important character in the novel (he commissions paintings of his house and estate at Orange Grove).

Young and pretty free coloured girls often became live-in lovers (never wives) to white men. The lovely brown girl, "made for love'', the fille de joie (good-time girl), was a standard figure in writings about the Caribbean. In Scott's novel, Augusta represents this type; she is Burnley's young lover, having succeeded her mother in that role. But unlike many writers, Scott recognises the degradation and exploitation behind such relationships, whatever material benefits they brought.

Cazabon's relationships with two white women, both historical characters, are also important in the novel. His wife was French, and we know virtually nothing about her, or what her life was like as one in a very rare "mixed'' marriage in 19th century Trinidad; she is sympathetically portrayed in Scott's novel. The other is Margaret Mann, a young English woman who took lessons in painting from Cazabon. We know about her because of her letters from Trinidad in the late 1840s, which have survived in England (and have been published in a book edited by Danielle Delon).

There's much more to say about this novel, but I hope I've said enough to show that it illuminates Cazabon and his world in ways that the historian, or the art critic for that matter, could not, through the novelist's imagination, backed by research.

• Bridget Brereton is Emerita Professor of History at UWI, St Augustine, and has studied and

written about the history of Trinidad and Tobago and the Caribbean for many decades