TEXT review

Behind the gossipy stories

Willa McDonald


Suzanne Falkiner
Joan in India

Australian Scholarly Publishing, Melbourne, 2008
ISBN 9781740971621
Pb, 315 pp, AUS $39.95

Bejewelled with rubies and backlit by an exotic red glow, 'Joan' gazes intently from the formal portrait that covers this book. Taken in 1940, the photograph is a tantalizing image that both suggests and challenges notions of Edward Said's Orientalism in this story of a marriage between the beautiful, young daughter of a wealthy Victorian grazing family and the older, Muslim ruler of a small Indian principality.

In the absence of evidence to the contrary, Falkiner portrays this union primarily as a love match, yet also as more. In this story, set mostly in the last years of colonial India, Joan is both the desired and the one who desires. On one level, she is the 'exotic' object, wooed and then prized by her older Indian husband Taley, whom she married against the wishes of her family and the social mores of the time. At another, she is the manipulative performer, running away from stuffy, aspirational South Yarra 'society' and a barren home life overseen by her cold, social-climbing mother to marry Taley and secure a fairytale life in India as his Begum.

The thrust of the book is the author's search for the 'truth' behind the gossipy stories about the marriage, which she wove fantasies around from the time she first heard them as a child. That 'truth' is hard to pin down as Falkiner travels across three countries, investigating Joan's story via libraries, public offices and interviews with people who knew her. It's a quest that demonstrates the challenges of writing biography where there is little first-hand information to bring the subject to life. For all Falkiner's efforts, and they are admirably thorough, she discovers very little about the emotional truth of the marriage and the couple's life in India, but a great deal of documentary fact detailing life in the dying years of the principality and the behind-the-scenes machinations of the British 'Political Department'.

Without personal letters or other material that would give voice to Joan, she always remains a flimsy figure in this tale - shadowy and insubstantial, despite the author's best intentions to pin her down on paper. Taley is a more clearly drawn character, perhaps because there is more information about him, and what there is reveals to some extent his interior life. In one telling anecdote he is observed drinking at a party after the loss of Palanpur to the new Indian union:

Why, observed a fellow guest, was the Nawab, a good Muslim, drinking alcohol?

'Because I don't want to go to heaven,' Taley had replied soberly. 'If I go to heaven, I will meet my father, and if I meet my father, he will ask me how I came to lose my state'. (231)

Perhaps too, Taley is simply a more interesting person than Joan. Around her there is a swirl of conflicting anecdotes. There is mention of her doing charity work, and suggestions that she was an immaculately groomed socialite who spent little time with her child. But we are left without a clear picture of Joan's day-to-day life. What did she do all day? What were her thoughts? Her feelings? Her passions? It's impossible to say, given the dearth of material Falkiner had to deal with. Yet Falkiner has done a laudable job. From my own experience working on a partial biography where access to material about the subject was severely restricted, I know how hard it is to write engrossing narrative in these circumstances. No wonder writers from Anthony Burgess to Drusilla Modjeska have fictionalised their biographies to animate their subjects.

Rather than turn to fiction though, Falkiner embraces the material she has. Towards the end of the book, she finally meets Joan - old and apparently demented - in the South of France. But even this meeting can do little to flesh out the character of the daring young woman who fled Melbourne to India at the outbreak of World War II:

I said to her now, 'I wanted to talk to you about Palanpur, but I gather you would prefer not to talk about those days?' and she smiled and once again changed the subject, as if she did not hear my remark at all. (270)

Instead of twisting the information into a more traditional account, Falkiner cleverly uses dialogue and anecdote to suggest the elusiveness of Joan - to leave her character an open question:

At one point she said to me, with disarming frankness, 'I have been letting people think that I need to be looked after for so long now, and I have got myself so much in the habit of it that I seem to have convinced myself'. (269)

The reader can't help but surmise that perhaps Joan has always been this way. A chameleon both vulnerably dependant and cunning in getting her needs met; a person who is both active and passive, victim and seducer, performer and audience, sane and demented, known and unknown. At the core of the biographer's dilemma is the feeling the reader gets that Joan may not have had a strong sense of her own self. In the end, she is the least understood character in the tale and the reader is forced to go beyond character stereotypes to make sense of Joan's story.

In the absence of a strong narrative arc provided by Joan, Falkiner includes herself in the tale as the biographer detective, using the device to draw the reader along with her in her quest for information. The most vivid sections of the book - those where the writing really shines - are the parts where Falkiner describes her own experiences in her travels, particularly in India, often with engaging humour:

It was at this point, of course, that things began to go down hill rapidly. The luxury, non-government bus, very small and in a dilapidated state, made us wonder what a non-luxury, government bus would be like. We left fifteen minutes before the advertised departure time, with the driver, a small, beetle-browed man, crouched over the wheel who drove dementedly. We were bouncing and swaying at breakneck speed even before we had cleared the township. While I waited passively for death, Coralie marched doughtily to the front and began berating the driver, threatening him in English with all sorts of retribution, including her fictitious uncle the Police Inspector in Madras, if he didn't slow down and stop overtaking petrol tankers in the face of oncoming buses. Although the driver appeared to be listening attentively, he showed no sign of slowing down… It dawned on Coralie at last that, logically enough, the driver did not speak English… (52)

Falkiner also adds colour and builds character by including dialogues from her interviews, as this excerpt from a conversation with Joan's sister, Ann, shows:

'Tell me more about Joan and Beatrice. Did she get on well with your mother?'

'Joan knew how to control her perfectly.'

'Manage her?'

Ann nodded. 'And she just adored Joan.'

Ann struck a match and held it briefly to her cigarette.

'Did Joan like her?'

'I doubt it.' She paused. 'Though you wouldn't always be able to tell, if you listened to what they said'. (63)

There is mention of Falkiner's research methods that is instructive for the student of biography and creative non-fiction. Her persistence in her search for information is clear from the sheer amount of material she accumulates. She even checks the 1939 records of P&O liners to determine if Joan was a passenger at that time (77). And the reader shares her frustration at the discovery that the woman who accompanied Joan to India as chaperone - the only other person besides Joan who could give a first-hand account of those early days of her marriage - died only a few weeks before Falkiner located her with an interview in mind (82). Particularly given that fact, one wishes Falkiner had asked more direct questions of the locals about Joan's life and how she was viewed in Palanpur, although one has to trust her judgment in the field - her reticence to push for information was no doubt culturally sound and appropriate in the circumstances (104).

The ethics of writing this story obviously played on Falkiner's mind. Echoing Janet Malcolm's concerns about the journalist as betrayer and Joan Didion's famous dictum that 'writers are always selling somebody out,' Falkiner ruminates on the ethics of persuading Joan to be interviewed for a story that was essentially one that Falkiner would be constructing, and not necessarily a story to Joan's liking (270). And the vexing question of how much weight to place on the conflicting accounts of Joan, clearly continually exercised Falkiner throughout the research (271). Accuracy was something Falkiner was intent on achieving. It seems it was her practice to let her interviewees check transcripts of their interviews (19). At one point, she discloses that she honoured her promise to abstain from publishing anything about Joan while she or her sister Ann were alive (283).

Falkiner closes the book with a fantasy ending. In the last few pages, she recreates the moment of Joan and Taley's meeting - a moment of connection, of promised happiness, perhaps even of love reaching across gulfs of difference. Yet this does little to change the essence of this story. Where Falkiner began with the fairytale of the farmer's daughter who became a fêted princess, by the end of her search she is left with a subject who is ultimately unknowable beyond the observable facts of her old age. Joan, despite the glamour of her earlier life, is lonely, broke and apparently losing her mind. Ultimately it is a sad story of loss. Of the transience of fame and fortune. Of the inevitability of change and the futility of materialism as a source of enduring happiness. But a story well worth reading, not only for the history contained in its pages and the lessons it contains for would-be biographers, but also for the enjoyment of the tale.

* * * * * *

Joan Didion, Slouching Towards Bethlehem, New York: Dell, 1961. return to text

Janet Malcolm, The Journalist and the Murderer, London: Bloomsbury, 1990. return to text

Edward Said, Orientalism, New York: Pantheon Books, 1978. return to text

Dr Willa McDonald is a Senior Lecturer in Writing in the Department of Media at Macquarie University. Her books include: The Writer's Reader: Telling Stories in Journalism and Non-fiction (Melbourne: Cambridge University Press, 2007) with Susie Eisenhuth (co-editor), and the forthcoming Dorothy (Auchterlonie) Green: Warrior for Peace to be published in 2009 by Australian Scholarly Publishing.


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Vol 13 No 1 April 2009
Editors: Nigel Krauth & Jen Webb